China’s Big Bet on Soft Power

China’s Big Bet on Soft Power

An African student practices Shaolin martial arts in Henan Province.
An African student practices Shaolin martial arts in Henan Province. (Reuters)

China is believed to spend billions of dollars to boost its international image, but it has yet to see a marked return on its investment in soft power.

Last updated February 9, 2018 7:00 am (EST)

An African student practices Shaolin martial arts in Henan Province.
An African student practices Shaolin martial arts in Henan Province. (Reuters)
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China is a powerful international actor as the world’s most populous country and its second-largest economy. The country also invests significantly in modernizing its military. With signs that the United States will retreat from a leadership role under the Trump administration, China has positioned itself as a champion of globalization and economic integration, perhaps signaling a desire to step in as a greater international leader. It is doing this by doubling down on soft power, a measure of a country’s international attractiveness and its ability to influence other countries and publics.

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But what exactly are China’s means of exerting influence? In the last decade, the Chinese government has committed to boosting its appeal abroad. Beijing has been developing an international media network and establishing cultural study centers around the world. While debate abounds over whether promoting China’s traditions, values, language, and culture can win it more friends, vast funds are backing programs to enhance the country’s image. Despite its efforts, China has yet to see a significant return on its investment.

When did China start investing in soft power?

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Chinese officials and academics expressed the importance of China’s culture in the 1990s and early 2000s, but soft power was explicitly referenced in national government policy for the first time at the Seventeenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao said, “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture.” This formulation, tying culture to the country’s place on the world’s stage, echoed other core principles from Chinese leadership, such as China’s “peaceful rise” and its vision of a “harmonious society.” These ideas intended to counter narratives from the West that China’s emergence was a threat to the existing international order.

Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, said in 2014, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world,” calling for a stronger national effort to link China’s popularity and likeability to its meteoric rise. Soft power, a term coined by Harvard University scholar Joseph S. Nye Jr. in 1990, is the means by which a country gets other countries to “want what it wants.” Nye emphasized that a country’s perceived legitimacy, attractiveness of ideology and culture, and societal norms play an important role in shaping international politics. Under Xi’s leadership, China has pushed the notions of the “Chinese Dream” and “China Model” without providing clear definitions.

The funds China steers toward its soft power campaign are hard to pinpoint due to the country’s limited transparency but experts place estimates in the billions of dollars. U.S. sinologist David Shambaugh of George Washington University says that China spends approximately $10 billion a year.

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What are its soft power tools?

China is attempting to export its approach to development, which has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. The Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, described by leaders as a vehicle for soft power, calls for spurring regional connectivity. It seeks to bring together the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road through a vast network of railways, roads, pipelines, ports, and telecommunications infrastructure that will promote economic integration from China, through Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, to Europe and beyond. To finance a share of these international projects, China contributed $50 billion [PDF] to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank upon its founding, half of the bank’s initial capital. Beijing also pledged $40 billion for its Silk Road Fund, $25 billion for the Maritime Silk Road, and another $41 billion to the New Development Bank (established by BRICS states: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

Separately, Beijing has also implemented aid programs that do not conform to international development assistance standards: its aid typically focuses on South-South partnerships in the developing world; comes without conditionality; is predominantly bilateral; and includes not only grants and interest-free and concessional loans, but also other forms of official government funding. A number of training programs have supported public health, agriculture, and governance. Chinese aid programs, though growing, are a fraction of what large donors like the United States, European Union institutions, and Japan offer.

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We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message.
Xi Jinping, Chinese President

Beijing’s leaders have also turned to more traditional tools of soft power: promoting Chinese language, educational exchanges, media expansion, and pop culture icons.

