China’s Soft Sell: Is the World Buying?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 2

The People’s Republic of China has been long fixated on the elements of hard power, particularly on assessing how China stacks up against other states in economic and military terms. This fixation has manifested itself as an obsession in Beijing with the concept of Comprehensive National Power (CNP)—a quantitative indicator of a country’s power based upon a confluence of its military, economic and social factors—and calculating China’s position in a global ranking. More recently, Beijing has become increasingly conscious of the value of soft power, leveraging this to China’s benefit. Of course, twenty-first century China is certainly no newcomer to the use of soft power—the Middle Kingdom has been in the business of soft power projection for millennia. Since the 1990s, however, Beijing has launched an unprecedented global soft power initiative, and much is being made of its putative abilities. Both Chinese analysts and outside observers have done considerable talking and writing on the topic (China Brief, December 6, 2006). Yet, how significant has this exercise in soft power been, and how is China flexing its soft power “muscles”? Moreover, how effective is Beijing’s initiative, and to what ends is this effort being directed?

Going Global Softly

Observers are prone to overstate the extent of Beijing’s efforts and exaggerate China’s effectiveness with dire warnings to the United States. Others have pointed out the challenges and limits to China’s soft power efforts and that the results remain unclear [1]. The reality, however, lies in between these two assessments. While Beijing has been quite successful at utilizing its culture and policies/diplomacy since the 1990s, it has been less so at promoting its values around the world.

It may be useful to think of states as having two methods of flexing soft power muscles: via “out-reach” and through what might be called “in-reach.” A state can project soft power abroad or it can serve as a magnet and draw in outsiders. Traditionally, the Middle Kingdom’s practice of soft power has been of the latter variety; indeed, dynastic China excelled at welcoming foreign guests to the earthly address of the Son of Heaven. Through the “tribute system,” the Chinese emperor received delegations of dignitaries from far-off lands bearing gifts. Scholars tend to emphasize either the way this nurtured a “Middle Kingdom Complex” of Chinese superiority or how this system provided a useful architecture for the practice of foreign relations and economic intercourse between the preeminent power, China, and its tributary states, those around China’s periphery.

But this architecture also served another function: it provided China with a way to exercise its soft power by permitting honored foreign guests to make pilgrimages to the center of the civilized world. In the imperial capital, they were surrounded by all the glories of Chinese civilization and the refinements of its culture. At the end of their usually extended stay, these guests departed with, at the very least, a greater appreciation for the wonders of the Middle Kingdom and the benefits of participating in the Sino-centric world order. Moreover, many probably came away overwhelmed by what they had witnessed and experienced and were persuaded that China possessed a superior civilization and political system.

Soft Power In-reach

Indeed, this is what China does best—flex its in-reach soft power muscles. Beijing has had thousands of years of extensive practice in the wooing and overawing of foreign guests. Moreover, the country possesses a vast array of “cultural capital”—the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and, since the 1970s, the tomb of Qin Shihuang. In addition, cultural artifacts such as ceramics, calligraphy and martial arts are widely exhibited and China’s varied and often exotic cuisine is ubiquitous. The exercise of soft power in-reach is not considerably difficult because China’s cultural icons require no embellishment, hype or financial investment. All these aspects already enjoy global renown and awe, and foreign visitors arrive full of excitement and anticipation. China’s aura of soft power holds sway over all guests regardless of background. Even veteran practitioners of hard power politics, such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, have been reduced to giddiness, on occasion, by the wonders of China [2].

Moreover, China has not only been engaged in bilateral soft power in-reach in recent years, but also consciously expanded the scope of its in-reach to include multilateral arenas. China has ramped up the scope and pace of its hosting of foreign leaders and conferences both qualitatively and quantitatively. Recent examples include the November 2006 hosting of a summit for some 1,700 official delegates from 48 African countries. The event was filled with plenty of exquisite ceremonies and banquets and reportedly netted China sixteen trade and investment deals worth a total estimated value of $1.9 billion (Ghanaweb, November 5, 2006). This forum was sandwiched between the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held in June and a long delayed session of the fourth round of the Six Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue held in December. Both the SCO and the Six Party Talks were initiated and organized by China and each represents a new commitment to what Beijing calls “collective security mechanisms” [3]. While the Six Party Talks have yet to achieve a tangible breakthrough, they have continued largely due to the dogged persistence of Beijing. By contrast, the SCO is gradually evolving as a multilateral institution with a growing infrastructure and expanding participation. The 2006 summit, held in Shanghai, included for the first time the presidents of Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan, along with India’s minister of petroleum and natural gas, as observers. In addition, the presidents of all six member states—China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—attended.

A Softer PLA?

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also become more active in the practice of soft power diplomacy. Attention has tended to focus on the volume of exchanges as well as bilateral and multilateral exercises [4]. Yet, there have been other innovations, including an annual course for foreign officers and defense officials at China’s National Defense University. The PLA is also now engaged in the business of hosting international seminars and symposia designed to project the country’s soft power. In 2006, these included the latest iteration in a series of international conferences on Sun Zi’s Art of War held last May in the picturesque city of Hangzhou and an international forum to examine the security environment of the Asia-Pacific held in October in Beijing. Both events were hosted by the China Association for Military Science, which is closely affiliated with the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences. The goal of the former is to promote the study of Sun Zi both within China and globally, while the latter was to articulate China’s policies and official messages to representatives of foreign and defense policy think tanks from around the world.

Soft Power Out-reach

China’s discovery of the out-reach variety of soft power has been a revelation of the post-Cold War era. When China was the undisputed center of the world, there was no need to contemplate exporting its soft power. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, however, with the world dominated by a sole superpower enjoying a preponderance of both hard and soft power, Beijing has recognized the importance of actively projecting its soft power beyond its borders. In the late 1990s, China began to devote its resources toward the pursuit of such a global strategy in a coordinated fashion [5]. Of late, Beijing has consciously pursued trade, investment and diplomacy beyond Asia, Europe and North America. In the past decade, Chinese companies have traded with and invested in countries across Africa and Latin America.

