China Policy Institute: Analysis


public diplomacy

The Effectiveness of the Chinese Cultural Centres and Confucius Institutes

Written by Xiaoling Zhang.

In an effort to increase China’s culture-focused soft power and to secure an international environment conducive to its development and to generate goodwill abroad alongside its economic rise, Confucius Institutes were established as part of China’s ‘going out’ strategy. Continue reading “The Effectiveness of the Chinese Cultural Centres and Confucius Institutes”

China: building soft power by contributing to global governance

Written by Ingrid d’Hooghe.

Although the words ‘soft power’ and ‘public diplomacy’ figure less in Chinese leaders’ speeches and government reports these days, China is as focused as ever on building soft power and improving its international image. China’s public diplomacy however, seems to be shifting its priorities from promoting Chinese culture as the major source of soft power to highlighting China’s contribution to global governance. Continue reading “China: building soft power by contributing to global governance”

All that Glitters is Not Gold: The Limits of China’s Soft Power

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”’ ( 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.


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.

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

Confusing Public Diplomacy and Soft Power

Written by Barry Buzan.

There is little doubt that in relation to its size, wealth, and culture, China underperforms in the area of soft power, is conscious of that weakness, and wants to improve its performance (Li, 2008). Soft power is about the non-coercive ability to change the preferences of others, to make them want what you want purely by the force of attraction and persuasion (Nye, 2004). It is about economic and especially cultural power, in contrast to the hard power of military capability.

It can be understood in terms of Wendt’s (1999) argument that social structures can be held together by three different means: coercion, calculation and belief. Of these, belief produces by far the most stable and efficient social structures. Hard power holds social structures together inefficiently and temporarily by force. Soft power works by calculation (it is to my advantage to behave in this way) and by belief (it is good, or right, to behave in this way).

The Chinese government understands, rightly, that it needs soft power both to increase its status abroad, and to possess a more balanced power profile to compete with the West. It also needs it to defend its own culture and ‘Chinese characteristics’ from being subverted and replaced by Western cultural values. What it does not seem to understand, or at least cannot seem to find a way of dealing with, is that soft power comes mainly from civil society. Although governments can do some things to generate soft power, especially on the calculated, economic side, they can do little on the cultural side, which is where the real, durable effect of soft power works most strongly.

Indeed a good case can be made that when the government is the major player, this works systematically against the effectiveness of soft power. People everywhere rightly treat governments, both their own and others, with suspicion. Governments are self-interested players with well-known propensities to lie, deceive and manipulate. When the government is the main face of a country’s soft power, that soft power will be taken by outsiders mainly as propaganda, and sometimes actively opposed.

Soft power comes from the unmediated voice of civil society which does not attract such suspicions. No clearer example of the link between effective soft power and civil society can be given than the widespread admiration that many people have for American society even while they dislike or hate its government. American popular culture is hugely influential all over the world despite the many reservations that people have about the US government and many of its policies. That popular culture carries American values of individualism, consumerism, capitalism and religion far and wide. The government does not have to do anything other than get out of the way to make this happen.

The problem for China is threefold: 1) China’s government does not in itself have a good image to sell abroad; 2) the Chinese government appears to be afraid of the civil society that its highly successful economic reforms have created; and 3) because of its totalitarian traditions, it does not know how to get out of the way.

The poor image of China’s government abroad has many roots. Most obviously, China’s strong opposition to democracy makes it something of an outlier in Western-global international society (Jones, 2014). The CCP’s firm commitment to its own authoritarian rule creates a gap not only with the West, but also with most other big powers other than Russia. While the government is admired for its economic accomplishments, its sometimes aggressive foreign policy behaviour, and its repressions of both minority peoples and its own civil society, give it a bad image abroad.

People have not forgotten that this is the same CCP that during the 1950s, 60s and 70s went to war with Vietnam and India, subjected its people to the horrors of the great leap forward and the cultural revolution and in 1989 ruthlessly destroyed the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Not surprisingly, many outsiders are disinclined to trust it.