  • Confucius institutes: China opened the first Confucius Institute in 2004 in Seoul, South Korea. As of January 2018, there were more than five hundred institutes scattered around the world. The centers, nonprofit organizations affiliated with China’s ministry of education, provide Mandarin language courses, cooking and calligraphy classes, and celebrations for Chinese national holidays. The institutes echo cultural associations like the United Kingdom’s British Councils, France’s Alliance Française, Germany’s Goethe Institute, and Spain’s Cervantes Institute. The Confucius Institute partners with universities, typically with a minimum of $100,000 in annual support for programming, while Confucius Classrooms are established with primary and secondary institutions.
  • Educational exchanges: China has become a top destination for international students. It ranked third among the world’s most popular study destinations in 2017, according to the Institute of International Education. The majority of international students pursue self-funded courses of study; however, the China Scholarship Council provides student financial aid to not only Chinese students going abroad, but also to foreigners coming to China. More than 440,000 international students from 205 countries studied in China in 2016. They came primarily from South Korea, the United States, Thailand, Pakistan, and India, based on statistics from the China Scholarship Council, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Education. Still, only two of the country’s esteemed schools are ranked among the world’s top fifty higher educational institutions: Peking University and Tsinghua University. The image of Chinese schools suffers from a combination of skepticism over educational quality and pedagogic methods that often emphasize rote memorization over independent thought development as well as concern over censorship by academics and university leadership of topics particularly relating to individual freedoms and democracy, and Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, to avoid crackdown from the party.
  • International media: Beijing has thrown its weight behind its foreign language news outlets to establish greater control over narratives about China. This allows Beijing to reach a broader audience for not only high-profile summits between Chinese leaders and their foreign counterparts but also for China’s more underreported activities around the world. The government’s primary news agency, Xinhua, has grown to 170 foreign bureaus and has plans to reach 200 by 2020. China Daily and the Global Times publish English language editions available worldwide. CCTV, the state television broadcasting news service, rebranded itself as China Global Television Network in December 2016 and broadcasts six channels, two in English and others in Arabic, French, Russian, and Spanish, with reporting teams in more than seventy countries. China Radio International broadcasts 392 hours of programming a day in thirty-eight languages from twenty-seven overseas bureaus. The media firm covertly runs a network of more than thirty radio stations in fourteen countries through front companies to mask its influence, according to a November 2015 Reuters investigation. Chinese diaspora communities, which total approximately fifty million people and are primarily in Southeast Asia, are just as much a target audience for China’s media expansion as foreigners.

Chinese athletic performances are a projection of power as well. Hosting the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing put the country on display. China took home seventy-one medals at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro compared to thirty-two in the 1984 Los Angeles games.

In addition, Chinese firms have courted Hollywood’s film industry, though there are signs of this interest cooling off. Dalian Wanda, one of the world’s largest media companies, closed a series of deals in 2016 with U.S. film studios and cinema chains, including a partnership with Sony Pictures and the acquisition of Legendary Entertainment, the production house behind hits like “Godzilla,” “Jurassic World,” and “Interstellar.” U.S. studios look to China for much-needed investment and an entry into China’s desirable movie market. By the end of 2017, a handful of deals between Chinese firms and Hollywood studios have been scrapped—a trend that experts say indicates China may slow its investments in the American film industry. Still, Chinese firms are seizing on the opportunity to have a more direct hand in shaping China’s external image and U.S. producers have grown wary of making films that cast China in a negative light, primarily out of a desire to tap into Chinese distribution markets. Though China’s film industry may be internationalizing and diversifying, Chinese films still have limited distribution and box office success in external markets, raising questions about the broad appeal of such cultural products.

Does China convey soft power through unofficial channels?

China also wields soft power through other societal and cultural channels, including literature, art, film, music, scholars, and sports figures. Celebrities like film director Zhang Yimou, actor Jackie Chan, pianist Lang Lang, professional athletes Yao Ming and Li Na, ballet dancer Tan Yuanyuan, and pop singer Jane Zhang are unofficial cultural ambassadors. Pandas, too, have become a cultural icon and zoo exchanges with the animals dubbed “panda diplomacy.” Some cultural figures, like artist Ai Weiwei, have powerful platforms and are often critical of government policies. Other rising musical icons, like the Higher Brothers, a hip-hop group hailing from the capital of Sichuan province, are gaining a following far from China, despite the Chinese government’s recent ban of hip-hop culture and actors with tattoos from media appearances.

Is its soft power effective?

