In international relations, ‘soft power’ has become increasingly pivotal in understanding how countries project their influence beyond borders. Unlike hard power, exercised through military might or economic coercion, soft power relies on shaping preferences and influencing others through appeal and attraction. This approach, first conceptualized by Joseph Nye, encompasses aspects like culture, political values, and foreign policies. With its remarkable ascent as a global power, China offers a compelling case study in the use of soft power. The transformation of the People’s Republic of China from a relatively isolated, developing country to a formidable global player is not just a story of economic growth and military expansion. It is a narrative about the strategic deployment of soft power to achieve national objectives and carve out a significant role on the world stage. It’s important to explore the various facets of Chinese soft power, tracing its historical roots, examining its main elements, discussing its challenges, and considering the responses it elicits globally. It provides insights into China’s unique approach to international relations and its implications for global dynamics.
The roots of China’s soft power can be traced back to its ancient history, marked by a rich cultural heritage and philosophical traditions like Confucianism. However, the modern journey begins post-1949, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong. During Mao’s era, China’s foreign policy was largely ideological, driven by revolutionary ideals and a strong anti-imperialist stance. This period witnessed China supporting liberation movements and revolutionary causes worldwide, particularly in Africa and Asia, laying early seeds for its current relationships. The paradigm shift in China’s approach to the world came with Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Reform and Opening Up’ policy in the late 1970s. Deng emphasized economic development and pragmatic diplomacy, moving away from Mao’s ideological rigidity. This period marked the beginning of China’s integration into the global economy, fostering relationships based on political ideology and mutual economic benefits.
A significant evolution in Chinese foreign policy came in the early 21st century, with the leadership promoting the concept of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ or ‘peaceful development’. This doctrine, which sought to reassure the world that China’s growing power would not pose a threat, was a clear move towards soft power. It emphasized China’s commitment to peaceful coexistence, win-win cooperation, and mutual development. The era of Hu Jintao further reinforced this with the idea of building a ‘harmonious world’ based on Confucian ideals of balance and moderation. China began to project itself as a responsible global player, contributing to international peacekeeping missions, engaging in global governance, and increasing its participation in international organizations.
Under Xi Jinping, the ‘Chinese Dream’ narrative has become central to China’s soft power strategy. This concept, which emphasizes national rejuvenation and prosperity, is aimed not only at domestic audiences but also at a global one. It is a narrative that seeks to present China as a model of development and governance, offering an alternative to Western models.
One of the most visible aspects of China’s soft power is its cultural diplomacy. Central to this is the global network of Confucius Institutes, established in partnership with universities worldwide. These institutes aim to promote the Chinese language and culture, serving as a gateway for foreign populations to understand China from a cultural standpoint. Beyond language, these institutes organize cultural events, fostering a greater appreciation of Chinese traditions, arts, and history. Parallel to this is China’s global media expansion. State-backed media outlets like CGTN and Xinhua have increased their international presence, broadcasting in multiple languages and providing a Chinese perspective on global events.
This media expansion is not just about sharing news; it’s about shaping narratives and influencing global perceptions of China.
A cornerstone of China’s soft power strategy is its economic diplomacy, with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) being the most ambitious project. Launched in 2013, the BRI aims to connect Asia, Europe, and Africa through land and sea routes. This initiative is not just about building infrastructure; it’s about creating economic interdependence and fostering relationships through development projects. By investing in ports, railways, and roads, China positions itself as a key player in the economic development of partner countries. The BRI, however, is more than just an economic project. It’s a strategic tool for China to wield influence. China gains significant political and economic leverage by helping to develop infrastructure in various countries. The initiative has been particularly active in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, traditionally overlooked by Western powers.
In the digital age, technology forms a critical component of soft power. Chinese tech giants like Huawei and Alibaba are at the forefront of this, expanding globally and shaping the technological landscapes of many countries. The Digital Silk Road, an offshoot of the BRI, aims to expand digital infrastructure and create a global network of Chinese-led tech governance. This technological outreach is not without its challenges. Huawei’s expansion, for instance, has been met with suspicion and resistance, particularly from the United States, over concerns about cybersecurity and data privacy.
Nevertheless, Chinese technology’s global presence is undeniable and reshaping how the world interacts with digital platforms.
China’s soft power strategy, particularly the BRI, has faced criticism on several fronts. The most significant of these is the accusation of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. Critics argue that China’s lending for large infrastructure projects is not always transparent and can lead to unsustainable debt for the recipient countries. They claim this could lead to China exerting undue influence or control over these countries. Human rights concerns also pose a challenge to China’s soft power. The situation in Xinjiang, for instance, has drawn international criticism and raised questions about China’s commitment to human rights, affecting its global image. Another aspect that has garnered attention is the so-called ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. Named after a popular Chinese action movie, this approach signifies a more assertive and sometimes confrontational diplomatic style. This shift, noticeable particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been a departure from the earlier low-profile approach and has received mixed reactions internationally.
The response from Western powers, particularly the United States and the European Union, to China’s soft power has been multifaceted. On one hand, there is an acknowledgment of China’s role as a global economic partner and a recognition of the need for collaboration in areas like climate change and global health. On the other hand, there is growing apprehension about China’s political ambitions and the implications of its expanding influence on the international order.
The U.S. has viewed China’s rise cautiously, leading to strategic competition in various domains. Concerns about technology transfer, intellectual property rights, and cybersecurity have resulted in a more guarded approach toward economic and technological engagement with China.
The response in the Global South — Africa, Latin America, and Asia regions — is varied but often more favorable than the West. Many countries in these regions view China as a vital partner for economic development and appreciate the non-interventionist approach China professes in political affairs. The investments and infrastructure projects under the BRI have been generally well-received, providing much-needed development funds and capabilities. However, there’s an increasing awareness of the potential pitfalls of dependency on Chinese investments. The debt sustainability concerns and loss of sovereignty lead some countries to approach Chinese investments more cautiously.
Several factors, including the global economic landscape, technological advancements, and international diplomatic relations, will likely influence the future trajectory of China’s soft power. One key aspect will be how China adapts its approach in the face of growing scrutiny and changing global dynamics. China’s domestic policies, especially regarding human rights and governance, will continue to play a crucial role in shaping its international image. How China addresses these issues may determine the effectiveness of its soft power in the long term. Global events like the COVID-19 pandemic have influenced perceptions of China worldwide. China’s handling of such crises, its role in global health governance, and its ability to provide international public goods will be critical in shaping its soft power.
China’s journey as a soft power is a study of the dynamic nature of international influence in the 21st century. While its economic and cultural outreach has opened doors to global influence, challenges in transparency, human rights, and diplomatic style pose significant hurdles. The balancing act between leveraging its strengths and addressing these challenges will be pivotal in determining the future trajectory of China’s role on the world stage. As the international community navigates this evolving landscape, understanding the nuances of China’s soft power becomes essential. It presents an opportunity to engage with a rising power on multiple fronts, from economic collaboration to cultural exchanges, while also being mindful of the broader implications for global governance and international relations.
Chiara Cacco: Researcher at the University of Siena, Italy.
Dr. Sahibzada Muhammad Usman: Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Engagement Academy, School of Culture and Communication, Shandong University (Weihai). Dr. Usman has participated in various national and international conferences and published 30 research articles in international journals.