China’s Soft Power Initiative

China’s Soft Power Initiative

China is expanding its use of cultural, educational, and diplomatic tools to increase its appeal across the world. The move comes as U.S. cultural influence slips and some say the United States may be losing its "soft power," or ability to gain influence through non-coercive means.

May 18, 2006 2:32 pm (EST)

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China’s much-noted economic progress has been accompanied by a steady expansion in its cultural and diplomatic influence globally, especially in the developing world. This growth in this so-called soft power has been apparent in Southeast Asia for a number of years. But it is also evident in Beijing’s economic partnerships in Latin America, and in its surge of business deals and development projects in Africa. Some experts see China’s influence expanding at the expense of the United States, which used soft power effectively through the Cold War. But others point out China’s considerable internal challenges could undermine its international appeal.

What is Chinese “soft power”?

Soft power refers to a nation winning influence abroad by persuasion and appeal rather than by threats or military force. “People often conflate soft power with investment and economic development, but I define it as culture, education, and diplomacy,” says Elizabeth Economy, CFR senior fellow and director of Asia studies. “The Chinese have historically had a very well-established network for promoting this kind of influence.” But Bruce Gilley, an expert on contemporary Chinese politics and adjunct professor of international affairs at New School University, says China exercises its soft power alongside hard power, including its military threat and its ability to impact other countries’ political or economic security. “China, as a UN Security Council member with a veto, can affect the fate of a lot of states,” he says. “That’s not China being persuasive; it’s China wielding a club.”

“China, as a UN Security Council member with a veto, can affect the fate of a lot of states,” Gilley says. “That’s not China being persuasive; it’s China wielding a club.”

How is Chinese soft power expressed?

China is steadily increasing its support for cultural exchanges, sending doctors and teachers to work abroad, welcoming students from other nations to study in China, and paying for Chinese-language programs abroad. In 2005, China’s education ministry announced a new initiative to boost Chinese-language teaching in American universities and language institutes around the world. Beijing University, China’s most prestigious, just announced a visiting-scholars fund to encourage foreign PhDs to study in China. "A decade ago, no Chinese university could support such a program," Economy says. And Chinese cultural influence, already evident in many parts of the world, is spreading. "Right now, your kids wear Chinese clothes and play with Chinese toys. It is not at all inconceivable that their kids will listen to Chinese pop and prefer Chinese movies," John Derbyshire writes in the National Review Online.

What is China trying to achieve through its use of soft power?

Experts say Beijing is trying to convince the world of its peaceful intentions, secure the resources it needs to continue its soaring economic growth, and isolate Taiwan. China plans to build more than 100 new Confucius Institutes—culture and language centers—around the world. At these institutes, Chinese language students will be taught simplified Chinese characters, which are used on the mainland, instead of the classical Chinese characters used by Taiwan. "There’s no doubt there’s an element of competition" between China and Taiwan, Economy says. "Beijing is trying to supplant the influence of Taipei around the world." Some experts say China is also trying to set itself up as a leader on the world stage, in opposition to the West and the United States.

How is Chinese soft power evident in Southeast Asia?

In Southeast Asia, "Chinese culture, cuisine, calligraphy, cinema, curios, art, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and fashion fads have all emerged in regional culture," writes Eric Teo Chu Cheow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Young people in the region are fascinated by Chinese culture, as seen in films, pop music, and television, he says, even though those trends may have originated in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Students from Southeast Asia make up a sizeable number of the more than 110,000 overseas students from 178 countries who studied in China in 2004. This figure marked a ten-year high, and an increase of over 40 percent from 2003. "There’s a belief that to get ahead, it would behoove you to go to China, in the same way that ten years ago people said the same about the United States," Economy says.

But Gilley says there is some doubt about how much of Southeast Asia’s turn toward China is driven by desire, rather than fear. "Politically in Southeast Asia, it’s very hard to distinguish between an EU-style response to China [choosing freely to expand trade ties] and the potential security threat," he says. "They’re thinking, ’This is the big elephant in the neighborhood and we don’t want to be on its bad side.’"

"There’s a belief that to get ahead, it would behoove you to go to China, in the same way that ten years ago people said the same about the United States," Economy says.

How is China using soft power in Latin America?

