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Commentary: The Complexity of China’s Soft Power
BY :BRAD WILLIAMS
JULY 21, 2015
Considerable ink has been spilled by scholars and pundits debating the merits and dangers of China’s rise. An equally ubiquitous issue is China’s soft power.
Of course, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive: Chinese state actors often make appeals to soft power as a means of allaying regional anxieties over the country’s growing economic and military power. But how much soft power does China possess, and over whom is it wielded?
Soft power is a slippery concept and is often incorrectly applied to everything outside the military and security realm. Thus, when everything is soft power, nothing is. Joseph Nye first coined soft power, defining it as “the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes.”
It is the ability, as Nye suggested, to get what you want without having to resort to coercion, threats, payments or sanctions. Put differently, it is the power of the example; having others seek to emulate you and pursue your goals.
To better grasp soft power, it is useful to disaggregate the concept, following the example of Gregory Holyk.
Let’s begin with political soft power. China’s political attraction is virtually zero. While China’s increasingly authoritarian political system might be the envy of some Third World demagogues, many in the West find it repugnant. The criminal charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” which is often used against activists and government critics, seems better suited to a Monty Python skit than as a legal measure of an aspiring superpower.
China’s “model” of authoritarian capitalism is also not so unique, having been tried to varying degrees of success in East Asia for decades. The Chinese government has been successful in engineering high and sustained growth, which has helped to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty -- a truly laudable achievement that has triggered keen interest from economists and management specialists around the world, much like Japan before the bursting of its bubble economy in the early 1990s.
This growth, however, has come at enormous cost, resulting in a yawning gap between the rich and poor -- difficult to explain away even in a nominally “socialist” state -- chronic environmental degradation and endemic corruption. These problems, the last of which is partly the byproduct of a political system that lacks an independent judiciary and where the rule of law is not deep-rooted, are hardly an object of envy.
Externally, China’s investment practices in Africa have led to accusations of European-style neo-colonialism, which as a colleague, Sean Kenji Starrs reminds me, is a charge dripping in irony given China’s support for many anti-colonial struggles in the 1950s and 60s.
These criticisms lead us to China’s diplomatic soft power. Cognizant of the need to reassure neighbors apprehensive at its rising power, China’s foreign and security policies during the early reform period were informed by Deng Xiaoping’s axiom of “keeping a low profile and hiding one’s brightness.”
This circumscribed policy is no longer in vogue as China now seems increasingly willing and able to illuminate brightly the Asia Pacific and beyond. China’s growing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas has many countries in the region worried, leading them to balance the threat from Beijing by seeking closer military cooperation with the United States.
China’s forceful assertions of historical rights over disputed “features” in distant waters through which, as Philip Bowring argues, seafaring merchants from Southeast Asia and elsewhere plied their trade long before the arrival of Chinese vessels, often have an Orwellian tone and appear straight out of the North Korean playbook of public diplomacy.
Concerns over China’s behavior in territorial disputes, however, have not prevented many countries from clambering aboard the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which along with the BRICS Bank, represent a clear challenge to the Western and Japanese-dominated global financial order.
Speaking of clambering aboard, China represents the largest source of international students, with over 450,000 mainlanders venturing overseas to learn in 2014. Chinese students abroad are able to immerse themselves in a foreign language (mostly English) and, more importantly, develop critical thinking skills crucial for a knowledge-based economy.
It is difficult to develop these skills in a rigid education system that is returning to the past by promoting Marxist doctrine on university campuses, and banning texts and denouncing professors for being too pro-Western (and by default liberal).
Still, this is not to say that China is devoid of human capital soft power. Shanghai's 15-year-old students have topped global exams in reading, science and maths in the past, which even taking into consideration problems associated with the representativeness of the Chinese sample, still sees Shanghai’s schools outperforming many foreign counterparts.
Moreover, China has emerged as the third most popular destination for higher education after the United States and the United Kingdom and the country’s diverse international student body is expected to top 500,000 in the next few years, according to Allan Goodman, an international education expert.
Most of these students, of course, study in (Mandarin) Chinese, which is rapidly increasing in popularity as a foreign language around the world. Many hope proficiency in Putonghua will help them establish careers in China and elsewhere linked to the country’s still growing albeit slowing economy.
Foreign students seeking post-graduation jobs in China are now joined in the domestic job market by the increasing number of Chinese returning home after completing their education abroad. Thus reports of the growing exodus of wealthy Chinese and their fortunes for foreign lands must be balanced by this reality.
What this partial snapshot highlights, of course, is that China’s soft power, like many countries, contains a complex mix of elements that different actors seek either to emulate or avoid. By way of a conclusion, perhaps, a little “soft”!
Brad Williams is an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong.