Analysis & Opinions - Real Clear World

Soft Power and Beijing Olympics

| August 24, 2008

As the flags are lowered over the 2008 Olympic games, China is basking in the achievement of a major objective — an increase of its soft power. Not only in terms of gold medals won by Chinese athletes, but by the successful staging of the Games, China hopes to have advanced its prestige and attraction to other countries.

Power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes you want. One can affect their behavior in three main ways: threats of coercion (“sticks”); inducements or payments (“carrots”) and attraction that makes others want what you want. A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries want to follow it, admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness.

“Soft power” has now entered China’s official language.

In his keynote speech to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Oct. 15, 2007, President Hu Jintao stated that the CPC must "enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country to better guarantee the people's basic cultural rights and interests." Hu recognized in that speech that "culture has become a more and more important source of national cohesion and creativity and a factor of growing significance in the competition in overall national strength.”

China has always had an attractive traditional culture, but now it is entering the realm of global popular culture as well.

Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian won China’s first Nobel prize for literature, and the Chinese film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” became the highest grossing non-English-language film. Yao Ming, the Chinese star of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, could become another Michael Jordan, and while China lost to the U.S. in basketball, Yao was one of the stars of the Beijing Olympics.

The enrollment of foreign students in China has tripled from 36,000 to 110,000 over the past decade, and the number of foreign tourists has also increased dramatically to 17 million per year even before the Olympics. In addition, China has created some 200 Confucius Institutes around the world to teach its language and culture, and while the Voice of America was cutting its Chinese broadcasts from 19 to 14 hours a day, China Radio International was increasing its broadcasts in English to 24 hours a day.

But just as China’s economic and military power does not yet match that of the United States', China’s soft power still has a long way to go.

China does not have cultural industries like Hollywood, and its universities are not yet the equal of America’s. It lacks the many non-governmental organizations that generate much of America’s soft power. Politically, China suffers from corruption, inequality, and a lack of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. While that may make Beijing attractive in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian developing countries, it undercuts China’s soft power in the West.

Given the domestic problems that China must still overcome, there are limits to China’s ability to attract others, but one would be foolish to ignore the gains it is making. The Beijing Olympics were an important part of China’s strategy to increase its soft power.

However, the Chinese government did not achieve all its objectives. It did not live up to its promises to allow peaceful demonstrations and free internet access, and the world press attending the Olympic games caught glimpses of the limits on freedom that undercut Chinese soft power.

Even though polls show an increase in the attractiveness of China in recent years, it will take more than a successful Olympics to overcome the self-imposed limits on Chinese soft power. For example, a recent Pew poll shows that despite China’s efforts to increase its soft power, the United States remains dominant in all soft power categories. The Chinese may have excelled in gold medals, but the 2008 Olympic Games did not turn the tables on the United States in the realm of soft power.

Joseph S. Nye is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and author most recently of "The Powers to Lead."

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S..“Soft Power and Beijing Olympics.” Real Clear World, August 24, 2008.