Written by Shogo Suzuki.

China’s soft power offensive has garnered a lot of attention in recent years. In line with the ubiquitous narratives worrying about the West’s (inevitable) decline and the corresponding ‘rise of China’, many commentators have stated that the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) ‘charm offensive’ is the latest form of the ‘China threat’.

There are allegedly many aspects to this ‘soft power threat’ emanating from Beijing. Firstly, there are claims that China’s ‘authoritarian development’—also known as the ‘Beijing Consensus’ (Ramo 2004)—provides an attractive model for other autocratic leaders to make their respective countries prosperous without undertaking democratisation (Kurlantzick 2008; Halper 2012). Conventional theories of democratisation have argued that economic development gives rise to a middle class that agitates for greater political rights, which eventually culminates in democratisation. Critics fear that the PRC’s trajectory of development is turning this well-established orthodoxy on its head, stifling the emergence of prosperous democracies across the world.

Secondly, China’s promotion of Chinese language and culture via the Confucius Institute are seen as an attempt to create a group of more ‘pro-Beijing’ individuals. The use of Mainland Chinese textbooks that use simplified characters is therefore seen as motivated by a desire to marginalise Taiwan’s influence in the international community (Gill and Huang 2006: 18).

As I have written elsewhere (Suzuki 2009), much of these fears of China’s so-called ‘soft power offensive’ is motivated by myopic thinking that looks for ‘enemies’, or the latest threat to Western dominance. It overestimates the strength of Chinese soft power as a result. First, it overlooks the fact that there is actually no consensus in the PRC about what exactly the so-called ‘Beijing Consensus’ is. Furthermore, there are plenty of individuals within China who are highly critical of the environmental degradation, corruption, and growing poverty gap that has accompanied China’s ‘economic miracle’. With regard to the effect that the Confucius Institutes have on the minds of the people, critics often treat individuals in the West as mindless, empty vessels whose minds are waiting to be filled with Chinese propaganda.

There is another factor, however, that has come increasingly to the forefront of the PRC’s so-called ‘charm offensive’—that is, the simple fact that Beijing is very bad at promoting its soft power. The main reason for this is perhaps because the promotion of soft power is largely state-led, rather than devolved to non-state actors to develop organically. This is not to say that all state-led efforts to promote its soft power are doomed to fail.

However, its success depends largely on the regime’s international reputation and the degree to which it tolerates dissent. For instance, despite the frequent assertions of American greatness, the United States (US) has a chequered past in international politics, and its foreign policies frequently attract criticism. However, American soft power, which is often said to include its popular culture (such as Hollywood films), is not dominated by the state, and frequently contains biting commentary that lampoons the US government. It is not full of wholesome praise for America. This can help give the impression of a vibrant, free society.

Chinese projections of soft power naturally do not share these characteristics. In the PRC, the Communist Party still holds the ultimate monopoly of the ‘truth’, which means that Chinese soft power is dominated by the state, with no space for alternative thought. This usually results in blatant propaganda that is easily spotted by most people, and this is ultimately off-putting, rather than attractive. For instance, an article celebrating traditional Tibetan clothing notes the ‘large red satin embroidered with the five blessings and longevity pattern’, which makes the Tibetan woman who wears it look ‘just like a Tibetan princess.’

The article then goes on to indulge in shameless praise of the Communist regime’s governance of Tibet, stating: ‘In Old Tibet, women weren’t able to choose their own clothes. Clothes are a sign of distinction between high and low classes. As a common woman, even if you are relatively wealthy you still can’t wear clothes that aristocratic women wear in public, such as silk clothes; and serf class women have no rights at all in terms of what they can wear. “Today, Tibetan women can freely choose what they wear in their quest for beauty”’ (Tibet.cn 2016). Yet, Beijing’s systematic and brutal repression of Tibet and its culture is well known, and such propaganda rings hollow—and in the case of Tibetan matters, Chinese soft power faces stiff competition from the Nobel Laureate, the Dalai Lama.

The limitation of Beijing’s blundering attempts at promoting its soft power was further exposed more recently when the programmes of the 2014 European Association of Chinese Studies conference were seized by local Confucius Institute officials. The programme had incurred the displeasure of Xu Lin, head of the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (also known as the Hanban), because it contained an advertisement for the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation based in Taiwan. The programmes were eventually returned, but not before the offending pages had been torn out by Confucius Institute officials (Redden 2014). Rather than represent the ‘soft’ side of Beijing, this incident only served to deepen the impression that Confucius Institutes were nothing but a blunt policy tool of Beijing.

All of this has resulted in China’s much-trumpeted ‘charm offensive’ losing much of its shine in recent years. In 2014, the University of Chicago refused to renew its partnership with the Confucius Institute, and other universities have followed (The Wall Street Journal 2014). China’s ‘rise’ may seem unstoppable, but all that glitters is not gold: the PRC still remains limited in its ability to use its soft power, let alone enhance it—and this is likely to remain the case until the Communist Party relinquishes some of its jealously-guarded monopoly on culture and truth.

Shogo Suzuki is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester. Image credit: CC by University of Central Arkansas/Flickr.

Bibliography

Gill, Bates and Huang, Yanzhong (2006) ‘Sources and Limits of Chinese “Soft Power”’, Survival, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 17—36.
Halper, Stefan (2012) The Beijing Consensus: Legitimizing Authoritarianism in Our Time. New York: Basic Books.
Kurlantzick, Joshua (2008) Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Ramo, Joshua Cooper (2004) The Beijing Consensus. London: Foreign Policy Centre.
Renmin wang (2016) ‘Pin zhongguo wei guo chengdu nian, waiguo youren tiyan duocai minsu’, 15 February.
Suzuki, Shogo (2009) ‘Chinese Soft Power, Insecurity Studies, Myopia and Fantasy’, Third World Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 779—793.