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Why China’s soft power erodes in an outspoken age

Lunar New Year celebrations, typically in February, are a chance to promote Chinese culture abroad. But this year’s festive updates from a resolutely booming China were muffled by political uproars: trade wars with most major economies, disputes over human rights and the mutual expulsion of China’s CGTN network from the UK and BBC News from China. “BBC’s only mission has turned to wage information war on China”, CGTN declared. “When attacked, China defends itself.” The rhetoric fits a wider trend: Michael Kroger of Australia’s Liberal Party spoke of “a clash of civilisations as China emerges into the developed world”. All such allegations are questionable, but neither augur well for China’s efforts to project ‘soft power’—global influence through diplomacy and culture. Why does China struggle to win hearts and minds abroad?

Some argue that it does just fine, either claiming that soft power is an elusive concept on which we should agree to disagree or citing global outreach programmes like the Belt and Road Initiative and Confucius institutes. But soft power is carefully quantified by researchers worldwide, and outreach programmes influence but do not equal soft power, as Beijing is painfully aware. Despite tens of billions of dollars spent on belts, roads, scholarships, think tanks and more, China is currently 27th in the widely consulted Soft Power 30 Index, and holds similarly unimpressive positions in publications like the Pew Research Center’s annual Global Attitudes Survey. As Soft Power 30 publisher Portman Communications put it, “China has not achieved much of a return on its investment.

Figure 1: China’s soft power score


To understand why, one must look at how soft power works. The phrase comes from Harvard social scientist Joseph Nye’s 1990 book Bound to Lead and 2004 volume Soft Power. Nye later contributed to the creation of Soft Power 30, which ranks nations along seven indicators: Digital, Enterprise, Education, Culture, Engagement, Government and Polling. Nye’s original vision appears in his foreword to the 2015 Portland report: “When governments are perceived as manipulative and information is seen as propaganda, credibility is destroyed. The best propaganda is not propaganda.” He must have been delightfully surprised when China’s successive leaders Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping embraced the concept and, from 2014, made it an official Chinese policy objective.

Soft power reflects the post-Cold War transition to an increasingly intangible and bottom-up distribution of global influence: multiple economic centres, grassroot organisation and hyperconnected information technology networks. Social media journalism, crowdfunding, digital nomads, peer reviews, activists and influencers challenge and change traditional hierarchy and authority in how people seek investment, jobs, goods and ideas. Real-time access to global prices, opportunities, trends and rights allows pickier decisions. Employees and freelancers prefer inspiration to perspiration, and form loyalties to identity communities based on anything from ethnicity to investment portfolios or conspiracy theories. To keep up, political and corporate leaders become followers of organic trends. Public relations set the goals, technocrats back-stage try to deliver. Increasingly holistic networks blur divisions between politics, business and media.

Arguably, China’s image troubles come from paddling in the opposite direction. Its soft-power efforts have been disconnected, orthodox and nationalistic. Starting with the most obvious, restrictions on information, embodied by the so-called Great Firewall, limit unwanted inflows of data but also keep the outside world ignorant about China. Its vibrant virtual communities of scientists, artists, entrepreneurs and celebrities are absent from global forums where presence is everything. An unfortunate side-effect is that the very owners of the conversation lose their voices too, as Portland points out: “With every major international social media platform banned in China, the Chinese government has not seen social media engagement with international audiences as a priority.” Limitations far exceed the social: card payment system UnionPay enjoyed expansion abroad until its Chinese users started circumventing domestic foreign exchange regulations—then, restrictions followed.

Beijing’s suspicion towards a connected world comes from its leaderless character. A new generation of political, business and community leaders build their fandom through impulsive worldwide debates. Celebrities weigh in on diverse issues, often crossing turfs from business to media, from media to politics. Meanwhile, China’s outspoken goal is social stability through orthodoxy, gradually consolidated in a social credit system that monitors and penalises divergent opinions and behaviours. One function of that regime is to carefully script how China’s scientists, entrepreneurs and artists appraise, in historian Orville Schell’s words, “the rigid, but ever changing, narratives of modern China’s progress”. This very visible hand, however, erodes top Chinese brands abroad. Huawei and WeChat cannot improve China’s image while Beijing wields both carrots and sticks in their defence. Demands of political commitment undermine Confucius Institutes and China Friendship Associations.

Finally, a confrontational zero-sum rhetoric of state-led national rejuvenation casts doubts on peaceful collaboration. Mandarin-speaking Indian academic Tansen Sen demonstrates in his forthcoming book “Maritime Silk Road. An Intellectual History“, how the Silk Road, an inspiring rationale behind the Belt and Road initiative, is gradually claimed as Chinese in official publications. Intermittent remarks to “a common destiny between Chinese people and humankind” mingle with reminders of “a century of humiliation”, an ideological shaming campaign that target China’s top economic partners. Echoing Chinese-Dream ideologue Liu Mingfu, foreign ministry officials pompously predict China’s leadership to replace “the law of the jungle” reigning in the world today. An underlying Marxist-Leninist revolutionary ideology has no emotional or visual allure abroad. In a twist of true irony, the most quoted Chinese film today is Wolf Warrior and its inharmonious threat to avenge the nation’s offenders, wherever in the world they are.

Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ successfully discourages international discussion on China’s weaknesses. Physical and virtual access to the country’s vast population is controlled by Beijing, who promptly bars misbehaving foreign celebrities, institutions, corporations and nations from China-bound belts and roads. To enable such brinkmanship, the government conceals not only their own cards but those of China’s most eminent institutions too: universities, civil society, state-owned and private companies. That, however, results in a near-complete lack of information about China’s triumphs as well as its possible flaws. China hosts the most UNESCO heritage sites in the world, but unaffiliated discussions on Chinese history, geography and culture soon draw irritated comments by vengeful officials and encouraged individuals. Mystery veils its scientific breakthroughs in physics and medical science. The Chang’e 5 unmanned Moon landing in December 2019 received less global fanfare than SpaceX purchasing defunct oil rigs for planned satellite launches a month later.

Some question the importance of coverage: spacecraft and shipping lanes speak for themselves. That is precisely the reason why China should not underestimate the importance of image-building. Its economic and military ascent is unquestionable. Out of the eight categories of regional influence in the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, China ranks first in four, second in another two and second behind the United States overall. But a rising behemoth shrouded in secrecy triggers suspicion at least, more likely panic. The Lowy Index highlights the lack of defence alliances and diplomatic partnerships as China’s weaknesses. Big-data analysis reveals a sinking global popularity of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s flagship globalisation project, among member states slightly faster than average. That reveals a strategic flaw, no matter how viable the plans are on paper. Leadership requires willing followers, and suspicions of a self-serving leader can undermine promising partnerships.

The world is increasingly intangible whether individual people or nations are ready or not. Car manufacturers produce eye-catching commercials to sell engineering marvels—nations must match mission with vision. As the Soft Power 30 report puts it: “Not many can dispute the rise of China as an economic powerhouse, but its role as an influential power that has positive impact on today’s global challenges remains to be seen.” Importantly, America’s crisis does not guarantee China’s rise as a model. Pew Research Center polling on Covid-19 response revealed a global perception that China did poorly, even if the US did worse. China seems to face two alternatives for the future, both of which rest on the realisation that friendship (one of its 12 ‘Socialist Core Values’) cannot be forced or bought. Modern China is indubitably a potential soft-power superpower. Whether it can realise that potential depends on its strategic and tactical agility, and chiefly the priority of soft power among its national rejuvenation goals.

One option is China accepting that it is, as Foreign Policy contributor George Gao put it, inherently “uncool” and stick to hard power politics. Its preferred diplomatic strategy already rests on bilateral agreements and balancing acts, and its hard-power curve has risen sharper than its global image. Neither does China seem willing to make concessions to public opinions, domestically or abroad. “Given the character of the Chinese system and the high level of penetration of Chinese society by the state”, China Observers remarks, “people-to-people contacts actually mean Chinese government-to-people”. But that does not necessarily undermine global influence. Hard-power strategy implies redirecting emphasis and resources from projects like Belt and Road to domestic development—a sensible approach under the present circumstances. China would become more isolated but less exposed and resentful, trading external approval for internal stability. Its soft power would primarily rest on hard results: respect for economic growth, scientific and military might.

Another is bringing soft power closer to economic and military weight through enhanced engagement. China might realise that visibility comes with inevitable bad press, and draw lessons of tolerance from its own past triumphs. The unforgettable 2008 Beijing Olympics were accompanied by political protests that few people remember. China’s lenience curve went the opposite way then: nobody realistically expects Beijing to trade domestic media, internet or thought control for foreign approval today. But improvement is possible regardless. Most of China’s scientific, creative and commercial champions operate in urban hubs of state-granted liberties and deliberately porous firewalls: the ones with access to BBC. Others are abroad, including Nobel Laureates, writers, filmmakers and academics, lamenting Beijing’s meddling almost as often as global ignorance and condescension towards China. Allowing them freer voices would pose little political risk at home, add vital Chinese perspectives to a global marketplace of ideas and even inspire Beijing’s on-going reforms.

Due to China’s cryptic political culture, it is hard to guess which course it will follow. If pressed to venture a guess, I opt for the former. During my two decades in China, I noticed a trend: the more confident Beijing becomes of the nation’s hard power, the less motivated it seems to impress the world with the soft stuff. Seeing China’s economic and military development curves, I expect that trend to continue. Meanwhile, Beijing’s soft power efforts have been formidable and their results impressive, but perhaps aimed too high too early. China is an ancient culture but a newcomer among self-conscious nation-states, still fine-tuning the identity it wants to project at home and abroad. Public-relations showdowns with institutions like BBC, one of the world’s most respected brands, hurt its credibility and confidence alike. And those, as Nye had written, are the very ingredients to viable soft power: the kind of global charisma that takes hold without pushing too hard. The best propaganda is not propaganda.

Picture credits: Daniel Ackerman / Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)

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