China’s Soft Power Strategy

Definition of soft power

The concept of ‘soft power’ was introduced by Joseph Nye in 1990, but as a form of power, it has existed since the dawn of human history. Both hard power and soft power have contributed to the rise and fall of great powers. At the outset, we must distinguish between hard power and soft power. Hard power coincides with the classical definition of power given by Robert Dahl (1957), viz. the ability to make others do what they would otherwise not do. In such a power relation, the initial preference of an unwilling victim has to be transformed by application of one of the four means – coercion, threat of force, economic sanctions or payment of money. However, if a nation has the ability to make another nation want what it wants, i.e. the latter willingly serves the former’s interest; the power relation is called soft power. Soft power can be understood in four categories – persuasion, legitimisation, socialisation and truth-claim (Digeser 1992; Barnett and Duvall 2005; Nye 2011).
Before explaining the categories, we must clarify that certain things are misunderstood as soft power, viz. weak foreign policy, cultural products and propaganda. Soft power is an instrument of strong and assertive nations. US, UK, France, Germany, Turkey, Russia, India, China and Japan are leaders in soft power, not Peru, Greece, Egypt, Bhutan or Cambodia, although the latter also have rich civilisational heritages. Softness, unsupported by hard power, exposes a nation to foreign invasion or economic pressure. India was attractive to foreigners hundreds of years ago, but it was weak and disunited, so got enslaved. In the 19th century, China was a great civilisation; still it had to bend on its knees against the British opium traders and gunboats. However, when hard power is indiscriminately and unjustly applied, then soft power gets eroded, e.g. US invasion of Iraq, Israeli settlements in West Bank or China’s assertiveness in South China Sea.
As far as cultural products are concerned, someone may enjoy Chinese food but hate China or watch Bollywood and hate India. Anti-globalisation activists wear Nike shoes, drink Coke and use iPhones in protests against MNCs. Thus, cultural products are ineffective unless they turn into deep-rooted cultural habits or cultural obsession to wield any power.
Finally, soft power is not propaganda. During the Cold War, the communist countries allowed the screening of Hollywood films that were critical of the Vietnam War or exposed corruption in American political institutions, so that democracy and capitalism get discredited. But instead, the public admired the US for the freedom to criticise their government. Similarly, Bollywood films, 3Idiots and PK, have attracted the Chinese as the latter enjoy no right to satirise China’s customs or institutions.

Four Categories of Soft Power

Persuasion Legitimisation Socialisation Truth-claim
1. Inter-state and Tactical 1. Supra-state and Strategic 1. Trans-state and Structural 1. Post-state and Post-structural
2. Decision-making 2. Agenda setting 2. Preference framing 2. Knowledge production
3. (a) Traditional diplomacy (b) Moral-charismatic influence 3. (a) Norms (b) Institutions that are internationally recognised 3. (a) Public diplomacy (b) MNCs (c) NGOs (d) Cultural habits 3. (a) Religion (b) Universities-Think tanks (c) News-Entertainment
4. Influence the behaviour of other governments 4. Make alternative preferences appear illegitimate or unfeasible 4. Mould the preferences of other societies to suit one’s own interests 4. Control the production and distribution of truth
e.g. Vatican’s role in Cuba-US rapprochement e. g. UDHR, NPT.
UN, IMF-World Bank, NATO, EU, G7, WTO
e.g. Ford Foundation, Greenpeace, Coke, McDonald’s, Olympics e.g. Christianity, Oxbridge, Ivy League, Hollywood, Pop music

Persuasion: Foreign governments can be convinced to adopt certain policies or positions through traditional diplomacy and moral or charismatic influence. It is possible only when lot of goodwill prevails between the involved actors. For instance, recently, the Vatican prevailed upon the United States and Cuba to exchange diplomatic missions after half a century of hostilities. In recent times, charismatic leaders like Nelson Mandela and Hugo Chavez used to enjoy lot of influence in their respective continents. But more often persuasion involves the backing of hard power.
Legitimisation: After the World War II, under the leadership of the United States, several international norms and institutions were established that have made any action in contravention appear illegitimate or unfeasible. Human rights and nuclear non-proliferation have been two norms, which if violated, could lead to economic sanctions and even military invasion, despite the legal sovereignty of a nation. Only if a nation has sufficient hard power, it can resist the dominance of norms and institutions and even forge together alternative platforms. China successfully resisted international sanctions after the Tiananmen Square Massacre (1989), India after the Pokhran II nuclear explosions (1998) and Russia after the annexation of Crimea (2014). They have also formed institutions like BRICS to resist American dominance.
Socialisation: Power can be more effective when a nation has the capacity to mould the preferences of prominent individuals, communities and public opinion within other nations to suit its own interests. Resourceful countries invest heavily in public diplomacy initiatives like funding foreign scholars and field studies abroad, e.g. Ford Foundation and Fulbright Program grants and organising sports, entertainment and business events, e.g. Olympics, Cannes Film Festival and World Expo. The non-governmental institutions also influence public opinion through advertisements and campaigns for moral causes, e.g. Greenpeace. Moreover, through consumption of foreign products, a public becomes gradually habituated to them and they become an integral part of the society; for instance, the recent ban on Maggi produced panic among the Indian middle class, especially students.
Truth-claim: The control over the production and distribution of knowledge has been the most powerful tool of hegemony throughout history. For thousands of years, religion has claimed access to metaphysical truths that are inaccessible to the ignorant masses. Elaborate doctrines and rituals have been developed to preserve its pre-eminent status as the only path to the Absolute Truth. Then, individual thinkers during the Enlightenment challenged the dominance of religion and pioneered secular sciences, theories and ideologies and that knowledge is preserved, distributed and updated in contemporary universities and think tanks. Eventually, since the 20th century, news and entertainment have become the most popular media of dissemination of new ideas. Newspapers, cinema, television and now internet are the main sources of public information. A nation that controls religion, education and research and mass media has the power to determine the truth, i.e. the way we think and thus determine the course of history.

China’s Grand Narrative

The above discussion directly pertains to the strategic thinking within China. The Communist Party-state, unlike democracies where mandate of the people is the source of legitimacy, is based on claim to uphold the truth. Indeed, since ancient times, every dynasty or party ruling China has claimed to represent the Mandate of Heaven. The grand narrative is that China was once great, there was peace and prosperity in the realm, then the Europeans and the Japanese came with gunboats and ruthless mercantilism and pushed China into a Century of Humiliation. After tremendous sacrifice China achieved liberation under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist Party and from 1978, China has been on the path to regain its status of the greatest power on earth. Of course, there are many inconvenient facts that are pushed under the rug in the grand narrative, for instance, the genocides committed by Mao or the persecution of minorities like Tibetans, Uyghurs and practitioners of Falun Gong.



1. Civilisational greatness (4000 years)
·         Middle Kingdom – peace and harmony, instead of hegemony
·         Zheng He’s voyages – trade and diplomacy, instead of colonialism
·         Confucian philosophy – rationalism and benevolence, instead of superstition and genocide
2. Century of humiliation (1839-1949)
·         Europeans and Japanese used opium, gunboats, racism and war to harass and loot China
3. The liberation of China by the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong in 1949.
4. Since 1978, reform and opening – 37 years of peaceful economic development, good neighbourliness and multilateralism
1. Mao’s genocides
2. Support to communist and ethnic insurgencies abroad
3. Chinese invasions of India (1962) and Vietnam (1979)
4. 3Ts – Taiwanese independence, Tibetan resistance and Tiananmen Square Massacre (1989)
5. 3 Evils – Dalai Lama, Chen Shui-bian (2000-08) and East Turkestan Independence Movement
6. Suppression of alternative truth-claims – Falun Gong, liberalism, Christianity, Islam, etc.
7. No democracy or  human rights

The narrative identifies two threats to the domestic legitimacy of the Communist Party, by implication to the rise of China, firstly, democratic revolution, i.e. scenarios like the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests or the recent Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and secondly, alternative truth-claims like liberalism, Falun Gong, Islam or Christianity, as these ideologies and cults also have their own exclusive grand narratives. In the international sphere, China is concerned about two IR theories – threat theory and collapse theory. The threat theory compares China to pre-World War I Germany and states that a rising China would be a danger to regional stability, as it would want to destabilise the hegemonic peace enforced by the US in the Asia-Pacific and seek its own dominance in the region. The other, collapse theory states that China’s rise is unsustainable as it lacks vibrant features of democracy and capitalism, personal freedom, rule of law and property rights that provide stability to the Western countries and so, China would eventually fall apart like the Soviet Union. To counter these threats to its domestic legitimacy and international image, the Party-state projects its achievements of liberation and economic development and its commitment to peace, harmony, trade, diplomacy, benevolence and rationalism in the world.

