China Policy Institute: Analysis



Implications for China’s Soft Power under Xi Jinping

Written by Kingsley Edney.

Soft power has become a popular concept in China. When Hu Jintao mentioned soft power in his report to the 2007 National Party Congress he ignited an explosion of scholarly work on soft power and ensured that officials all around the country would take the concept seriously. As Hu’s administration promoted the notions of ‘peaceful rise’ (later ‘peaceful development’) and ‘harmonious world’, soft power in China came to primarily refer to ‘cultural soft power’ (wenhua ruan shili).

Nye’s three original soft power ‘resources’ — culture, political values and foreign policy — were trimmed to suit the party-state’s needs. Now that Xi Jinping’s leadership has shaken up Chinese domestic and foreign policy what are the implications for China’s soft power strategy? Continue reading “Implications for China’s Soft Power under Xi Jinping”

Is Chairman Xi taking China back to the Cultural Revolution?

Written by Jackie Sheehan.

Before considering today’s parallels with the Cultural Revolution, first let’s deal with the characterization of China’s current leader as Xi Zedong, or if you prefer, Mao Jinping. Accusations of a Xi personality cult are accumulating, and incidents like last month’s poetic outpouring by Xinhua News deputy director Pu Liye provide compelling evidence. Inspired by Xi’s visit to the newsroom, Pu, with “fingers burning on [his] cellphone”, invoked in verse the “admiring gaze” of Xinhua staff at their departing leader’s back as he “march[es] on with vigorous steps and rising head.”

It was natural that Mao’s “little red soldiers”, teenagers brought up to worship the Great Helmsman and with no access to alternate realities, might be overcome with emotion in his presence at the great Tiananmen Square Red Guard rallies in autumn 1966, and might even be moved to write embarrassingly gushing odes to mark the occasion, but it is less obvious what the excuse is for Pu, who from his job title we must assume is a competent adult.

Personality cults, however, are usually launched by someone other than their subject – starting your own, like choosing your own nickname, never quite sticks. For Xi himself to have instructed the People’s Daily to pepper its front page with a record number of mentions of his name is as unlikely as his having personally chosen the cute-yet-sinister “Xi Dada” appellation (“Uncle Xi” – at least whoever came up with it had the wit to avoid “Big Brother”) for the promotion of a folksy, down-to-earth image.

Xi does exercise personal control over every committee that matters in Zhongnanhai, but they still seem to be properly constituted committees that meet regularly, so this is not a Stalinist by-passing of normal lines of command by a charismatic leader overriding the principles of collective leadership. As Kerry Brown has pointed out in these pages, there is no evidence that Xi faced opposition from party comrades to the concentration of power in his hands that has occurred, or even that it was his idea originally.

More convincing than an individual power grab is the idea of a project of, as Matthew Johnson’s post has it, “re-building and re-legitimizing the party through the figure of Xi.” If this is to succeed, then clearly Xi’s leadership and conduct cannot be called into question, hence Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo’s TV interview urging his former industry to shut down its production of unofficial Xi commentary. Lee and two other Hong Kong detainees in the Gui Minhai case have all briefly appeared back in the SAR to warn the local police off further investigation, with Lee insisting on his freedom even while using the code that it was “not convenient” to disclose who was waiting outside the Phoenix TV studios to drive him directly back to the mainland.

The latest round of disappearances in China has also been sparked by an unwanted intervention in the Xi leadership debate, this time an open letter calling on Xi to resign supposedly written by “loyal CCP members.” It was published on an overseas website and then briefly, possibly unintentionally, appeared on the Wujie News website. 20 people had gone missing in connection with this letter at the time of writing, though most seem unlikely to have had anything to do with its writing or publication.

The first to vanish was journalist Jia Jia, detained at Beijing airport where he was due to board a flight to Hong Kong on 17 March. He had previously told friends he believed he was under investigation and might be detained, but he is clearly not one of the letter’s authors, as they “experienced the Cultural Revolution”, which had finished before Jia was born. Possibly his detention was simply because he had contacted Wujie News’ editor to ask about the letter and because he’s one of the usual suspects of the still-critical, non-Xi-worshipping Chinese media; at any rate, he has now been released.

The letter speaks of Xi’s concentration of powers in his own hands as leading to “unprecedented problems and crises in all political, economic, ideological, and cultural spheres”, and accuses him of “stunning the country” with further restrictions on freedom of expression. It’s hard to deny that we are back to early-70s levels of repression, persecution, and the proliferation of forms of arbitrary detention, all the more sinister second time around for being carried out with the full support of the law, as in the provision for detainees to be held away from home under “house arrest” which effectively legalized the disappearance without charge or trial of inconvenient people.

So if we are being taken back to the Cultural Revolution, it is definitely to the years 1969-76, as in the first three years of the movement, at times the most radical Red Guards were free to urge their peers to “doubt everything”, even to “doubt Chairman Mao.” It was precisely this brief taste of freedom early on that made them feel the backlash so acutely as the most radical groups became the first to be suppressed.

Mao’s personality cult eventually developed its own antidote as his 180-degree turns broke the spell over some of his most loyal followers, and once they lost faith in him, they gained the useful habit of questioning all authority. As the “Thinking generation,” some former Red Guards continued their activism past 1976 to help found China’s indigenous human-rights movement – it never was a foreign import.

Given this background, it was natural that the key demand of the subsequent Democracy Wall movement (1978-81) was for the ruling party itself to be brought within the law, so that citizens’ rights could be enforced rather than being in the gift of those in power. This still has not happened, and although Xi’s anti-corruption campaign might enable him to claim he will put “good bureaucrats” in charge of the system, that wasn’t enough for Democracy Wall, so why should it be enough 35 years later?

For Xi to establish Constitution Day and hold a party plenum on the rule of law can only be a standing provocation to dissent when in reality it is harder than at any point for the past 40 years for China’s citizens to speak, write, assemble, organize, associate, or worship as they wish.

Jackie Sheehan is a professor and Head of the School of Asian Studies at University College Cork. Image credit: CC by GovernmentZA/Flickr.

The Rise of Chinese Soft Power in Africa

Written by Adams Bodomo.

Is there Chinese soft power in Africa, and how does this compare with American soft power? Most people often begin discussion on soft power with the definition first put forth by American scholar, Joseph Nye. For me, soft power comprises the positive socio-political and socio-cultural influences a polity and its citizens have on another polity and its citizens without the threat of gun-boat diplomacy or even outright blind violence.

Seen in this way, I want to compare the US and China, the two most prominent soft power brokers in the world. I will claim that the US used to have a strong soft power in Africa but it is waning while China is beginning to register a rising soft power in Africa.

Socio-politically, the American political system does not seem to inspire as many people in Africa as it used to do, say in the 1980s and 1990s, especially under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Washington now appears to be supervising over a dysfunctional democracy. President Barack Obama, being someone of African origins, used to inspire Africans in the early years of his presidency but he has now become a man of sweet smelling but empty words as he has not been able to build on the hope that he promised at the beginning of his presidency. Africans have realized that Washington doesn’t have much further to offer them in terms of socio-political capital, with very few socio-political lessons to emulate. If Africans are not talking in loud tones and tunes against Washington it may be because we are uncomfortable with their hard power, we live in fear of Africom, of deadly drones, and callous imposition of sanctions.

On the contrary, China is having positive socio-political influences on Africa, African leaders, and ideologically literate Africans on the African streets. Many Africans now realise that the Chinese way of handling its political economy is far better than that of the fiscally irresponsible American and western governments in general. China and other prudent Asian economies bailed the world out of the banking disaster induced by some greedy western leaders and businessmen that caused untold hardships on Africans since 2008.

China, along with Russia, India and Brazil, is behaving towards Africans in a far better way than the US and its western allies, some representatives of which are often arrogant and haughty at international meetings within the UN system and beyond. America, Britain, and France often resort more to hard power, more to military invasion and gun-boat diplomacy, than soft power to convince Africans at international fora whereas China uses more of pragmatic and mutual self-interest diplomacy – more of soft power – to convince Africans at international fora, though of course we must mention that the rumoured building of a military base in Djibouti is an unfortunate attempt to emulate the hard power options used by western powers – and a step in the wrong direction by Beijing, if this rumour is proven right.

