In his book, The Rise of China’s Soft Power political scientist Joseph S. Nye writes, “[In today’s age] success depends not only on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins”. This comment remains especially pertinent in 2012, after what has been another big year for China in attempting to ‘improve its story’ to the rest of the world – primarily through the use of soft power.
In international affairs, the term ‘soft power’ refers to a country’s attempts to gain influence through co-operation and persuasion, rather than force. Popular routes include creating goodwill through foreign aid, the spread of culture such as arts, film and music, and of course diplomacy. In effect, economic sanctions and threats of military intervention are replaced by offers to reduce trade barriers and promote cultural exchanges.
Over the last two decades, China has increasingly relied upon soft power as a means of building global relations. It has spent billions on aid programs to Africa and Latin America, built Confucius Institutes around the world and attempted (pretty successfully) to improve its global image through high-profile events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai Expo. China Radio International now broadcasts an English channel 24/7, and pundits like Yang Rui, host of CCTV’s English-language program “Dialogue”, regularly welcome foreign guests with a cultured British accent.
How have these initiatives played out? Have they contributed towards a more positive global image of the PRC? The answer is complicated. Some analysts regard soft power as “the most potent weapon in Beijing’s foreign policy arsenal”, claiming it has been indispensible in counter-balancing the “China threat” perception that emerged in the early 1990s over the Dragon’s continued economic and military growth. For its part, China has been quick to exploit reduced American involvement in Africa and Latin America while the Bush administration was distracted elsewhere by its unpopular and expensive war on terror. After all, its active involvement in the UN and its search abroad for raw materials and sales markets depend heavily upon the goodwill of the world’s developing states.
Many statistics are encouraging. The enrollment of foreign students in China increased to 240,000 in 2011, from fewer than 35,000 a decade ago. In 2004, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Venezuela afforded China MES status, and opinion polls conducted by BBC in 2009 indicated a preponderance of positive views of China in the region (approval rates of China were roughly 62% in the Central American countries). China’s African policy has seen similar gains, as evidenced by the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Taiwan by many countries in favor of the PRC (a crucial component of the one-China principle). By 2007, the Republic of South Africa, the Republic of Central Africa, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Senegal, Chad and Malawai had all embraced China as a major diplomatic ally.
Nevertheless, critics are quick to point out that China’s attempts to improve its global image can only go so far in light of inconsistencies we see with respect to its policies at home. The 2008 Olympics – a major success abroad – were followed by domestic crackdowns on human rights activists. Shortly after the Shanghai Expo (2010), China imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Furthermore, despite China’s attempts to turn Xinhua and CCTV into global news competitors, many Western viewers continue to regard them as ‘brittle propaganda’. A BBC poll in 2011 indicated that, although China remains popular in Africa and Latin America, views of China have become predominantly negative in the U.S., India, Japan, South Korea and most of Europe.
Many African states have additionally criticized China for not properly implementing its infrastructure projects abroad. In particular, China has been accused of causing environmental degradation through mining, and of disregarding working conditions. During Hu Jintao’s 2009 visit to Zambia, a scheduled trip to one of China’s mines was cancelled over fear of workers’ protests. In Ethiopia, rebels have gone as far as to kidnap employees of Chinese oil companies; 9 Chinese oil workers were shot and killed during an armed raid near Addis Ababa in 2007.
In sum, Chinese soft power over the last decade has had both considerable strengths and weaknesses. It has successfully assumed the ‘diplomatic offensive’ in regions neglected by other significant actors (notably Africa and Latin America), used Confucianism as a vehicle through which to promote Chinese culture internationally and established strong, economic links with developing economies. On the other hand, these initiatives are often accompanied by too-intensive exploitation of raw materials, the implementation of infrastructure projects through Chinese labor (adding to unemployment in host countries and raising concerns over quality), as well as interference in other states (especially when Chinese aid is contingent upon access to resource and sales markets).
The deliberate employment of soft power tools within China’s foreign policy reflects a growing realization by the PRC that it must continue to improve China’s image abroad. To do this, however, it must offer a more-than-superficial image to the rest of world, especially those parts which do not rely heavily on Chinese foreign investment. Advances must be made in the areas of political and diplomatic soft power – assuming a more constructive presence in international debate over sensitive issues such as Syria and climate change would be a great first step.