What is soft power? It’s easy to say what it is not, since the term was devised to distinguish it from “harder” forms of power, both military and economic. But what is it?
Joseph Nye, who has done more than anyone else to popularize the term, sees it as the power to attract or to induce emulation – the power to make others want to be what you are, or to have what you have. But not all attractive power is soft power (I may want to live in another country because of the economic opportunities I find there, not because I particularly enjoy its lifestyle), and not all soft power evokes emulation (I may appreciate and respect another country’s religion, but not want to adopt it myself).
So I see soft power slightly differently: not as power that induces emulation, but as power that induces respect. It is a wide range of non-material power – ideas, norms, values, cultural products – that enhance the reputation, influence, and legitimacy of the nations that produce them.
Over the last several years, China has placed a high priority on the development of its soft power, and has been seeking to do so in a variety of ways. First, it has been developing the modalities by which soft power is acquired and exerted. These modalities – all of which have been utilized by other countries trying to enhance their soft power -- include:
- Symbolic actions intended to reflect China’s economic and military successes (manned space flights, hosting the Olympic Games, building the world’s tallest skyscraper, naval port calls some distance from China’s shores, etc.)
- Global media (including CCTV-9, China’s English-language satellite news channel, and the English-language editions of China Daily and Caijing)
- Cultural diplomacy (such as sending performing arts troupes and art exhibitions abroad)
- Educational exchanges, both in China and overseas (e.g., the establishment of Confucius Institutes to offer Chinese language courses abroad, the creation of English-language graduate programs in Chinese universities, and the development of financial aid programs for foreign students who wish to study in China)
- Diplomatic activities (including China’s role in creating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Boao Forum, and the Six-Party Talks on the denuclearization of North Korea)
Why has China been putting so much effort into the development of its soft power? The most general answer is that Beijing has been trying to develop its “comprehensive national power,” and sees soft power as part of that package.
Even more important, soft power, in Chinese eyes, can legitimize the harder forms of power, and thus reassures others that the rise of China does not have to be contained or balanced. At the same time, as I have already argued in “The Hard Edge to Soft Power” elsewhere on this blog), Beijing understands that some kinds of soft power can delegitimize other countries’ power, either hard or soft.
China’s desire to legitimize its own power and to delegitimize the power of others helps us understand the content of China’s soft power diplomacy. Although Beijing, like other governments, conducts some programs that are intended to introduce foreigners to the attractive features of Chinese language and culture, it places particular emphasis on developing and promulgating the norms that Beijing says should govern international conduct and national development strategies. These norms are particularly important to China because they are seen as the most important means for legitimizing the development and exercise of China’s hard power, and for delegitimizing the international behavior of others.
The norms that Beijing has been formulating can be placed into three clusters, two involving international behavior, and one governing domestic development models.
The first cluster is the most traditional: the “five principles of peaceful coexistence.” These can be traced to the early years of the Soviet Union, but were more fully developed by China in the early 1950s. They include:
- Mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty
- Mutual non-aggression
- Mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs
- Equality and mutual benefit
- Peaceful co-existence
A second cluster, more recent in origin, is largely an updated version of the first. It is organized around the concept of a “harmonious world,” associated with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Interestingly, however, while that phrase has been chosen for its roots in Chinese philosophy, its more specific components are largely Western in origin:
- Cooperative security (or what the Chinese call a “new security concept”)
- Unconditional foreign aid
- Limited sanctions
- Mutual accommodation
- International democracy
- Cultural diversity
The differences in terminology between the first and second clusters underscore a point I made in my earlier blog. Unlike the traditional concept of soft power, where countries seek influence by persuading others to emulate their unique features (“don’t you want to be like me?”), the current Chinese conception of soft power seeks legitimation for Beijing’s behavior by persuading other major powers that, to a large degree, China is emulating them (“I want to be like you”).
The third cluster involves the model of economic and political development associated with China – what some call the “Beijing Consensus,” but what most Chinese analysts simply call the “Chinese model.” More specifically, this cluster includes the following:
- Privatization and marketization, but under state guidance
- Experimentation and gradualism
- Export-led growth, with restrictions on imports
- A consultative, but non-pluralistic, political system
These three clusters – especially the second and third -- are both familiar and different. They are familiar because they use largely Western terminology and summarize a strategy of development (export-oriented growth through developmental authoritarianism) that has been used elsewhere in Asia. But the differences between these Chinese norms and the comparable American norms enable Beijing to use them to distinguish China from the West and to delegitimize American foreign policy when it wishes to do so.
How well is China doing in its efforts to build its soft power? Over the past several years, there has been considerable interest in – and even concern about – the rise of Chinese soft power. This was largely because China’s attempts to develop soft power were coming at the same time that the U.S. was hemorrhaging soft power, particularly through its strategies in Iraq and in the global war on terror.
Today, that hemorrhaging has stopped, and we are simultaneously more aware of the limits to the growth of Chinese soft power:
- The sustainability of China’s development model remains in doubt, thus raising questions about its attractiveness.
- China’s domestic behavior, particularly with regard to dissidents, human rights activists, and ethnic minorities, calls both its domestic norms and its commitment to international norms into question.
- China’s norms, particularly its continuing emphasis on sovereignty and non-intervention and its relative neglect of human rights concerns abroad, strike many as dated, insensitive to the poor and disenfranchised, and overly protective of oppressive governments. Much of Beijing’s normative framework will be more attractive to elites in authoritarian countries in the Third World than to other constituencies.
- China’s behavior, particularly in its aid policies and its foreign investments, often departs from its articulated norms. This is particularly true in Latin America and Africa, where China has been making investments in resource and energy extraction in ways that raise allegations of maltreatment of local workers, or trying to export manufactured goods in ways that compete with local firms.
- So far, China has shown little willingness to sacrifice to uphold these international norms. This has given China the reputation of being a free rider in international affairs.
- China’s response to criticism has often been angry and defensive, evincing a level of insecurity that is not compatible with a high degree of soft power.
In short, China has been making impressive efforts to develop soft power, with attention to both the messages it wants to convey and the media through which it will convey them. But the effectiveness of those efforts is far from assured. And, even if China’s soft power continues to increase the relative balance of influence – how China’s soft power resources stack up relative to those of other countries – will depend as much on those other countries’ attractiveness as on China’s.