Socio-culturally, US soft power is waning in Africa whereas China’s soft power is increasing. The use of English in Africa is not – or no longer  – an example of American soft power, but the increasing learning of Chinese is an instance of growing Chinese soft power. Young people in Africa don’t think well of America and Britain as a land of milk and honey when they open their mouths to speak English, but young people in Africa learning Chinese do think of China as a land of opportunity with which they hope to trade or engage in other ways after successfully learning the language at the 50 or more Confucius Institutes springing up everywhere in Africa – great symbols of Chinese soft power in Africa.

Hollywood films and popular music have often been mentioned as symbols of American soft power in Africa but this is getting anachronistic. Africans are not looking at Hollywood and seeing good things in the American socio-cultural system and getting awed about it. Africans are looking to Hollywood to emulate good examples from their fellow Africans, from their brothers and sisters there, even if Hollywood itself appears to be tone-deaf about diversity. There are many successful Africans in America and Europe and Africans look to these people for inspiration, not to the racist socio-cultural constellation that is called America, where a Black man is gunned down almost on a daily basis. On the contrary, Chinese socio-cultural soft power aspects are rising in Africa. When young Africans practice Bruce Lee Kunfu styles they think positively of Chinese culture, this is soft power at the socio-cultural level. 

Research by myself and the Korean scholar, Eun-Sook Chabal, is showing that Africans in the diaspora are beginning to enjoy Asian popular music, particularly the cultural consumption of the Korean wave items like music and Korean TV drama series. When Africans consume these they consume Chinese and general Asian soft power products. Asian soft power is rising faster in Africa than American and general western soft power.  Chinese herbal medicine, particularly herbal tea in the middle class African living room, is fast becoming a popular Chinese cultural consumption item in Africa by the middle class. A lot of research still needs to be done here.

On a personal note, as someone who has attended many fora in China, America, Europe and met with many African, Chinese, and western diplomats and academics, on the whole the Africans are often more at ease, more relaxed with the Chinese side than with the western side. There appears to be more symmetry among Africans and Chinese and more asymmetry among Africans and westerners at such meetings. And symmetry has a solid, strong connection to soft power, as the title of one of my articles – “Symmetry, soft power and South Africa” –, a pioneering study on symmetry and soft power in Africa – China relations, shows.

There is Chinese soft power in Africa – and it is rising!

Adams Bodomo, a native of Ghana region of Africa, is professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna, where he directs the University’s Global African Diaspora Studies (GADS) research centre. Image credit: CC by European External Action Service/Flickr.

Soft Power on the Defensive: The Contradictions of Chinese Foreign Policy

Written by James F. Paradise.

China’s soft power offensive has not been fully effective. One reason is that many outsiders find it difficult to buy into Chinese values because of political repression, cultural chauvinism and bad pollution in China. Another reason is that some activities in the military and economic spheres are starting to give China a bad reputation. This is creating a situation in which the hard power activities are starting to undermine the genuinely good soft power activities. That’s a serious problem for the Chinese government as it will make the quest for international friendship and support more difficult.

Many of the criticisms of China are overblown and have more to do with the diminishing power of the United States in the world than China itself. Creation of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for example, is more likely to be a good thing that helps overcome the shortfall of infrastructure finance in Asia than be a source of trouble as has often been suggested by the U.S. which tried to persuade its allies not to join the institution before offering its grudging “support” while remaining a non-member along with major powers Japan and Canada. Like other new institutions or initiatives that China is launching, which it typically bills as “open and inclusive” such as The Silk Road Economic Belt or the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the AIIB can be thought of as a kind of “soft balancing” instrument that will contribute to global public goods.

Similarly, many of the concerns about cultural and educational activities seem exaggerated. Rather than fretting about an insidious design of the Chinese to take over the world, many foreigners are happily studying Chinese at Confucius Institutes across the globe, enjoying Chinese concerts or art exhibits in North American or European cities or are busy making friends at Chinese universities while they are studying Chinese history or economics. Mainly those who worry about the “other” or are experiencing extreme psychological discomfort from changes in the international balance of power are getting worked up about the spread of Chinese culture.

