Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

China's Soft and Sharp Power

| Jan. 04, 2018

China has invested billions of dollars to increase its soft power, but it has recently suffered a backlash in democratic countries. A new report by the National Endowment for Democracy argues that we need to re-think soft power, because “the conceptual vocabulary that has been used since the Cold War’s end no longer seems adequate to the contemporary situation.”

The report describes the new authoritarian influences being felt around the world as “sharp power.” A recent cover article in The Economist defines “sharp power” by its reliance on “subversion, bullying and pressure, which combine to promote self-censorship.” Whereas soft power harnesses the allure of culture and values to augment a country’s strength, sharp power helps authoritarian regimes compel behavior at home and manipulate opinion abroad.

The term “soft power” – the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than the hard power of coercion and payment – is sometimes used to describe any exercise of power that does not involve the use of force. But that is a mistake. Power sometimes depends on whose army or economy wins, but it can also depend on whose story wins.

A strong narrative is a source of power. China’s economic success has generated both hard and soft power, but within limits. A Chinese economic aid package under the Belt and Road Initiative may appear benign and attractive, but not if the terms turn sour, as was recently the case in a Sri Lankan port project.

Likewise, other exercises of economic hard power undercut the soft power of China’s narrative. For example, China punished Norway for awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. It also threatened to restrict access to the Chinese market for an Australian publisher of a book critical of China.

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For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S.“China's Soft and Sharp Power.” Project Syndicate, January 4, 2018.