Can China Do Soft Power?

Can the country's cultural impact someday match the size of the economy? The latest in an ongoing series of discussions with ChinaFile.
jackiechan.jpgThe action star Jackie Chan appearing at a charity event in November 2012 (Petar Kujundzic/Reuters)

Jeremy Goldkorn:

Chairman Mao Zedong said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, and he knew a thing or two about power, both hard and soft. If you have enough guns, you have respect. Money is the same: if you have enough cash, you can buy guns, and respect.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are examples of the limits of such respect. Both countries are rich and in some ways very powerful, but people in other countries with no cultural connections don't look at Israel, or Saudi Arabia and think: "Gee, I want to live like that and watch their movies!"

But we, the rest of us, everyone who is not American, we all want to watch American movies. I am from South Africa, and I'll confidently represent the entire Third World and the rest of the First World assure you that it's true. We don't want to watch Israeli or Saudi or Chinese movies, nor buy Chinese sneakers. Nor, with the exception of a few eccentrics such as myself, do we want to live in Chinese cities. The Saudis and Israelis do not seem to care about this, but China does, hence the endless hand-wringing about soft power.

The essence of Joseph Nye's articulation of of soft power is the power to attract, to co-opt and to seduce. China now has enough cash to open Confucius Institutes, fund movies, TV stations, and schools, open art zones, buy aircraft carriers and islands, but China has not made itself an attractive place to live or work or dream.

Until Chinese political leaders would rather their daughters went to Peking University over Harvard, until Chinese people would rather buy Mengniu infant milk formula over the equivalent brand from New Zealand, until Beijing and Shanghai become as pleasant to live in as New York and L.A., China will find its soft power ambitions thwarted.

As the ancient American saying has it, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig --doesn't matter how much you spend on the lipstick.

Donald Clarke:

The reason China is having such problems with soft power is that it's simply not something that can be ordered up on command by political leaders. Jeremy hits the nail on the head in calling it the power to attract; in a person, it's akin to magnetism or charisma. And the reason the U.S. has it and China, Saudi Arabia, and Israel do not is not because U.S. political leaders came up with the right policies and leaders in the other countries didn't. It's something that has to come, if it comes at all, from the bottom up. Almost by definition, it's something that governments are constitutionally incapable of promoting; China ends up looking like parents who desperately attempt to make their teenage children think they're cool but always end up getting it wrong.

At the end of the day, if the "message" isn't sellable, no well-resourced "messenger" can sell it.

I was told, for example, about the recent opening of a Confucius Institute -- the centerpiece of China's official soft power project. The senior Chinese official present got up to talk ... and talk, and talk, and talk. The speech was long, and the official's English so poor as to be virtually incomprehensible to the audience. But of course the length of the speech, its content, and the identity of the speaker were all determined by internal Chinese political dynamics, not by considerations of where the speech was being given and who the audience was. And indeed, for it to be otherwise, China would in a sense have to stop being China. This is not something that inspires the desire to emulate.

Susan Jakes:

Orville and I were flipping through an annual survey the public relations firm Edelman puts out trust around the globe yesterday. Some telling numbers jumped out. Edelman found that companies headquartered in China were trusted by only 35 percent of informed publics (only 19 percent in developed countries) in comparison to countries headquartered in places like Canada and Germany, which garner trust ratings of 76 and 75 percent, respectively. Also revealing, Chinese companies' trust numbers have remained unchanged over the last five years. This despite the billions poured into new international news outfits, the piles of gold medals in Beijing and London, the kudzu-like spread of Confucius Institutes (a new one just opened at Columbia), sister cities, Zhang Yimou, Boao.

Do the rest of you think any of this makes a lasting difference to China's reputation? Or is it all, as Jeremy says, lipstick?

David Shambaugh:

Since 2008 the Chinese government increasingly has recognized the importance of its international image and building 'soft power' as part of the nation's "comprehensive power" (综合国力, zònghé guólì). Since then, the various government and Communist Party agencies have been prioritizing this effort and pouring billions into various activities abroad -- ramping up Chinese media presence overseas, cultural exhibitions, student exchanges, Confucius Institutes, corporate branding, and public diplomacy. This has been a global effort. In a short time, China has managed significantly to increase its "cultural footprint" overseas.

Can you really win hearts and minds of current and future generations when you are known as a country that blocks Facebook, Google, Youtube and Twitter?

But, the question remains: is all the investment producing dividends? Thus far, the the answer must be "no." China's global public image is mixed at best, although there do exist "pockets of favorability" in Africa and Latin America -- but even on these two continents, polling and anecdotal evidence indicates growing suspicions about China's presence (mainly commercial and in the realm of energy and resource extraction) during the last 18 months. Elsewhere in the world, China's image generally is mixed to poor and declining. This is probably a natural part of becoming a global power (critical views), but the czars of China's "external propaganda" (对外宣传, duìwài xuānchuán) would be better served reflecting on the kinds of activities that give China a negative image abroad than simply investing in programs for cultural exchange. At the end of the day, if the "message" isn't sellable, no well-resourced "messenger" can sell it.

Bill Bishop:

ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in China

Just In