The Comprehensive Strategy

China like other countries conducts traditional diplomacy of bilateral and multilateral summits. Its negotiators are reputed to bargain very hard, quite often in a bureaucratic and mechanical way that involves threats or give and take, rather than gentle persuasion. However, there has been substantial attempt in the last decade or so to introduce more human emotions and display of camaraderie in summit meetings. Another important change has been the new confidence in working within a multilateral format that was completely lacking two decades ago. But perhaps, the most dramatic innovation by the current administration has been to introduce the charm and informality of the First Lady to diplomacy. Peng Liyuan used to be a popular military singer. She is photogenic and fashionable. She is an important asset to soften up China’s image abroad and also generate a feeling of pride at home.
China has held two norms paramount in its international diplomacy – first, one China policy, i.e. there is only one China, the Communist China and Taiwan is a province that will eventually be reunified and second, no foreign country should interfere in the domestic affairs of another country, an effective counter to the export of democracy and human rights agenda of the US. Both the positions have been quite successful. In 1971, major countries like the United States, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Australia had voted against China’s membership of the United Nation. As of today, except 22 tiny countries, mostly in Central America and the Pacific, every nation recognises the People’s Republic of China and its one China policy. Initially, China’s strategy was to join existing international organisations like the United Nations in 1971 and the World Trade Organization in 2001 as China wanted to be recognised as a mainstream nation. Now, it is pursuing a rigorous policy of establishing alternative organisations to counter American hegemony. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a counterpart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and BRICS of the G7. But nothing can compare to the establishment of two banks in 2015 – New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, challenging the dominance of the Bretton Woods institutions and the Asian Development Bank. These banks will be big game-changers along with ambitious projects like One Belt One Road and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The paramount leader of China from 1978, Deng Xiaoping had advised his successors ‘to keep a low profile’ or ‘hide your capabilities, bide your time’. They had followed his advice, but by 2008, they felt that China’s moment had arrived. China launched two mega-events that showcased its history, culture, wealth, technological and physical prowess – Beijing Olympics (2008) and Shanghai World Expo (2010). There is no doubt that China’s engagement with the world has been successful, we can see that from the rising number of tourists visiting China and also the number of Chinese travelling abroad. China’s traditional culture already has lot of consumers worldwide, whether it is China towns in Western metropolis, Chinese food, Feng Shui, Acupuncture or Shaolin Kung Fu. However, China has been weak in contemporary icons and brands. Only Huawei mobile phone and Alibaba e-retailing brands have global name recognition. However, the founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma has really turned into something of an international phenomenon.
I had recounted earlier the importance of production and distribution of knowledge to soft power. China has a comprehensive strategy to control the three things that control the human mind – religion, education and media. In the last decade, the Communist Party has tried to revive Confucianism to stop the excesses of wealth accumulation. Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, is the holiest place for the Chinese and it is receiving more and more visitors. The Hu Jintao administration was so obsessed with Confucius that in 2011, it set up a statue of Confucius at the Tiananmen Square opposite the huge portrait of Mao Zedong. But after warnings by Maoist ideologues, the statue disappeared overnight.
China believes that it can benefit from the soft power of Buddhism, so it holds World Buddhist Forum every three years. The fourth Forum took place in October 2015 at Wuxi, Jiangsu province. But China has an irritant in the form of the 14th Dalai Lama. So, it is undermining his authority by propping up an 11th Panchen Lama appointed by the Party-state, while the boy appointed by Dalai Lama as the real Panchen Lama has been in Chinese custody for a couple of decades, with no knowledge of his whereabouts or well-being. China has even passed an administrative order regulating the reincarnation of lamas in their territory and there are now thousands of China approved lamas who have reincarnated in Tibet. China also supports the worship of Dorje Shugden, who was declared an evil spirit by the Dalai Lama and so, the worshippers of the spirit despise the Dalai Lama. The religious minorities like the Falun Gong that are incompatible with the one official truth are out rightly banned and its followers persecuted. The conservative Muslims and Christian evangelists are also supressed.
In education, Confucius Institutes are the biggest project to teach Chinese language, culture and official version of history to foreigners, in foreign university campuses. There is a massive concentration of Confucius Institutes in the United States and Western Europe. Another huge project is the partnership between the University of Washington and Tsinghua University to set up a Global Innovation Exchange in the Silicon Valley. It will be the first university established in collaboration with China outside of China. Meanwhile, both the Chinese students studying abroad and foreign students in China are increasing. The US has been the preferred destination for more than 300,000 Chinese students this year. The number of scientific research papers and patent applications continue to rise in China, but there is a question mark over their originality and quality.
Chinese film and music industry continues to grow, but there are serious issues about music piracy and lack of foreign audience for Chinese films. However, Chinese investors have now set their eyes upon Hollywood, which is welcoming of investment required for its no cost spared type of epic productions. With Chinese investments in Hollywood productions, the narratives will naturally portray China in a more complementary light. Besides films, China has also invested heavily in international news-entertainment business. The big four companies are China Central Television, China Radio International, Xinhua News Agency and China Daily newspaper.
On the one hand, China wants to enter the international media business; on the other, it prohibits and censors news coming from foreign media outlets. It maintains an internet blockade of many popular Western social media outlets, which is termed as the Great Firewall of China. It has two advantages – first, it prevents alternative and subversive narratives from entering the discourse in China and second, Chinese companies can build their own social networks and thus profit from the huge market.

  1. China needs soft power for both domestic legitimacy and international image.
  2. China has both offensive and defensive soft power strategies.
  3. Although having many inherent deficiencies, China continues to innovate and find new ways to play the soft power game.

Barnett, Michael and Duvall, Raymond (2005), “Power in global governance” in Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall (eds.) Power in Global Governance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dahl, Robert A. (1957), “The Concept of Power”, Behavioural Science, 2 (3): 201-215.
Digeser, Peter (1992), “The Fourth Face of Power”, The Journal of Politics, 54 (4): 977-1007.
Nye, Joseph S., Jr. (1990), “Soft Power”, Foreign Policy, (80): 153-171.
—- (2011), The Future of Power, New York: PublicAffairs.

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