Written by Todd H. Hall.

Possibly no concept to emerge from the field of international relations in the past several decades has been quite as influential within policymaking circles as that of “soft power.” And the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been no exception to this trend. No less than the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and President of the PRC, Xi Jinping, has espoused the need for China to increase its soft power.

Speaking before a study session of the Politburo in 2014, Xi Jinping reportedly “vowed to promote China’s cultural soft power by disseminating modern Chinese values and showing the charm of Chinese culture to the world.” Precisely, he stated that “China should be portrayed as a civilized country featuring rich history, ethnic unity and cultural diversity, and as an oriental power with good government, developed economy, cultural prosperity, national unity and beautiful mountains and rivers.” Doing so, he proposed, “raise China’s overall cultural strength and competitiveness.”

Joseph Nye, the original father of the concept, tells us soft power is attractive power”. When others are attracted to us—our culture, our values, or even our policies—they will look up to us, follow us, even adopt our desires and values as their own. Nye has done the field a great service by pointing to the ways in which power is not simply limited to “hard forms” such as a military coercion or financial rewards. He may have also done the world a great service by channeling the energies and resources of various countries—including the PRC—into more peaceful arenas of competition.

It is amazing, however, how thoroughly the concept of soft power has gained traction despite the lack of any clear evidence as to what the actual returns of being perceived as “attractive” are. Certainly, we can mark the attractiveness of various states and their cultural products in international polls, flows of tourists and exchange students, box office returns, or even online video views.

But to what extent is such popularity a political resource from which states can actually reap tangible benefits, let alone one states can wield to specific ends? Popularity is fickle and fleeting, and at times seeking to maintain “attractiveness” can run counter to the very policy goals states may wish to accomplish. Indeed, recent efforts by the PRC to improve its position in the South China Sea show how easily soft power can be damaged by the pursuit of other perceived national interests.

Charm offensives may leave behind few results when their architects begin appearing more offensive than charming, and those who seek to the pull the levers of soft power may, in their time of need, find them to be quite soft. Correspondingly, it may be that the primary stakes in play are not related to any actual power that soft power provides but rather the gratification and domestic legitimation that comes from being able to point to markers of one’s own international appeal. Regardless, soft power is something that many states, and the officials of the PRC in particular, desire to have.

Putting aside the questionable value of having soft power, how could a country like the PRC actually go about attaining it? Much of the discussion coming from official sources, think tanks, and popular commentary in the PRC treats Chinese culture and values as inherently attractive; the problem is articulating them well, conveying them in the right way, making sure they are well presented and delivered in an enticing manner. Enhancing PRC soft power, in other words, is a matter of better messaging, PR technique, or packaging.

In contrast, many commentators outside China—including Joseph Nye and, in possibly one of the more thorough treatments of Chinese soft power, David Shambaugh—have argued that the narrow nationalism, the censorship and heavy hand of the state that stifle creativity, and the authoritarian nature of the political system are major impediments to PRC attaining soft power. Put differently, in this latter view, there is something inherent in the PRC’s political system and political values that renders soft power outside its grasp.

This focus on the PRC traits and behaviour overlooks, however, the timeless adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If we take seriously the idea that soft power is attractive power, we must also ask what makes certain actors or states on the international stage appear attractive. Beauty, desirability, attractiveness—these are not inherent attributes but rather judgments based upon subjectively or intersubjectively generated standards. Bluntly, one is attractive to the extent one appeals to others’ tastes.

The debate about the sources of or deficits in PRC soft power—particularly in the realms of policy and political values—thus implicates deeper disagreements regarding the normative standards that determine what deserves acknowledgement, recognition, status, and admiration within international relations.

By claiming that certain actors do or do not have soft power we are, in fact, asserting that certain standards or values have inherent—or at the very least, broad—appeal. This thus camouflages real political debates about values in the clothing of “practical” discussions about increasing soft power, with the purported tastes of some nebulous international audience as arbitrator. Such sleight of hand may be true soft power.

Todd H. Hall is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford. One of his latest publications is Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage, Cornell University Press, 2015. Image credit: CC by John6536/Flickr.