China is increasingly supporting cultural and educational programs in the region that have "a very benevolent patina," says Julia Sweig, CFR senior fellow for Latin American studies. "Chinese influence is seen as benign," she says. "By comparison to the bad spell that Latin America has had with the United States, China’s kind of a breath of fresh air." China has two main objectives in the region, Sweig says: securing resources—from steel to soybeans to oil—and trying to convince the many Central and Latin American nations that recognize Taiwan to change their allegiance. "There’s a strategic competition between China and Taiwan in Latin America," she says. Taiwan has gained its allies in the region by giving generous aid and trade deals, a strategy China is now employing to its advantage.

Latin American leaders are also happy to turn to Beijing as an alternative to Washington. When Chinese President Hu Jintao toured Latin America in 2004, his "message of greater economic, financial, trade, and technology ties was precisely the sort of engagement that Latin America has long wanted from Washington," said Cynthia Watson, a professor of strategy at the National War College, in Congressional testimony. The Chinese government has negotiated more than 400 trade and investment deals with Latin American countries in the last few years, investing more than $50 billion in the region. But while leaders from Paraguay to Brazil may be encouraging trade with Beijing, "Latin Americans don’t see the Chinese Communist [political] model as something they have any intention of emulating," Sweig says.

How is China’s soft power employed in Africa?

China has actively pursued a development agenda in Africa, coupled with locking in agreements on energy and commodities. Princeton Lyman, CFR senior fellow for Africa policy studies, says China’s soft-power engagement in Africa includes:

  • Professing solidarity with Africa in international forums on trade and human rights issues;
  • Forgiving more than $1 billion in debt from African countries;
  • Training more than 100,000 Africans in Chinese universities and military institutes;
  • Sending more than 900 doctors to work across Africa; and
  • Making major investments in infrastructure, agriculture, and energy.

China has also intensified its trade and energy ties with Africa. China’s practice of building roads, hospitals, and bridges in countries where it has made substantial energy investments—like Sudan, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea—has drawn both approval from local governments and criticism from human rights groups, which accuse China of propping up dictators and selling arms to authoritarian governments. On the continent, the reaction to China’s increasing presence is mixed, Lyman says. "People appreciate the fact that the Chinese go into sectors the United States doesn’t, and don’t attach any political conditions to their involvement," he says. The Chinese have a reputation for finishing infrastructure projects quickly and on budget. On the other hand, Chinese companies bring their own laborers in for projects, raising objections that they should be creating more jobs locally. And Chinese goods are flooding the African market and competing with African products.

What has been the impact of this soft power campaign?

Other authoritarian regimes, like that of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, have intensified their ties with China. Their leaders look to China for a model of how to grow economically without relinquishing political control. But their citizens aren’t fooled, experts say. They see that China suffers from endemic corruption, internal dissent, and repressive governance. "[Beijing] may face the wrath of the people at a future point in time," Economy says.

Many developing countries, linked to China through bodies such as the Group of 77 developing nations, had hoped China would offer an alternate model of leadership to that of the United States. In the Doha Round of trade negotiations, China sided with developing countries in demanding the end of rich-country agricultural subsidies, even though Beijing protects its own agricultural sector. "There are signs that China could resume its role as a leader of the developing world," Gilley says. "But my view is that China will never have this role until it’s democratic."

How does China’s use of soft power compare with that of the United States?

U.S. culture, advanced through films, books and other media, remains dominant worldwide. But many experts say Washington is losing its ability to win allies through soft power, even as Beijing is building its own. “It’s very difficult for U.S. soft power to compete with our engagement in Iraq,” Economy says. In addition, she says U.S. and European soft-power efforts are focused on democracy promotion and encouraging good governance abroad, while China’s engagement involves lucrative trade and energy deals and produces tangible results like newly-built roads, hospitals, and schools.

“It’s very difficult for U.S. soft power to compete with our engagement in Iraq,” Economy says.

What are the limits to China’s use of soft power?

Its appeal is restricted by the nature of the Communist state, experts say. "They don’t have a coherent vision of the world to offer," Gilley says. "They’re stuck in a 19th-century vision of state sovereignty and non-interference, which is really out of step with where the world has moved." And no matter how strong its charm offensive grows, China remains an authoritarian society that jails dissidents and puts down revolutions by its own people. As Gilley points out, "Most of China’s influence is still security-related. It wins its influence because it can pose a threat—military, economic, or political—to many countries." In the end, Economy says, China may find its expanding influence to be a double-edged sword. "China has the potential to become the 600-pound gorilla in the room," she says. "Chinese influence may begin to breed resentment."

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