School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Soft Power in Chinese Foreign Policy by multiple authors

Soft Power in Chinese Foreign Policy

By C. F. Bergsten, C. Freeman, N. Lardy, D. Mitchell Thursday, February 05, 2009

As witnessed during the Beijing Olympics, China's government places a high priority on its international image. In this excerpt, C. Fred Bergsten, Charles Freeman, Nicholas Lardy and Derek Mitchell explain China's concerted efforts to distinguish itself from the Western world and establish a unique contribution to world culture.

China is voracious in its interest to listen, learn, and evolve according to proven best practices around the world and to assess what the Chinese call the "trends of the times."

Officials and scholars have closely studied how other nations have succeeded - and failed - throughout history and sought consciously to avoid their mistakes and learn the lessons of their success to apply at home. China is rigorous in assessing the global and regional environment that it faces and accommodates its policy accordingly - an accommodation that alters China's chosen means to achieve its objective - even if its ends remain constant.
Soft power is not just a function of popularity - it is the ability to get others to do things in one's interest through one's attractiveness.

Joseph Nye's concept of "soft power" is an area of particular strategic interest and tactical focus for today's China. Consistent with its desire to enhance its international image, reassure nations of its benign nature as it rises, and prevent the formation of counterbalancing coalitions, China has paid attention to the concept since the early 1990s and in recent years has explicitly stated in public and private the priority it places on developing and cultivating soft power through its actions and policies.

China in fact sees traditional concepts of power as an essential complement to soft power. Without economic and military strength, Beijing has assessed the appeal of one's cultural and intellectual contributions will suffer in turn.

China has recognized the importance of moving out on both legs of hard (military) and soft (economic and cultural) power in its development of "comprehensive national power."

More fundamentally, China has been seeking to identify something universal that separates it favorably from the West, a unique and positive contribution to international society and world' culture that will be distinctively associated with China.

In Beijing's view, China's current promotion of concepts such as "peaceful development," "harmony" (including a "harmonious world" abroad and "harmonious society" at home), "win-win solutions, and "strategic partnerships" fit this mold. However, traditional Chinese cultural values, codes, and maxims, particularly those associated with Confucianism, are considered more fundamental and universal cultural contributions that China can promote in years to come.

To back up its high-minded rhetoric, China has not only provided substantial overseas financial and infrastructural assistance, but also sent its doctors and teachers abroad; funded education opportunities in China for foreign nationals; encouraged the spread of traditional Chinese
Joseph Nye's concept of "soft power" is an area of particular strategic interest and tactical focus for today's China.

medicine; and promoted the study of the Chinese language abroad (specifically simplified Chinese characters, which not coincidentally are used by the main land but not by Taiwan) by building more than 200 Confucius Institutes around the world.

The combination of idealistic rhetoric and constructive action indeed has reassured and sometimes enticed nations in South east Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, enhancing the foundation of China's soft power development over time.

This is particularly true in the developing world, where China is focusing much of its attention on cultivating its soft power. Public opinion polls demonstrate that China's popularity in fact remains high in most developing areas, whether in Southeast Asia, Africa, or Latin America, largely because of perceived economic benefits from engagement with China:

However, many challenges are appearing in China's bid for soft power there and elsewhere. Attitudes toward China within the developed world, for instance, have grown more negative in recent years - in Europe, the United States, Japan, and even South Korea.

Of more concern to China, popular attitudes toward it in critical developing neighbors India and Russia have also declined. The economic challenge from China is a major factor, but concerns about China's growing military power are also evident in all these countries - including Russia.

Even in those areas of the developing world with more positive attitudes toward China, problems have surfaced. Many stories have emerged in the media about a backlash within African populations against low-grade Chinese goods supplanting African goods in local markets, Chinese labor being used instead of local labor for infrastructure projects, Chinese investors' disinterest in local environmental standards, and charges of Chinese neocolonialism due to extraction of resources rather than investment in industry.
China has been seeking to identify something universal that separates it favorably from the West.

Some in Africa contend that these stories are overblown and do not reflect the reality of China's overall positive contributions to local economies and infrastructure. Indeed, African nations have often stated that they prefer China's attitude of respect, equality, and partnership in its economic outreach to the perceived condescension of the West's "charity" and "help."

Nonetheless, the Chinese government is clearly concerned about trends in the region and the impact they are having on its soft power strategy around the world.

In continuing its "go out" (zou chuqu) policy of actively encouraging, and indeed facilitating, Chinese corporate activity overseas, the Chinese government in August 2006 promulgated new regulations demanding companies pay attention to issues of corporate responsibility and what it termed "localization" - respect for local customs, safety standards, and labor.

Enforcement among Chinese corporations, and even provinces, that are doing business internationally has proved difficult, increasingly complicating the Chinese government's ability to control completely the conduct and success of its soft power strategy.

Given its potential impact on China's image overseas, how Chinese companies should engage with the world will reportedly be a subject of priority attention and debate within the government in coming years.

Meanwhile, international condemnation of China's domestic record on human rights, rule of law, political freedom, corruption, and export product safety has infuriated Beijing. This is true not only because of traditional Asian notions of "losing face" or contentions that it "hurts the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people," as the Chinese are wont to say, but also because these public criticisms affect China's international reputation and thus its soft power.

China has responded to international public criticism more forcefully in recent years, viewing it as a Western method to embarrass and thus keep China down.
China, in fact, sees traditional concepts of power as an essential complement to soft power.

Joseph Nye has stated that in a global information age, "success depends not only on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins." In the end, soft power is not just a function of popularity; it is the ability to get others to do things in one's interest through one's attractiveness.

There are, in fact, few examples yet of China demonstrating this ability. China remains at a nascent stage in its soft power development. But Beijing is clearly making a serious, concerted, and conscious effort to this end, with enough patience to continue working toward its goal for years to come.

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