More serious are some of the activities occurring in the hard power sphere. These include the creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, land reclamation activities in the South China Sea and the modernization of the Chinese military, which has included the addition of China’s first aircraft carrier to its arsenal. Articulating concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea, which also include the deployment of missile launchers and fighter jets on one disputed island, one U.S. admiral indicated that China might be trying to attain “hegemony in East Asia,” which is probably what it is trying to do.

Other concerns are being expressed by Western executives in China who claim that the Chinese business environment for international companies is becoming less hospitable because of things like “forced technology transfer,” anti-monopoly investigations and difficulties in obtaining business licenses for some activities. Descriptions of the anti-trust investigations include words like “aggressive” and “ruthless,” and note that foreign businesses say they are being targeted. Yet another area where concerns exist is with the expansion of Chinese companies overseas. There, they have been accused of resource exploitation, harsh working conditions, payment of low wages and failing to promote local workers to managerial positions, none of which are good for China’s international image. So bad have some of the activities been that China has even been accused of being “neo-colonialist,” an extraordinary description given China’s long solidarity with developing countries.

Whether or not China’s activities can be justified can in some cases be debated. One could argue, for example, that other countries have created ADIZ’s so China should be allowed to do so also or that other countries, such as Vietnam, have done land reclamation in the South China Sea so why shouldn’t China (at least this disclosure puts China’s actions in greater context)? And what is wrong with China vigorously enforcing its anti-monopoly law? Isn’t this something the U.S. should be doing more of? And don’t forget that China is a developing country in some respects and may need to protect its infant and strategic industries (provided doing so does not violate World Trade Organization law) in the same way that the U.S. and the United Kingdom did when they were in an earlier stage of their development before they “kicked away the ladder.” As for claims that Chinese companies are riding roughshod over the environment and their employees in developing countries, there may be some truth to that, but China is learning and trying to correct its mistakes. And anyhow, China is not the only country whose companies have sinned (or experienced problems) in foreign countries.

Regardless of whether one accepts these arguments, and much could be said on both sides of what are very complicated and nuanced issues, the fact is that some of China’s actions are generating fear and concern in some foreign countries. Evidence for this comes from a Pew Research Centre survey that found in 2015 54 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China and only 38 percent had a favorable view, a reversal from 2012, the year Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, when 40 percent of Americans had a unfavorable view and 40 percent a favorable view. Among the issues that Americans were concerned about to the extent that they rated them as very serious or somewhat serious were cyberattacks from China (86 percent), China’s policies on human rights (85 percent) and China’s growing military power (82 percent). Other advanced industrialized countries where unfavorable views outnumbered favourable views included Spain, Italy, Canada, Germany and Japan. Fairly, however, it should be noted that many countries in the world had more favorable than unfavorable views of China, including developed country Australia and even Malaysia and the Philippines with whom it is locked in a dispute over the ownership of South China Sea islands. “On balance, global views of China are positive,” Pew Research Center wrote in its 2014 report.

Indications of problems in the Chinese business environment are found in the 2016 China Business Climate Survey Report of The American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China that found that 77 percent of survey member respondents felt that foreign businesses in China were “less welcome than before” while only 23 percent felt they were “more welcome than before.” Among the major business challenges identified by survey respondents were “inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws” and “obtaining required licenses.”

To overcome these anxieties, China needs to take confidence-building actions. On the international side, one thing that it should do is to ensure that it lives up to its “win-win” rhetoric. This would go a long way to allaying fears of Chinese economic aggression and exploitation, and might even enable a more cooperative approach to dealing with thorny Asian island disputes. A second thing that it should do is to provide more global public goods. Provision of more development finance through new multilateral institutions of its creation or support and activities to combat international maritime piracy are steps in the right direction, but there is still a sense that China’s interventions are highly selective and not always well-integrated with multilateral mechanisms. That has given China an image as a “free rider” on some issues and not fully a team player.

