Analysis & Opinions - The Hill

America Still Retains a Soft Power Advantage over China

| May 22, 2024

In 2007, President Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China needed to increase its soft power — the ability to influence others by attraction rather than coercion or payment. The Chinese government has spent tens of billions of dollars to that end, but with mixed results. 

Some years ago, the Chinese foreign minister invited me to a private dinner to ask my opinion on how China could increase its soft power. I told him that China faced two major obstacles that would be difficult to overcome. First, it faced territorial disputes with a number of its Asian neighbors. Placing a Confucius Institute in New Delhi or Manila to draw attraction to Chinese culture does not work well if Chinese soldiers are killing Indian soldiers on the Himalayan border or Chinese ships are harassing Philippine boats in the South China Sea.

China's second problem is its insistence on tight Communist Party control over all organizations and opinions in its civil society. When a brilliant artist like Ai Weiwei is exiled and human rights lawyers are jailed, it reduces the attraction of China in democratic countries like Europe and the United States.

This is unlikely to change under the presidency of Xi Jinping, whom former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd describes as a "Marxist nationalist." Xi believes in the "scientific laws of Marxism" and restoring the glory of ancient China. On a visit to Beijing last month, I was told that the government was tightening its control on what citizens could say or do, and that the security bureaucracies were increasing their domination over the economic bureaucracies.

These problems are confirmed by recent public opinion polls asking citizens of other countries which foreign countries they find attractive. Pew surveyed 24 counties last November and reported that majorities in most countries found the U.S. more attractive than China, with Africa the only continent where the results were close. More recently, Gallup found that the U.S. enjoyed an advantage in 81 out of 133 countries that it surveyed, while China had an advantage in 52....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“America Still Retains a Soft Power Advantage over China.” The Hill, May 22, 2024.