Soft power by nature is difficult to measure. In the case of the ambitious BRI, China’s neighbors and partners have so far responded by taking a cautious approach [PDF]. Many business and government leaders view BRI as an economic opportunity to stimulate growth across Asia and beyond; the continent’s infrastructure needs are expected to exceed $1.5 trillion a year to sustain development through 2030, according to a 2017 Asian Development Bank report. Economic wellbeing is a powerful incentive for countries desperate for development, but Chinese financing and construction does not translate directly into Beijing’s ability to exert influence in recipient countries. For example, local communities in South and Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka have expressed resentment toward China’s growing presence; even in Pakistan where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been broadly endorsed, some lawmakers fear that such projects may jeopardize national interests. In spite of the risks, regional actors are often induced by short-term economic benefits needed to fuel growth, though they remain guarded about bending to Beijing’s strategic preferences.

While there are few quantifiable metrics to gauge influence, experts often refer to public opinion polls that assess global perceptions of China. By these benchmarks, China’s efforts seem to have had little effect in boosting its favorability.

Respondents answered whether they held a favorable or unfavorable view of China. Pew Research Center

In Africa, opinion poll respondents typically hold more favorable views of China than in other parts of the world, according to surveys conducted by Pew Research Center and Afrobarometer [PDF], a Pan-African research network. Countries like Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, and Niger have some of the highest views of China’s influence, often ranging above 75 percent. In Latin and South American nations, the majority of respondents often view China favorably, but the margins are less substantial. For example, Chile and Peru held positive views with 66 percent and 60 percent of respondents seeing China favorably in 2015, while Argentine and Mexican respondents stood at 53 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

Countries that have held highly positive views of China over time include Pakistan and Russia. Other neighbors hold more varied perceptions. On average, 64 percent of Indonesian respondents viewed China favorably between 2005 and 2015. Over the same period, opinions of China in Japan dropped significantly. In western democratic countries like Germany and the United States, a clear trend has emerged: despite the government’s efforts, favorable opinions of China have declined since 2011.

What are the limitations of China’s soft power?

China’s soaring economy has elevated the country as a model to be emulated, but there are multiple strains that threaten to undermine its image. Environmental pollution and degradation, food safety issues, overcapacity of state-owned enterprises, and Xi’s exhaustive anticorruption campaign are likely to dissuade others from following China’s example.

China will find it hard to win friends and influence nations so long as it muzzles its best advocates.
The Economist

China’s soft power campaign is limited by the dissonance between the image that China aspires to project and the country’s actions, experts say. Rising nationalism, assertiveness vis-à-vis territorial disputes, crackdowns on nongovernmental organizations, censorship of domestic and international media, limits to the entry of foreign ideals, and political repression constrain China’s soft power. “If China’s narratives don’t address the country’s shortcomings, it becomes very hard to sell the idea of China as a purveyor of attractive values,” says CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy. Chinese culture and ideas have the potential to appeal worldwide, but only when there is “honesty in the depiction,” Economy adds.

Moreover, other experts have warned of the rise of authoritarian influence, dubbed “sharp power.” Authors of a 2017 report from the National Endowment for Democracy described the concept as “principally not about attraction or even persuasion; instead, it centers on distraction and manipulation.” Reports of entrenched Chinese influence in Australian and New Zealand politics, as well as attempts to pierce German business and political circles, triggered alarms across Western democracies in late 2017.

Ultimately, China’s tightening authoritarian political system is the biggest obstacle to the positive image the country and government yearn for. “So long as [China’s] political system denies, rather than enables, free human development, its propaganda efforts will face an uphill battle,” wrote David Shambaugh in Foreign Affairs in 2015. Without the free exchange of ideas and the ability of Chinese citizens to engage in open debate, the gap between the government’s portrayal and China’s reality will likely grow. “China will find it hard to win friends and influence nations so long as it muzzles its best advocates,” writes the Economist.


Experts Elizabeth C. Economy, Joseph S. Nye Jr., and David Shambaugh weigh in on China’s soft power strategy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ ChinaPower project.

The Financial Times analyzes China’s attempts to boost its appeal around the world in a series called “China: The Soft Superpower.”

CFR’s Ely Ratner assessed the geostrategic drivers and implications of China’s BRI in testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission in January 2018.

The National Endowment for Democracy examines Chinese and Russian influence in young democracies in a December 2017 report.

The Economist explores China’s soft power tools in this March 2017 article.

Aynne Kokas examines the U.S. film industry’s collaboration with Chinese investors in her 2017 book, Hollywood Made in China.

Osamu Sayama argues that China’s approach to soft power attempts to balance nationalism, legitimacy, and international influence in a 2016 paper for the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

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