A third thing that China should do is to stop bullying countries with whom it disagrees on some matters and taking the position “my way or the highway.” Countries that have suffered China’s wrath or threats, and in some cases diplomatic repercussions, have included the UK, after Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama, Norway, after the Oslo-based Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and South Korea, whose main opposition political party interim chairman was told by China’s ambassador to the country in February 2016 – after North Korea had done its fourth nuclear test and put a satellite into orbit through a rocket launch – that deployment of the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system “could destroy” relations between Beijing and Seoul, which had been very good.

Hard-edged statements such as this do not serve China well, nor do the hardball politics that try to deny to foreign powers the right to express opinions on humans rights issues, as they call into question the narrative of China’s peaceful rise and make it appear that Beijing is inflexible and unconstructive which on many issues it is not as it proved when it signed on to United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea in March 2016 and made the very sensible suggestion that a peace treaty be concluded to end the Korean War.

On the domestic side as well, China needs to make changes. The main change that it should make is to stop persecuting or imprisoning those with dissenting views or legitimate grievances. Doing this would go a long way to improving China’s image and creating a healthier political system as measured by things such as protection of political rights and civil liberties that Freedom House scores and governance standards such as “voice and accountability,” “political stability and absence of violence/terrorism” and “rule of law” that the World Bank measures through it’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators.” Another thing that China could do is to tone down the military discussion and imagery, which as anyone who has watched Chinese television knows, is quite pervasive, which is a problem because it feeds Chinese nationalism which is not a friend of soft power.

Making some of these changes will not be easy for China as China has its own political traditions dating back thousands of years and its own national interests that on some issues, especially ones which it regards as “core,” diverge from those of others. Not making them, however, will mean that some foreigners will find unappealing – and even objectionable – some Chinese practices and that its hard power activities will “crowd out” its legitimate soft power activities which will make it harder for China to win the hearts and minds of people around the world. This does not mean that China has to do things “the Western way.” But it does mean that when China does things its way, it has to improve on the West on matters such as environmental protection, respect for human rights and so on. This is a formula for great success; only time will tell whether China is the benevolent and enlightened power that it often presents itself as.

James F. Paradise is an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Wonju, South Korea. Image credit: CC by European External Action Service/Flickr.

Confucius Institutes and the limits of attraction

Written by Falk Hartig.

By late 2015, 500 Confucius Institutes (hereafter CIs) had been established around the world and the number of Confucius Classrooms at primary and secondary schools has reached 1,000. While one has to treat those official numbers with some caution (apparently not all institutes counted in Beijing may already be in operation and others are much more a one-wo/man undertaking), these figures are remarkable, especially when compared to other cultural institutes abroad.

Not least because of the astonishing growth rate (the whole enterprise only started in 2004), it is safe to describe Confucius Institutes as the most prominent and most controversial tool of China’s public diplomacy to generate soft power, or more precisely to communicate certain images and narratives about China to the world (Barry Buzan and others have discussed the necessary distinction between soft power and public diplomacy: Buzan, 2016; Shambaugh, 2013; Rawnsley, 2012).

Even though there is an increasing academic interest in CIs, one can still find some myths about them. Having done some research on Confucius Institutes myself (Hartig, 2016), I’d like to add my take on some of these assumptions. For one, there is the understanding that the distribution patterns of Confucius Institutes (a huge number in the US and Europe, less CIs in Africa and none in North Korea, for example) “reflects both the importance of diplomatic relations and strong interests that China places in different countries” (Zhou & Luk, 2016:8).

While it is clear that China does not treat all countries diplomatically equal, this argument misses one crucial point and that is the very fact that officially international partners have to apply to establish a Confucius Institute and it is therefore somewhat misleading to describe CIs as an “aggressive cultural” initiative by the Chinese government (Zhou & Luk, 2016:14).

One reason, in my understanding, for this very uneven distribution is the simple fact that international partners have to contribute to CIs, which are most often joint ventures, as well. The CI Headquarters in Beijing provides free teaching materials and is supposed to dispatch teachers and provide parts of the funding. With regard to teachers, for example, the reality is somewhat clouded, because due to the enormous demand, there is a considerable lack of teachers in certain parts of the world, especially in the not so attractive parts of the world.

