Liang Pan

Op-ed: A Reality Check for China’s Soft Power Push

Students gather on the Great Wall for the 2008 Beijing Olympics Torch Relay Ceremony (via Flickr/rich115)

[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]

On May 22, the BBC World Service released its 2013 Country Ratings Poll, an annual global public opinion poll jointly conducted every year since 2004 by the Canada-based international polling firm GlobeScan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), which is based at the University of Maryland.

According to this year’s figures, China’s ranking among the 17 surveyed countries, including the EU, dropped four places to ninth. Global views of China have hit a record low in the poll’s nine-year history. On average, positive and negative views of China were tied at 40% vs. 40%, illustrating split global attitudes towards China (pdf).

The poll results stand at odds with the hopes of Chinese authorities, who have made a massive public diplomacy push to boost the country’s profile internationally. The Chinese government spent hundreds of billions of dollars hosting the Beijing Olympic Games and the Shanghai Expo to reintroduce China to the world. They have sponsored over 322 Confucius Institutes in 96 countries to promote Chinese language and culture studies; they have allegedly spent $7.1 billion to expand the overseas outlets of their state-run media to amplify China’s voice. Authorities have also resorted to commercial ad placements in New York’s Times Square and other high-profile media platforms to conduct national image campaigns.

Why does China’s public diplomacy suffer from such a low rate of return on investment? Firstly, China’s apparently vibrant public diplomacy programs benefit from China’s strong state and weak civil society. The Chinese government has few checks and balances in it budget-making process; therefore, it can effectively mobilize an astronomical amount of money to fund the public diplomacy programs that it values. However, the collective maneuvering and united rhetoric of government-sponsored programs are often unappealing to their target audiences in foreign countries, as they reflect and reveal a highly centralized political institution.

Secondly, one major issue holding back China’s public diplomacy efforts is the campaigns’ conductor. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leads the Chinese government, and its movements are closely correlated with propaganda schemes and repressive censorship. Although the CCP has long since abandoned its leftist revolutionary mindset, a mere mention of the Communist Party is enough to make the general public in most foreign countries, especially in the West, view the Chinese government’s public diplomacy efforts through the prism of the Cold War mindset. For example, although Confucius Institutes teach only language and culture-related classes, the program has experienced setbacks in the U.S. due to concerns that the institutes are propaganda machines gaining footholds in foreign higher education systems.

 Lastly, the Chinese government’s domestic policies, which are at odds with Western democratic values, have hampered China’s public diplomacy push. As Joseph Nye pertinently pointed out:

What China seems not to appreciate is that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities…The 2008 Olympics were a success, but shortly afterwards, China’s domestic crackdown in Tibet and Xinjiang, and on human rights activists, undercut its soft power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but was followed by the jailing of the Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and the artist Ai Weiwei.

For a country as gigantic and complex as China, public diplomacy is full of contradictions. It is crucial to reassure the world of China’s peaceful rise, but China will not give up its right to use force to assert its territorial claims over disputed areas. It is important to uphold the Chinese value of harmony, but the Chinese government will not abandon its heavy-handed social stability efforts. It is possible to interpret China’s achievements in development as support for the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, but regime change of any kind is simply out of the question.

Given the state of its politics and expanding strategic ambitions, China’s public diplomacy is sure to be a hard sell. Yet what are the alternatives? If China makes a hard public diplomacy push, its international image may not necessarily improve; but if China gives up on its public diplomacy efforts, will misunderstandings and controversies increase?

The answer may lie in a reexamination of soft power. Soft power is not something a government can generate on its own; it comes from a combination of a country’s culture, values, and social institutions that appeal to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, there is little that public diplomacy alone can do to change this.

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Liang Pan

Liang Pan is studying political communication at New York University. He is an Asia Foundation young diplomat fellow and a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, with a major in international relations. He worked extensively in the field of international politics and has lived in China, the Middle East and the U.S.
  • Frank Bobyson

    Another solid piece on TLN. I start to take TLN seriously because of articles like this.

  • disqus_8m3cDmHa3c

    Such a nice piece. Linear and clear.

  • Tarun Johri

    You failed to point out the friction China has with most of its neighbors. This is a crucial aspect when evaluating the global image of China.