China Policy Institute: Analysis


soft power

Taiwan’s trouble talking to the world

Written by Gary Rawnsley.

On 25 August 2016, China’s Xinhua News Agency posted a short film on Twitter about the construction of a pipeline between Fujian province and Jinmen. Once finished, the pipeline will divert water from the mainland to help this ‘Islet of Taiwan’ overcome shortages. In just forty-four seconds, a powerful narrative was established: Taiwan has problems; and Jinmen must depend on the PRC, not Taiwan’s elected government, to solve those problems.

Continue reading “Taiwan’s trouble talking to the world”

China in Qatar

Written by Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat.

The use of soft power has become an important element of China’s foreign policy. In its pivot to the Gulf ,China has used soft-power resources to strengthen its foothold in the region. Qatar is a good case in point.

Educational partnership is perhaps the most apparent element of Chinese soft-power initiatives around the world, including Qatar. As Rasmus Bertelsen argues, educational institutions have become important soft-power sources as they function as bridges between individuals, financial resources and information in their society of origin and their host society. Acknowledging this, China has exerted various efforts to bolster its educational soft-power in Qatar by tethering its aspirations to the worldwide popularity of its language and culture. The Translation and Interpreting Studies (TII) of Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU) signed an MoU with Chinese Embassy in Qatar to collaborate in the areas of language teaching and cultural activities. Today, Chinese courses are being offered at the institution. Continue reading “China in Qatar”

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”

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”

Selling China in the South Pacific: is anyone buying?

Written by Graeme Smith.

As the game show If You Are The One proves, soft power may emanate from China despite the Chinese government. Although contestants are told to avoid mention of “politics, religion, sex, pornography, violence, international relations or the Chinese government”, there are few vectors of influence the Chinese leadership are less comfortable with. Contestants are often visibly inebriated, and while the show was reined in for being “vulgar”, over 100 episodes were recently cut from overseas distribution because a host, Ning Caishen, admitted to a meth habit. Yet this addictive show is the now most important window on China for Australia.

Barry Buzan rightly argued that China has a poor image abroad as a result of domestic repression, and that the CCP’s morbid fear of civil society constrains its efforts to project soft power. Yet two of the three problems he identifies – that the Chinese government does not have a good image to sell abroad and that its totalitarian traditions mean that the government doesn’t know how to get out of the way – don’t tally with our research into China’s engagement with the Pacific.

In the Pacific, China’s government does have an image that Pacific elites and many ordinary citizens are attracted to. Popular perceptions of China in the Pacific and Africa are undermined by concerns for democracy, but this is balanced by perceived strengths in alleviating poverty and “getting things done”. China’s substantial investment in infrastructure beyond its borders may be more about reducing domestic overcapacity than projecting soft power, but this aspect of China’s brand is appreciated.

A recent realisation within MOFCOM that roads, schools and hospitals are more appreciated by host countries (if not politicians) than lavish stadiums and government buildings will burnish China’s image further. Nor is China’s appeal limited to infrastructure. In our interviews, it became clear that while scholarships to study in China were less sought after than those for Australia and New Zealand, they were still desired. Less appeal isn’t no appeal. The number of scholarships—2000 for the Pacific—means that a cohort of China-connected Pacific Islanders will develop, as it has in Africa.

In much of the world Chinese soft power exists, but the Chinese state, rather than being in the way, is barely present. China’s embassies, due to restrictions on central government staffing numbers, are ghostly. The first concern of the handful of officials is pleasing their superiors in Beijing lest their next posting be even further out of the way that Nuku’alofa, not selling China to the locals. Their work, largely, is providing support for visiting business delegations. Far from China’s borders, it is companies engaging in infrastructure and mining projects, and countless business migrants who are the vectors of Chinese soft power.

Chinese construction companies, such as COVEC, have inadvertently burnished China’s image through their willingness to take on infrastructure projects in regions (such as the Highlands of PNG) where other contractors are reluctant to tread. COVEC is an SOE on paper, but central control is almost entirely absent from their branch in Port Moresby. Yet for locals these projects demonstrate a state—China—getting things done, building infrastructure and creating jobs where their own state does not reach. This feeds into existing stereotypes. As former Prime Minister Michael Somare opined to Al Jazeera:

Chinese are workaholics; they work from six o’clock in the morning, even at night, until they complete the task. Ask the Melanesians. We work when time permits us. When we feel that after ten o’clock when we are tired, we go and sit under a tree. Our work ethic has to be changed in this country; we have to work much harder.

The largest Chinese project in the Pacific, a nickel mine run by China Metallurgical Corporation, has struggled to sell China. Company management has come to realise that like other mining companies working in remote Papua New Guinea, in the eyes of the locals, they are the state. The state-owned flavour of company management means that its efforts mimic the Chinese state, from ham-fisted propaganda to popular acrobatic displays. Yet PNG staff have brought success, notably Mathew Yakai, whose press releases run unchanged in the national newspapers, and whose blog reveals much about the appeal of China to Pacific islanders. Local staff have even persuaded the company to partner with a local “spiritual development foundation” who regularly lead religious “crusades.”

Like the producers of If You Are The One, the group with the most influence on China’s brand in the Pacific is reviled by Chinese officials: migrants. A report commissioned by the Guangdong Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs in the wake of riots in the Solomon Islands revealed the depth of contempt felt by the state towards business migrants. Unlike other commentators, they blamed the unrest (which saw Honiara’s Chinatown burnt to the ground) squarely on recent arrivals from the Pearl River Delta, describing them as “such low quality that they have no ability to compete in China… They treat [locals] like slaves” and asking “If goods have export quality standards, should migrants also meet a quality standard?”

Yet this group of migrants, in the past the target of violence in Timor Leste, Tonga and Papua New Guinea, may provide an unanticipated boost to China’s soft power stocks. Younger, middle class Chinese are being drawn to the Pacific, lured by clean air and a slower pace of life. They understand social media and the value of building local networks. A recent post to the Facebook group Yumi Tok Stret in Vanuatu did more to defuse anger towards the Chinese community than any embassy missive could:

hi all members of YTS . I am a chinese , the most hated community in prot vila —- CHINESE.

I have joined YTS for a couple month jst to see local updates . I’m not sure if this is a good or bad idea for now because I can see how much U nivans hate Chinese . SIMPLY hate everything about chinese. For the record yes we have small eyes than nivans , ok u win . I understand that there’s no hates coming from nowhere . yes some chinese has done some really bad things while running their businesses here in Port Vila , like put expired tin food on sale , like underpay nivan workers, like selling crapy products . Thoes r all for money . thoes r all because GOV doesnt do its job to enforce the law . When gov can regulaly check on all businesses and give tough disciplines, no one would be that stupid to break the law .

This businessman and his friends fill their feeds with food and selfies, but also with their community relief work in the wake of Vanuatu’s all to frequent natural disasters. Once the oversized novelty cheque has been discovered, soft power cannot be far behind.

Graeme Smith is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. He is co-editor of East Asia’s Demand for Energy, Minerals and Food (Routledge, 2015). Image by Hadi Zaher/Flickr

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.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: