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China's Soft Seduction

Prepared by: Esther Pan
Updated May 18, 2006

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The Harvard scholar Joseph Nye defined the phrase "soft power" as the gaining of influence by persuasion and appeal rather than by threats or military force. In a 2004 Foreign Affairs article, Nye wrote that the United States is losing "its ability to attract others by the legitimacy of U.S. policies and the values that underlie them." As the United States' leadership position slips, China is making a bid to take its place. John Derbyshire writes in the National Review Online that China is making cultural headway around the world. China's soft power initiative is examined in this CFR Background Q&A. Beijing is advancing its cultural influence campaign by building Confucius Institutes, which promote Chinese language, culture, and business. The eventual goal is to open more than 100 such centers around the world (Asia Times).

China's soft power play coincides with a military buildup that worries many observers (Newsweek). CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot writes in the Weekly Standard that "China may not be seeking global domination—at least not yet—but it is definitely seeking regional domination. And the region it is trying to dominate will be as important, politically, militarily, and economically, to the rest of the world in this century as Europe was in the last one."

There are plenty of signs that, even after two decades of soaring growth rates, China is still increasing its economic influence. In 2005, for the first time, the average initial public offering in China raised more money than its counterparts in the United States and Europe, according to a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

At the same time, China is applying its economic and cultural influence abroad. The rise of Chinese influence has been noticeable for years in Southeast Asia (NYT). China has invested millions in oil and other energy resources in Africa, as detailed in this CFR Background Q&A. Drew Thompson writes in the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief that Beijing's increasing involvement in Africa is an expansion of its soft power. And this Congressional Research Service report (PDF) details China's growing investments in Latin America, where many governments have been receptive to the Chinese message that bringing millions out of poverty is the best example of respecting human rights.

Kenneth Lieberthal writes for YaleGlobal Online that the "Beijing consensus"—which says authoritarian governments can guide policy to produce rapid economic growth while preserving social stability—is making headway internationally against the "Washington consensus" that free markets coexist best with liberal democracies. But Stephen Glain writes in The Nation that the Chinese government's policies have made it more of a threat to its own people—millions of whom are marginalized and angry—than to the United States or its neighbors.

And the use of soft power by a nation to accomplish its goals is no guarantee of world approval. Josef Joffe argues in the New York Times Magazine that the U.S. use of soft power "does not necessarily increase the world's love for America. It is still power, and it can still make enemies."

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