21 October 2016
Global circulation of the image of Liu Xiaobo's empty chair at the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo undermined the gains in soft power China had achieved with the Shanghai Expo that year. Photo: BBC
Global circulation of the image of Liu Xiaobo's empty chair at the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo undermined the gains in soft power China had achieved with the Shanghai Expo that year. Photo: BBC

Why China’s soft power is limited

China has been making major efforts to increase its ability to influence other countries without force or coercion.

In 2007, then-president Hu Jintao told the Communist Party the country needed to increase its soft power; President Xi Jinping repeated the same message last year.

They know that, for a country like China, whose growing economic and military power risks scaring its neighbors into forming counterbalancing coalitions, a smart strategy must include efforts to appear less frightening.

But their soft-power ambitions still face major obstacles.

To be sure, China’s efforts have had some impact.

As China enrolls countries as members of its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and doles out billions of US dollars of aid during state visits abroad, some observers worry that, when it comes to soft power, China could actually be taking the lead over countries like the United States.

The American sinologist David Shambaugh, for example, estimates that the country spends roughly US$10 billion a year in “external propaganda”.

By comparison, the US spent only US$666 million on public diplomacy last year.

Yet the billions of dollars China is spending on its charm offensive have had only a limited return.

Polls in North America, Europe, India, and Japan show that opinions about China’s influence are predominantly negative.

The country is viewed more positively in Latin America and Africa, where it has no territorial disputes and human rights concerns are not always high on the public agenda.

But even in many countries in those regions, Chinese practices like importing labor for infrastructure projects are unpopular.

Combining hard and soft power into a smart strategy, it turns out, is not easy.

A country derives its soft power primarily from three resources: its culture (in places that find it appealing), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad) and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority).

China has emphasized its cultural and economic strengths, but it has paid less attention to the political aspects that can undermine its efforts.

Two major factors limit China’s soft power, as measured by recent international polls.

The first is nationalism.

The Communist Party has based its legitimacy not only on a high rate of economic growth but also on appeals to nationalism.

Doing so has reduced the universal appeal of Xi’s “Chinese dream” while encouraging policies in the South China Sea and elsewhere that antagonize China’s neighbors.

With, for example, China bullying the Philippines over possession of disputed islands in the South China Sea, the Confucius Institute that China established in Manila to teach Chinese culture can win only so much goodwill. (China has opened some 500 such institutes in more than 100 countries.)

The consequences of the country’s foreign policy can be seen in last year’s anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam following the positioning of a Chinese oil drilling rig in waters claimed by both countries.

The other limitation is China’s reluctance to take full advantage of an uncensored civil society.

As noted by the Economist magazine, the Communist Party has not bought into the idea that soft power springs largely from individuals, the private sector and civil society.

Instead, it has clung to the view that the government is the main source of soft power, promoting ancient cultural icons that it thinks might have global appeal, often using the tools of propaganda.

In today’s media landscape, information is abundant.

What is scarce is attention, which depends on credibility – and government propaganda is rarely credible.

For all of China’s efforts to position the Xinhua news agency and China Central Television as competitors of CNN and the BBC, the international audience for brittle propaganda is vanishingly small.

The US, by contrast, derives much of its soft power not from the government but from civil society – everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture.

China does not yet have global cultural industries on the scale of Hollywood or universities capable of rivaling America’s.

Even more important, it lacks the many nongovernmental organizations that generate much of America’s soft power.

In addition to generating goodwill and promoting the country’s image abroad, nongovernmental sources of soft power can sometimes compensate for the government’s unpopular policies – like the US invasion of Iraq – through their critical and uncensored reaction.

China, by contrast, has watched its government policies undermine its soft-power successes.

Indeed, the domestic crackdown on human rights activists undercut the soft-power gains of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And the benefits of the 2010 Shanghai Expo were rapidly undermined by the jailing of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and the television screens around the world broadcasting scenes of an empty chair at the Oslo ceremonies.

Marketing experts call this “stepping on your own message”.

China’s aid programs are often successful and constructive.

Its economy is strong, and its traditional culture is widely admired.

But if the country is to realize its enormous soft-power potential, it will have to rethink its policies at home and abroad, limiting its claims upon its neighbors and learning to accept criticism in order to unleash the full talents of its civil society.

As long as China fans the flames of nationalism and holds tight the reins of party control, its soft power will always remain limited.

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Professor at Harvard University, Chairman of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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