Embarking on an exploration of China’s soft power and public diplomacy efforts is akin to opening a richly illustrated scroll that depicts a nation’s journey through millennia, a journey marked by the rise of a civilization that has intricately woven its cultural, economic, and political threads into the tapestry of global affairs.
In international relations, a term coined by Joseph Nye, soft power emerges not through the barrel of a gun but through the allure of a nation’s culture, political values, and foreign policies. It’s the art of persuasion, attracting and co-opting rather than coercing. Meanwhile, public diplomacy is the instrument that plays the melody of soft power, engaging with foreign publics, sharing stories, and building relationships that bridge nations. For China, a civilization state with a history that stretches back to the dawn of recorded time, these concepts are not merely strategic tools but extensions of its cultural ethos, which values harmony, balance, and the gentle influence of moral example.
One cannot discuss China’s soft power without marveling at the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a mammoth project that seeks to weave a network of trade routes reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road. But this modern incarnation does more than facilitate trade; it serves as a conduit for cultural exchange, educational collaboration, and infrastructural development, thereby sowing the seeds of goodwill and mutual benefit. Through the BRI, China extends its hand to the world, not as a hegemon, but as a partner in development. The initiative has opened avenues for students from participating countries to study in China, experience its culture first-hand, and become inadvertent ambassadors of Chinese goodwill upon their return home.
In the quest to share its rich cultural heritage, China has established Confucius Institutes across the globe.
These centers are not merely language schools; they are windows into the Chinese way of life, offering courses in calligraphy, martial arts, and Chinese philosophy. China engages hearts and minds through these cultural emissaries, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of its traditions and contemporary culture. Yet, the path of Confucius Institutes is not without its stones. Criticism over academic freedom and concerns of cultural imperialism have surfaced, posing challenges to China’s narrative. Addressing these concerns transparently and fostering open dialogues is crucial for the success of such cultural initiatives. Beyond government-led initiatives, China’s soft power is bolstered by its culture’s global popularity, from cuisine and festivals to cinema and literature. The international success of films like “Wolf Warrior 2” and “The Wandering Earth” showcases China’s growing prowess in entertainment, a sector that has long been dominated by Hollywood. Similarly, the rise of Chinese technology in entertainment, such as TikTok, has introduced global audiences to Chinese creativity and trends. These cultural exports not only entertain but subtly shape perceptions of China, making its culture accessible and appealing to a global audience.
Tourism is a vibrant expression of soft power, and China, with its sprawling landscapes and ancient monuments, has become a magnet for international tourists. Conversely, the growing Chinese middle class, armed with passports and a desire to explore, has become a significant presence in the global tourism market. These cross-border flows of people foster mutual understanding and break down stereotypes, building bridges between cultures. Educational exchanges, too, play a pivotal role in China’s public diplomacy. Scholarships offered to international students provide access to China’s educational institutions and create a cadre of foreign alumni with firsthand experience of China, who may harbor a lifelong affinity for the country.
China’s engagement with international organizations represents a significant chapter in its soft power narrative. By actively participating in, and in some cases leading, major international bodies such as the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Group of Twenty (G20), China demonstrates its commitment to multilateralism and global governance. This involvement allows China to shape global norms and policies, reflecting its status as a responsible global actor. Yet, this role is not without scrutiny; China’s approach to human rights and its stance on sovereignty and territorial integrity often spark debates about its influence in these international forums.
In the information age, control over narratives is a form of power. China has invested heavily in expanding its media footprint globally, through outlets such as CGTN and China Daily, aiming to present its perspectives to the world. This media strategy is a double-edged sword. At the same time, it provides a platform for China’s voice and raises questions about media freedom and the balance between state narratives and journalistic independence.
The challenge for China is ensuring its media outlets are seen as credible sources of information rather than mere extensions of state propaganda.
China’s strides in technology and innovation have become a cornerstone of its soft power. Companies like Huawei, Alibaba, and Tencent are not just economic entities but symbols of Chinese innovation, challenging the technological hegemony of the West. Through initiatives like the “Made in China 2025” plan, China aims to lead in high-tech industries, from artificial intelligence (AI) to renewable energy. This technological prowess is a source of national pride and a tool for international influence, as these companies expand their operations globally, bringing Chinese technology and standards to the world. However, this expansion has also led to concerns over cybersecurity, data privacy, and the potential for technological dominance to be leveraged for geopolitical gains. Navigating these concerns while promoting innovation is a delicate balance for China’s soft power strategy.
In recent years, China has positioned itself as a leader in the fight against climate change, recognizing the global demand for sustainable development and environmental stewardship as potent soft power currencies. By committing to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, China is addressing its environmental challenges and projecting its commitment to global public goods. Through initiatives like the South-South Cooperation on Climate Change, China assists developing countries in their green transitions, enhancing its image as a responsible global leader.
Yet, the world watches closely, balancing commendation with skepticism, eager to see tangible actions match ambitious pledges.
The role of education in China’s public diplomacy cannot be overstated. Chinese universities climbing the global rankings attract international students, creating a vibrant, multicultural academic community within China. These students often return to their home countries with a degree and a deep appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture and society, serving as informal ambassadors of China’s soft power. The proliferation of Chinese language courses and academic partnerships worldwide also embeds Chinese cultural understanding in global education.
As China continues expanding its soft power and public diplomacy efforts, it faces a landscape replete with challenges and opportunities. The effectiveness of these efforts is contingent upon the global community’s reception, which is influenced by a complex web of geopolitical tensions, ideological differences, and mutual suspicions. The challenge for China lies in crafting a compelling and authentic narrative that resonates with universal values and aspirations while addressing concerns and criticisms with transparency and grace. Moreover, the rise of digital platforms and social media has democratized global influence, where power is increasingly held by states, individuals, and non-state actors. This new reality offers China opportunities to engage in more nuanced and personal forms of public diplomacy, connecting with global audiences through stories, experiences, and exchanges that transcend traditional diplomatic channels.
Lastly, strengthening China’s soft power and public diplomacy is a multifaceted endeavor akin to navigating a river that flows through varied landscapes. As China charts its course, it must steer with both wisdom and humility, aware that the strength of its soft power lies not in the might of its current but in the clarity of its waters and the inclusiveness of its course. The future of China’s soft power and public diplomacy hinges on its ability to engage with the world in a dialogue that is both respectful and reflective, fostering a global community that thrives on mutual understanding and shared prosperity.
Dr. Zukun Lyu is a research scholar in the Department of Political Science at the University of Siena. She has been to national and international conferences and written 21 research articles that have been published in international journals.