The Chinese government’s fear of the Chinese people is communicated abroad both by its repression of a wide spectrum of civil society voices and by the priority it gives to domestic security, and this adds to its poor image. The insecurity of the CCP, and the high priority it gives to its own survival has huge consequences both for China and for the world. Domestically, it drives a continuous and self-damaging need for coercive control over China’s civil society that undermines the country’s legitimate aspiration to generate soft power commensurate with its size and cultural weight.

The CCP’s suppression of independent civil society voices and activity stifles exactly that part of China’s society that is essential to the generation of soft power on a global scale. The party thus cuts off a key source of the international status and respect that both it and China want (Schell and Delury, 2013: 396-9). China spends as much or more on domestic security as it does on external defence (Shambaugh, 2013: 3, 58). Wang and Minzner (2015) show in detail how, since the domestic and international turbulence in the communist world in 1989, the CCP has securitized domestic political stability, and constructed a massive domestic security apparatus to enforce its control.

It is highly revealing that the first priority of the PLA is still to defend the Party not the country (Harris, 2014: loc. 850). As Shambaugh (2013: 3, 14-18, 309-11), like many others (e.g. (Shirk, 2007: 53), argues, the deep insecurity of the CCP, and the priority it gives to domestic over foreign policy, generates close links between domestic and foreign policy in China. The international consequence of this is that regime security dominates national security, pushing the government to look tough abroad in order to defend itself against nationalist criticism at home. None of this does any good at all for the external image of China’s government.

The third problem is that China’s government does not know how to get out of the way. Instead, it is trying itself to generate soft power by the use of public diplomacy, in the process confusing the two. Its attempts to generate soft power by state action mainly fail or are counterproductive, and reveal that the CCP does not understand the difference between soft power emanating largely from civil society, and public diplomacy and propaganda by the state (Shambaugh, 2013: 207-67).

There is a place for public diplomacy, and even for propaganda, but these activities are not the same as soft power, and can easily be contradictory to it when the government is itself view by outsiders with suspicion. This has been the story of China’s Confucius Institutes, many of which have become targets of protest because they are seen as being too closely associated with the Chinese state, and therefore threatening to the academic independence of the universities that accept them. China needs to get used to the idea, as the US has done, that outsiders make a sharp differentiation between the Chinese party/state on the one hand (which mostly they do not like very much) and the Chinese people and culture on the other.

China’s potential for generating soft power is huge, but it will not be realised until the government realises that this is not something that can be done by the state, and gets out of the way of its civil society. China’s leadership has to make up its own mind about what it wants. If it wants mainly to retain a very tight leash over its civil society, then it will not be successful at generating soft power and will have to forego the benefits of having that kind of power. If it wants to have soft power it will need to find some way of changing its domestic security equation so as to allow a wider range of voices to speak within China and to the world.

Barry Buzan is a Professor Emeritus at the LSE. One of his latest publications is Wilson, Peter and Zhang, Yongjin and Knudsen, Tonny Brems and Wilson, Peter and Sharp, Paul and Navari, Cornelia and Buzan, Barry (2016) The English School in retrospect and prospect: Barry Buzan’s an introduction to the English School of International Relations: the societal approach Cooperation and Conflict, 51 (1). Image credit: CC by Wojtek Gurak/Flickr.


Harris, Stuart (2014) China’s Foreign Policy, Cambridge: Polity.
Jones, Catherine (2014) ‘Constructing great powers: China’s status in a socially constructed plurality’, International Politics, 51:5, 597=618.
Li, Mingjiang (2008) ‘China Debates Soft Power’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2:2, 287-308.
Nye, Joseph (2004) Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics, New York: Public Affairs.
Schell, Orville and John Delury (2013) Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, London: Little, Brown.
Shambaugh, David (2013) China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle edn.
Shirk, Susan (2007) China: Fragile Superpower, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle edn.
Wang, Yuhua, and Carl Minzner (2015) ‘The Rise of the Chinese Security State’, China Quarterly, 222, 339-59.
Wendt, Alexander (1999) Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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