Tekst: Martine Asker, Master’s degree in political science with a Bachelor’s degree in China studies

As a growing economic superpower, China has implemented a great deal of measures in order
to promote and redeem themselves within the international sphere. Which “soft power tools”
does China’s toolbox consist of? How are China’s attempts perceived, and why is it important?

In the West, China has not been particularly famous for their “soft” style in the international political sphere. Instead, China has largely been known for their strong military, and enormously fast-growing economic power, seemingly pursuing the very definition of a “hard power” behavioral strategy in the international space. Already at a press conference in 2007, former chairman of the lone-ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Hu Jintao, stated that “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture”. From the early 2000’s, the Party began to recognize that military power and economic muscle would no longer be sufficient in the international competition of strength and popularity. He further maintained that the Party from then on would put greater emphasis on culture as an increasingly important factor in achieving international recognition. How then, has China set about shifting from a “hard power” to a “soft power” strategy in order to increase their international popularity, while simultaneously facing the moralizing finger-wagging and prejudice of the West?

The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture


What is Soft Power?

 In the study of international power, we often make a distinction between “soft” and “hard” power. Joseph Nye (1990) defines soft power as a state’s ability to achieve their goals internationally, by using persuasion or attraction in culture, education, values and institutions, rather than military power and economic incentives. The concept of “soft power” consists, in other words, of those “tools” states would use in order to be perceived as more legitimate and even attractive, and in that way increase its possibilities of influencing other states to follow and fulfill their goals. This stands in contrast to “hard” power, which is often linked to military and economic “muscle”, as well as geographical factors and resources, such as oil.

China’s Soft Power “Toolbox”

Accompanied by the theme song “Beijing welcomes you” blasting through every TV screen in the world during the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the Party had a golden chance to show the world what China had to offer of cultural traditions and greatness. Next year in 2022, China will once again be ready to host the Olympics. In the meantime, China has initiated a broad range of projects and measures in order to increase transnational cooperation and strengthen their international reputation.

Cultural and educational exchange has during the last decades been one of China’s most important channels to expand their “soft power”, and as a tool for self-assertion. It is to the knowledge of all that China has seen a tremendous growth within the fields of research, science and technology, with as many as eight universities ranked at the top 50 best universities internationally. Many students from all over the world apply to elite universities such as Tsinghua-, Peking- or Fudan University with hopeful hearts of a promising future career. Additionally, a fair number of students also choose exchange programs in Mainland China to study Chinese Mandarin.

Already in 2004, the Party decided on building educational institutions named Confucius Institutes all over the world. These institutes and schools offer teaching in Chinese language, culture and tradition, and by 2019 there had been built as many as 530 Confucius Institutes all over the world. In the West however, these institutes have been met with skepticism and a range of criticism. Even conspiracy theories around China’s intentions have appeared. Even so, China has from the beginning maintained that the institutes were established as a means of promoting understanding, friendship and cooperation with other countries.

Other big projects include the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (一带一路), introduced by Chairman Xi in 2013. BRI is a project to develop and build infrastructure for an international trade route, inspired by the old silk road. This project includes trade agreements and cooperation with so far 71 nations in Asia, Africa, East-Europe and the Middle East. Many of the big Chinese universities have also established scholarships for students from the different member-countries of BRI to study in China. In line with this, China has also had an increased focus on promoting peace preserving work, development aid, building of infrastructure and the providing of educational scholarships, especially in certain African countries.

There are several other “tools” which could be presented in an article on the topic of Chinese soft power. For instance, China has during recent times redeemed themselves on the big screen. One example of movies which have received massive attention is the live action reproduction of the Disney movie “Mulan”, based on original poetry from the northern Wei dynasty (386-534 AD). The movie was filmed in Mainland China, and most of the fighting scenes were inspired by the traditional martial art of Kung Fu. However regardless of the good intentions of the productions, the movie received massive criticism from several holds. Firstly, Disney was criticized by the Chinese audience for not being “authentic” enough, making historical and cultural mistakes when choosing for instance the housing and food portrayed in the movie. Secondly, the production was criticized by several Western organizations for filming in the west part of China, where there is an ongoing political conflict between the state and the ethnic group based in the area.

…an increased focus on China from the media, especially in the West, seems to have mostly resulted in a greater coverage of existing political issues and controversies, rather than highlighting China’s efforts to “do good”

The Results of China’s Efforts

Critics and scholars have expressed that these tools to achieve “soft power” in fact seems to have had limited influence over China’s reputation internationally. Some point out China’s political system as a factor preventing China from building a better reputation, especially in the West. One of the reasons for this is what we could refer to as “ideological baggage”. Growing up in a democratic country and learning about the concept of competitive democracy and the importance of freedom would logically make many people believe that democracy is the ultimate goal for political systems. With this, most individuals growing up in competitive democratic systems would feel inclined to view a system absent of the same ideals and levels of freedom with skepticism and distrust. In fact, an increased focus on China from the media, especially in the West, seems to have mostly resulted in a greater coverage of existing political issues and controversies, rather than highlighting China’s efforts to “do good”.

In an article in “The Diplomat” from 2017, author Thomas Barker writes that one ought to study China’s efforts from several angles, as the “ideological baggage” would differ for individuals and societies around the globe. For example, the Chinese model could seem attractive in the eyes of other politicians and leaders in a great deal of non-western countries. These countries would compliment China on their ability to achieve industrialization and economic growth, resisting the ideologies which the US and other Western countries are attempting to force them to adopt. To the western countries, and the countries receiving Chinese aid and economic support, China’s effort seems to have a much larger appeal. Thomas Barker further advises American and other Western observers not to fall into the trap of viewing Western standards of freedom and democracy as the ultimate goal. For many societies experiencing political instability, economic insecurity or high unemployment rates, ensuring a strong, stable and secure rule might arguably be much more important. With this in mind, the Chinese model could seem more desirable.

The great wall, an icon of China’s rich historical and cultural value, captured during the autumn in 2015

So What?

In 2018, China Scholar Halskov Hansen wrote “It is impossible to view the world’s political, economic or environmental future without including China into the equations” (from the book Kina: Stat, samfunn og individ, translated from Norwegian). This is a truth which has become even more prevalent during the last couple of years. Contrary to China’s efforts in promoting “soft power”, they seemingly still have a long road ahead to change the image of the country perceived by the West. Alongside former US president Trump waging a “war of trade” on China, followed by heated diplomatic relations between super-powers, turbulent times in Hong Kong, Huawei’s leading role in building 5G networks internationally, as well as the beginning of COVID 19 in Wuhan, China has had a huge presence in news media all over the world. This increased attention has resulted in western media directing their spotlight on more controversial issues, for instance criticizing China for their political system and issues of human rights. It is nonetheless important to remember that the Chinese model is indeed viewed differently in different societies and states, especially in the East. The tedious work of finding a good balance between ideological differences and international interests is not at all a new phenomenon in the field of foreign affairs and diplomacy. Still, it is of increasing importance for the West to look to the East, and to establish good and lasting relations with the growing super-power.

It is impossible to view the worlds political, economic or environmental future without including China into the equations


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