Analysis & Opinions - Wall Street Journal
China's Soft Power Deficit
To catch up, its politics must unleash the many talents of its civil society.
I was recently invited to lecture at several Chinese universities about "soft power"—the ability to get what one wants by attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment. Since the 1990s, thousands of essays and articles have been published in China on the topic, and the lectures drew large crowds.
Over the past decade, China's economic and military might has grown impressively. This has frightened its neighbors into looking for allies to balance China's increase in hard power. But if a country can also increase its soft power of attraction, its neighbors feel less need to balance its power. For example, Canada and Mexico do not seek alliances with China to balance U.S. power the way Asian countries seek a U.S. presence to balance China.
In 2007, understanding this, President Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China needed to invest more in its soft power resources. That's a smart power strategy, but Beijing is having difficulty implementing it.
China is spending billions of dollars to increase its soft power. Its aid programs to Africa and Latin America are not limited by the institutional or human rights concerns that constrain Western aid. The Chinese style emphasizes high-profile gestures, such as building stadiums. Meanwhile, the elaborately staged 2008 Beijing Olympics enhanced China's reputation abroad, and the 2010 Shanghai Expo attracted more than 70 million visitors.
China has also created several hundred Confucius Institutes around the world to teach its language and culture. The enrollment of foreign students in China increased to 240,000 last year from just 36,000 a decade ago, and China Radio International now broadcasts in English around the clock. In 2009–10, Beijing invested $8.9 billion in external publicity work, including 24-hour cable news channels.
But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment. A recent BBC poll shows that opinions of China's influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, but predominantly negative in the United States, everywhere in Europe, as well as in India, Japan and South Korea.
Great powers try to use culture and narrative to create soft power that promotes their national interests, but it's not an easy sell when the message is inconsistent with their domestic realities. As I told the university students, in an Information Age in which credibility is the scarcest resource, the best propaganda is not propaganda.
The 2008 Olympics was a success abroad, but shortly afterward China's domestic crackdown on human rights activists undercut its soft-power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but it was followed by the jailing of Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo. His empty chair at the Oslo ceremony was a powerful symbol. And for all the efforts to turn Xinhua and China Central Television into competitors for CNN and the BBC, there is little international audience for brittle propaganda.
Now, in the aftermath of the Middle East revolutions, China is clamping down on the Internet and jailing human rights lawyers, once again torpedoing its soft-power campaign. No amount of propaganda can hide the fact that blind human rights attorney Chen Guangcheng recently sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Rather than celebrate the heroes of today in civil society, the arts and the private sector, the Communist Party has taken to promoting the greatness of Chinese culture in general and the historical significance of the Middle Kingdom.
Pang Zhongying, a former Chinese diplomat who teaches at Renmin University, says this reflects "a poverty of thought" in China today. When Zhang Yimou, the acclaimed director, was asked why his films were always set in the past, he replied that films about contemporary China would be "neutered by the censors."
I read the students a recent statement by Ai Weiwei, the acclaimed Chinese artist who's suffered from state harassment. He warned that censorship is undermining creativity. "It's putting this nation behind in the world's competition in the coming decades. You can't create generations just to labor at [electronics manufacturer] Foxconn. Everyone wants an iPhone but it would be impossible to design an iPhone in China because it's not a product; it's an understanding of human nature."
Slight waves of nervous laughter swept through the audience when I mentioned Ai Weiwei's name. But from their questions, it seemed that some students agreed with his view that it's not possible for Chinese leaders "to control the Internet unless they shut it off—and they can't live with the consequences of that."
After I finished speaking, a party official told the students that the Chinese approach to soft power should focus on culture, not politics. I hope this changes. The development of soft power need not be a zero-sum game. If Chinese soft power increases in the U.S. and vice versa, it will help make conflict less likely.
All countries can gain from finding attraction in each others' cultures. But for China to succeed in this, its politics must unleash the talents of its civil society.
Mr. Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of "The Future of Power" (PublicAffairs, 2011).
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