On China’s ‘Soft Power,’ Pt. 1

For those who live in China, news and discussion about the state of the country is commonplace. However, not everyone has the same on-the-ground look at the country. With China being the foreign power du jour in the Western media, bringing some of these discussions to web can help synthesize a better understanding for everyone.

To help us get the ball rolling on our first post, this discussion is based on a post John made of the China section of Reddit under the title: “What can China do to increase its ‘soft power?’” and an email between John and Peter.

Defining Soft Power

Let’s get this thing underway, shall we?

I think a great first topic for China-watchers both in and out of the country could be the state of China’s soft power.

Soft power as a concept was first developed by Joseph Nye in 1990 with the release of the book “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.” It’s defined as “the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce and rather than using force or money as a means of persuasion.” It generally applies to nation-states and the ability to project power and influence around the world. By contrast, “hard power” is often associated with military power or economic coercion.

“[A] country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power –getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.”


For the sake of discussion, let’s define “soft power” in very broad, general terms. Generally, as I see it, a nation’s soft power is it’s influence seen around the world is most visible in media, art and aid.

I’ll more than likely focus on those facets in this discussion. We could say that not all soft power is government-sponsored or even economically-minded. For example, American television shows and movies seen around the world allow for billions of people to peer into a part of American culture, its values and its art. While American TV and cinema isn’t a plot by the American government to disseminate propaganda around the world, America as a geopolitical force does greatly benefit from it. When people become more aware of American culture through media, design and people, they become more sympathetic.

In the case of American media, many people see this kind of force as an encroachment on a nation’s traditional culture and values system, a kind of cultural imperialism. Only the richest of nations can participate and wield such force. Once again, for the sake of discussion, I think we should mostly focus on general sympathy one would have for a nation based on its available soft power.

People are more inclined to sympathize what they understand and see. And that brings us to China.

The ability for other nations to look at China as a “force for good” is something left to be desired from a foreign policy perspective. It’s safe to say that China has a “soft power” deficit. Playing victim to Japan, colonialism and constantly having their feelings hurt for many decades hasn’t won them much sympathy.

The most recent meltdown of soft power has been Yang Rui’s Weibo rant about foreign trash and referring to Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan as a “foreign bitch.” The figurative English-language spokesperson of China appears to show China’s tactless approach to its image abroad.

Hu Jintao wrote on New Year’s Day this year that China must stop those attempting to “westernize and divide” China. In 2007, in a statement to the 17th Peoples Congres, layout of “soft power” as an important facet to China’s growth.

Right now, China’s attempts for soft power have been the hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world and a multi-billion dollars investment in international editions of CCTV and China Daily. Several Chinese entities have been known to help with the infrastructure of developing Latin American and African countries, also.

Success stories like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 2010 Shanghai Expo were excellent exercises in soft power, but they were quickly overshadowed by rights abuses that were seen by everyone around the world (except for those in the country).

However, when a government controls all facets of consumable “culture,” many people become skeptical of its motives. China’s cultural soft power is not about sharing the true China with the world, but rather China’s sterilized ideal image of itself to the world.

As such, China’s image is still often quite negative in the West and especially in the Untied States. Editorials from party organs paint a great conspiracy from the West to keep China down. However, other Asian nations have much better cultural soft power around the world.

Much smaller countries, like neighboring South Korea and Japan, project soft power through its media like art, pop, cinema and TV. What was the last Chinese movie you saw that didn’t take place in ancient times?

Another manifestation of China’s lack of soft power is seen with its neighbors to the south. It’s safe to say that they really haven’t won over anyone with their breathless and shrewd approach to claims in the South China Sea. Nations like Vietnam and the Philippines are now looking to the US Pacific Fleet as a stabilizing force.


I feel like the one thing so far missing in this conversation is discussing the quality of Chinese media. It first has to create popular media non-Chinese people would like to consume.

When I asked a co-worker (I live and work in Shanghai) what TV shows she watches, all the shows she listed were Korean, Japanese and American. It didn’t take long for her to say that it’s because the vast majority (the exceptions are very few and really far between) are just terrible shows that are shallow and copycats of one another (“没有思考”).

Repetitive doesn’t even begin to describe the lack of diversity on Chinese TV (imagine if the vampire trend on American TV wasn’t just a couple other networks trying to get in on the trend, but if 10 channels each had several shows that tried to capitalize on it). I joked that all the channels I get at my apartment are divided into three parts, 1/3 are dating shows, 1/3 are talk shows and the last one is dramas which all take place in ancient China. Her retort was that I was being too generous giving ‘ancient China’ dramas such a small piece of the pie.

According to my co-worker, the number one reason for the lack of diversity in just types of TV shows, not to mention their content, is that making buckets of money so drives decisions that everyone ends up trying to mimic other directors’ and studios’ successes. And this shows up in so many places in China that have nothing to do with media (like here, here, or here).

I think the obvious underlying cause is censorship and how insidious it actually it is. I have a bad time picturing a censor whose job it is to find “problems” while screening a movie and thinking, “Huh, that has absolutely nothing wrong with it.” God forbid that guy let’s something slide and his boss finds out. Heads will roll.

Then there’s self-censorship. When uprisings and revolutions started happening in former Soviet republics in the 90s’ and 2000s’, journalism there also experienced a crisis because older journalists accustomed to the Soviet censors were completely unpracticed in contradicting the state. The CCP is probably warmed by this story, but the cost is that Chinese soft power will never mature.

The party is breaking the legs of their creative society and then asking it to run a marathon with crutches.

My final piece to say is that what is really stopping the decision makers of how to increase soft power from changing their tactics is that they assume the rest of the world works just like China: dishonesty and coercion is the way to get ahead and the west is just better at hiding it.

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