And yes, “Confucius Institutes are popular with university administrations because of generous Chinese government funding” (Scotton, 2015). The crucial point here, however, is that the funding is not that generous compared to what an international partner can get out of the deal. Yes, an international university may get several hundred thousand dollars a year. But it has to provide half of the budget (or even more), it has to provide local staff and the premises for the institute.

Overall, Confucius Institutes are not really a “cash cow” for international partners, a hope that was clearly in the minds of foreigners, especially in the early years. And here we only talk about the financial side of the deal and leave out the issues of contentual limitations which – depending on how progressive and conservative individual CIs do handle these – may have a negative effect on the reputation of international host organizations.

Another often made statement, both by CI people and some observers, is that there is an increasing degree of diversification and specialization within the CI-family. I may be wrong here, but I think this is simply not the case. There are claims that certain CIs are “research-oriented” while others are “cultural-orientated” (Zhou & Luk, 2016:4), or that some focus on food and cooking while others deal with Sports (Scotton, 2015).

It is undeniable that there is a tendency to establish “special interest” CIs: one can find CIs for Traditional Chinese Medicine (in London and Melbourne), a CI of Chinese Opera (in Binghamton, NY, USA), a CI for Dance and Performance (London), or a Tourism Confucius Institute (in Brisbane, Australia). Except for the name, I do not see a real diversification because most of those topics are addressed by many more CIs as well. Those institutes may focus on a specific topic, but I doubt that they do something unique that other CIs are not doing in one way or the other as well.

The reason for this development, in my understanding, is the simple but crucial fact that there are so many institutes (in one country, in one region, at times even in one city) so that individual CIs simply have to brand themselves as being unique. Not only to attract visitors, but apparently also to attract the attention, and therefore more or special funding, from the Headquarters.

The increasing need to attract visitors points to another and more fundamental aspect of Confucius Institutes and that is the question how successful they can be with regards to China’s soft power generation. One can, of course, question the validity of the whole idea of soft power as such. Interestingly enough, people in charge of CIs and in the Hanban tend to distance themselves from the very term (Paradise, 2009), but the senior leadership frequently refers to the term and apparently misses the point (Buzan, 2016; Shambaugh, 2013). But if we stick to the concept for a moment and understand it as the power of attraction, the question is how successful CIs can be in this regard. Some observers – without considering the conceptual issues – direct and straight forward note that CIs “fail to increase the soft power of China” (Zhou & Luk, 2016:1).

While this is a rather predicable argument, it misses two points. First, we need empirical evidence what CI visitors actually think about China. It is undeniable that more and more people are exposed to China, or a certain version of China, through Confucius Institutes. By the end of 2015 the total number of students has reached 1.9 million. Anecdotal evidence suggests that quite a number of visitors are actually impressed by traditional culture, are fascinated by Chinese language, and are actually attracted.

Those “soft power failure”-arguments furthermore ignore a more fundamental aspect altogether. In order to be attracted by China, one has to be exposed to China. In the case of Confucius Institutes this means one has to go there. This might sound simple, and maybe even naïve, but this is a crucial precondition for any public diplomacy to work. The message has to reach the audience. And this, in my understanding, is the fundamental obstacle or the “hurdle of the last three feet”, as I would term it in reference to Edward R. Murrow, the doyen of U.S. public diplomacy. Murrow noted: “It has always seemed to me the real art in [public diplomacy] is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation” (quoted in Snyder, 2013:2).

With regards to Confucius Institutes that means that people have to go there. They have to make an active decision: not going to the latest DiCaprio movie, not watching FC Barcelona or the London Philharmonic Orchestra, they have to go to a Confucius Institute, because the institute – other than the China Central Television (CCTV) for example – cannot come to the people. And normally, but this is also only based on anecdotal evidence, people go there who already have a certain positive interest in China or are at least open-minded enough to go there.

Someone who – for whatever reason – perceives China as the evil empire will normally not visit a Confucius Institute and change his or her mind. In a sense Confucius Institutes, and other public diplomacy initiatives as well, are mainly preaching to the converted.