Some of this soft power out-reach emerged in earlier decades, simply taking advantage of emerging targets of opportunity, in a diplomatic offensive directed against Taiwan. The world has long been enamored with China’s giant pandas, and for decades Beijing has been exporting these animals officially on long-term loans to zoos around the world. While this has certainly been a financially lucrative proposition—zoos have paid handsomely for the privilege of temporarily exhibiting these animals of mass appeal—they have also served as enormously effective instruments of soft power projection. In the 1980s, through such “panda diplomacy,” Beijing shrewdly targeted countries that were in Taipei’s diplomatic orbit, convincing them to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and to recognize the “real” China. Beijing has since expanded the scope of its panda diplomacy and has begun targeting even Taiwan itself (Taipei Times, January 7, 2006).

While China has always been rich in human capital—talented individuals—Beijing has historically viewed these assets as national treasures to be protected and secured within China’s borders. This has recently changed, however, most noticeably in the field of professional sports. China now possesses world-class athletes who are in global demand, and Beijing is more than prepared to export them (albeit with strings attached). The highest profile athlete is undoubtedly National Basketball Association (NBA) sensation Yao Ming, but there are others, including soccer star Sun Jihai who plays for Manchester City in England’s Premiership.

During Hu Jintao’s leadership tenure, Beijing has placed greater emphasis on cultural exchanges. Addressing the Australian Parliament in October 2003, China’s president expressed a willingness “to step up cultural exchanges with the rest of the world” [6].

China has permitted cultural artifacts to go on traveling exhibits to museums around the world, including terra cotta figures from the tomb of the Emperor Qin Shihuang. In 2005, Beijing also permitted select treasures from the Forbidden City to be displayed in London, the opening of which was timed to coincide with the state visit of President Hu Jintao. Upon his arrival, President Hu and Prime Minister Tony Blair cut the ribbon together, formally opening the exhibit (The Economist, November 5, 2005). These loaned artifacts have exposed millions of people to Chinese culture. More recently, Beijing has funded the establishment of Confucius Institutes—a global network of organizations that offer classes on Chinese language and culture. The first two institutes were established in Seoul, Korea, and in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, in 2004. According to Zhao Guocheng of China’s Ministry of Education, there are approximately 120 institutes in more than 50 countries on five continents (South China Morning Post, November 14, 2006). These institutes are undoubtedly intended to project a positive image of the mother country and advance its foreign policy goals.

Particularly since the 1990s, Beijing has also launched a major effort to publicize and explain Chinese government policies through a set of white papers on a broad spectrum of issues including human rights, Africa, Taiwan and democracy in China. To counter concerns about its on-going military modernization effort, Beijing has taken to publishing biannual defense white papers to describe and explain what China is doing; the most recent defense white paper was published in December 2006. This effort has projected the image of a country that is supposedly more confident, open and transparent.

Successful Soft Sell?

Returning to the question posed at the outset of this essay, one finds that Beijing has made successful headway in its vigorous projection of soft power. In addition to effectively capitalizing upon its cultural capital, China’s leaders have become globetrotting emissaries who regularly travel throughout the world to sustain bilateral relations and represent China at an array of multilateral fora. Yet, China remains deficient in the spread of its values, the third element of a state’s composite soft power. China remains a model of governance and development only for third world dictators who seek a vibrant and market-oriented economy with consistently high rates of growth while managing to remain autocratic and politically repressive.

While Beijing’s efforts are extremely ambitious, global in scope and unprecedented in China’s history, they nevertheless fall short of the pervasive soft power of the United States. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to dismiss the effectiveness of Chinese soft power based upon such a metric. Rather, the best measure of the impact of China’s soft power “out-reach” and “in-reach” is the extent to which these efforts have contributed to the success of Beijing’s core foreign policy goals. According to Beijing’s December 2006 defense white paper, a central goal is to build “a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity” especially in China’s immediate neighborhood. As of early 2007, it is remarkable that China enjoys good relations with virtually every country around its periphery, including Japan and India. The white paper opines: “The overall security environment in the Asia-Pacific region remains stable” and “China’s overall security environment remains sound.” Judged according to these criteria, China’s soft power efforts to date have been qualified successes: there is no military conflict in China’s neighborhood—save the on-going coalition operations in Afghanistan—and China enjoys good relations with all countries on its periphery as well as with the United States. Opinion polls in countries around the world confirm these sentiments and reveal that most people tend to hold favorable views of China. Given these accomplishments, Beijing’s soft power effort should be considered a success—albeit a work in progress.


1. See, for example, Joshua Kurlantzick, “China’s Charm: Implications of China’s Soft Power,” Policy Brief no. 47 (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2006) and Bates Gill and Yanzhong Huang, “Sources and Limits of Chinese ‘Soft Power’,” Survival Vol. 4, no. 2 (Summer 2006), p. 17-36.

2. Indeed, Kissinger and Brzezinski, both seasoned practitioners of realpolitik diplomacy, confess in their respective memoirs to feelings of “exhilaration” when engaged in talks with senior Chinese leaders in Beijing. Henry Kissinger, White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979), p. 1056; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Advisor, 1977-1891 (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983), p. 213.

3. China National Defense in 2006 (Beijing: State Council Information Office, December 2006).

4. For a list of recent exchanges and exercises, see ibid.

5. See, for example, Pang Zhongying, “Connotations of China’s Soft Power,” Liaowang no. 45 November 7, 2005.

6. The full text of the speech can be found at