Falk Hartig is a postdoctoral researcher at Goethe University, Frankfurt and author of Chinese Public Diplomacy: The Rise of the Confucius Institute (Routledge, 2016). Image credit: CC by UCL Institute of Education/Flickr.


Paradise, James (2009) ‘China and International Harmony: The Role of Confucius Institutes in Bolstering Beijing’s Soft Power’, Asian Survey 49(4): 647–669.
Rawnsley, Gary (2012) ‘Approaches to Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in China and Taiwan’, Journal of International Communication 18(2): 121–35.
Shambaugh, David (2013) China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Snyder, James (2013) The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Zhou Ying and Luk, Sabrina (2016) ‘Establishing Confucius Institutes: a tool for promoting China’s soft power?’, Journal of Contemporary China, online first.


Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream and Soft Power

Written by Jan Servaes.

The former dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Joseph Nye, introduced the concept of soft power in 1990. In a subsequent publication he argued that culture, political values and foreign policies have become new dimensions for international relations, which are not directly dependent on the hard power of economics and military might.

Soft power exercises influence indirectly by creating a certain climate, which may result in changes in influence over diplomatic decisions by the public opinion rather than by political elites only. For students of Marxism, this may look like a rehash of the (economic) base versus (ideological) superstructure model, resulting in the ‘determination’ debate during the seventies and eighties (Servaes, 1981). While Marxists continue to argue that the base (or hard power) ‘determines’ the superstructure (or soft power), idealists like Nye see it the other way around: ideas rule the world!

In newer contributions Nye added that public diplomacy is an important tool in the arsenal of soft power, and that, in a certain sense, soft power can only be achieved through public diplomacy (Nye, 2008: 95). For countries with differences in political, economic and cultural systems, the best way to influence public opinion is to increase mutual understanding and respect of differences through positive media messages, and to encourage more cultural, educational and business exchanges between countries.

Obviously in unison with the US State Department he later introduced the concept of ‘smart power’: “Smart power is the combination of the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction” (Nye, 2011: xiii).

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Hence, the discussion about soft power is often linked to the issue of public diplomacy. The initial concept of public diplomacy refers to state-driven activities such as scholarly exchanges, cultural events, and state-supported broadcasting to foreign audiences. Over the past decade, however, a new public diplomacy perspective has developed, which refers to activities that are beyond state actors. It has become a more fluid concept in the context of the new media and Internet environment (Pamment, 2013; Servaes, 2012b).

And a comparison between China and the United States is often the result. At present, the public diplomacy tools adopted by both China and the US are varied (Servaes, 2012a). However, according to many observers, China has a number of disadvantages: (a) these public diplomacy tools are trying to win a foreign public’s appreciation, but are not open to discussion; (b) most tools’ policy effects are difficult to control or evaluate; (c) China continues to be viewed as “still a relatively poor developing country”, (d) “the absence of a multi-party democracy”, and (e) at least until recently, China could not enjoy the ‘appeal’ that Western nations, especially the US, had in the rest of the world: cultural capital and ‘national brands’ such as Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Broadway, great sporting events, mega-stars and celebrities. However, the staging of the Beijing Olympics, the Shanghai Expo, the opening of Confucius Institutes, the emerging interest in learning Mandarin, and the growing popularity of CCTV programs and blockbuster movies may have triggered the start of a change in this regard (Servaes, 2012a, Wang, 2011).

In addition, in our opinion, the Chinese Dream and Soft Power aspirations may also be shattered by the reality on the ground. That’s where the interplay of ethics and strategic communication becomes important. While China may be learning fast how to move from propaganda to public relations or strategic communication, it still looses out in the battle of winning the hearts and minds of people (especially in the West, but increasingly also in other parts of the world – including China itself) on moral grounds.

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In a recent article, entitled “The Chinese dream shattered between hard and soft power?”, we tried to assess these tensions between hard and soft power, between the Chinese dream and the reality for the average Chinese. The soft power aspirations of the Chinese government were assessed against the backdrop of two current, still unfolding ‘power’ struggles: Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, and China’s strategy of using the Confucius Institutes as ‘cultural ambassadors’ in the world (see also here)

The elaborately choreographed prosecutions and trials, or confessions on TV may look ‘genuine’ at first, but, when more closely assessed, these show-trials reveal where power lies in an authoritarian state. “Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched an anti-corruption drive when he took over in 2012. But he has also overseen the broadest crackdown on grassroots activism that China has seen in recent years”, observed the BBC already in 2014. And, it doesn’t stop with anti-corruption cases; also other forms of activism have become suppressed.

For instance, just before International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015, Chinese police detained five women’s rights activists in Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou. They were suspected of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”, a charge police have used in recent years to target dissidents. The women were planning to protest against sexual harassment on public transport. “The five are thought to be the first people in modern Chinese history to be arrested for championing women’s rights”, comments the South China Morning Post on March 16, 2015. The Chinese authorities only released them after one month after their detentions sparked an international outcry.

No wonder that activists claim that Xi’s anti-corruption talk is merely a smoke screen for the president that allows him to crack down harder on dissent. They may have a point if one takes the imposed restrictions on press freedom into account as well. For instance, on 9 July 2014, it was reported that China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), bans reporters from sharing unpublished material on the internet or with overseas media: “The regulation would in effect ensure information is reported only after going through the tight censorship process”. For more recent interventions by the SARFT, see here.

“The censorship looks petty, silly and, worse, panicky. But the party has never been as concerned with how things look as with keeping an iron grip on power. If it were a corporation, that would be its core business,” The Economist concluded after the recent round of stricter press regulations and the ‘disappearance’ of human rights lawyers and Hong Kong booksellers (see also Huang & Jun, 2016; Wong, 2016; Wong & Gough, 2016).

Also a further crackdown on university education, especially in communication and journalism departments, is noticeable in this regard. Chinese Education Minister, Yuan Guiren, on 30 January 2015 urged universities to exert tighter control over the use of imported textbooks “that spread Western values”. Universities were urged to keep classrooms clear of remarks that “defame the rule of the Communist Party, smear socialism or violate the constitution and laws”. Which made the last British governor of Hong Kong, Lord Chris Patten observe that even “in Hong Kong, the autonomy of universities and free speech itself, guaranteed in the city’s Basic Law and the 50-year treaty between Britain and China on the city’s status, are under threat. The rationale seems to be that, because students strongly supported the pro-democracy protests in 2014, the universities where they study should be brought to heel. So the city’s government blunders away, stirring up trouble, clearly on the orders of the government in Beijing” (see also here).

The Economist in a special issue on the Future of China sums it up: “Economically and militarily, China has come a long way towards regaining the centrality in Asia it enjoyed through much of history. Intellectually and morally, it has not. In the old days it held a ‘soft power’ so strong, according to William Kirby of Harvard University, that ‘neighbours converted themselves’ to it. Now, Mr Xi may know how to assert himself and how to be feared, at home and abroad. But without the ability to exert a greater power of attraction, too, such strength will always tend to destabilize”.

In other words, there is still some way to go for China before its Dream comes true and its Soft Power will be appreciated and endorsed by people around the world (including China) as ethically sound and strategically commonsensical.

Jan Servaes is Chair Professor at the Department of Media and Communication, the City University of Hong Kong. Image credit: CC by wei zheng wang/Flickr.


Nye, Joseph S. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in International Relations. New York: Public Affairs Press.
Nye, Joseph S. (2008). “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power”, Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science, vol. 616, no. 1 (March 2008): 95.
Nye, Joseph S. (2011). The future of power. New York: Public Affairs.
Pamment, James (2013). New public diplomacy in the 21st century. Evaluating policy and practice. Oxford: Routledge.
Servaes, Jan (ed.) (1981). Van ideologie tot macht. Leuven: Kritak.
Servaes, Jan (2013) “The many faces of (soft) power, democracy and the Internet”.
Servaes, Jan (2016). “The Chinese Dream shattered between hard and soft power?”. 
Wang, Jian (ed.) (2011). Soft power in China. Public Diplomacy through Communication. Palgrave/Macmillan, London

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