5 Obstacles to Chinese Soft Power

5 Obstacles to Chinese Soft Power


I will introduce the concept of cultural soft power and discuss the consensus on what China’s soft power aims are. Then, I answer the question: Why have China’s cultural soft power initiatives had trouble gaining traction across much of the world?

I will then compare the various arguments for legitimacy. 

Finally, I will provide a prescription for how China can better address the problem of cultural soft power. 


Understanding Chinese vs. American Cultural Soft Power

Before proceeding, I want to briefly define “cultural soft power.” Joseph Nye’s classic explanation of soft power reads like this: "A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them."[1]Soft power can manifest itself in many ways: economic, social, cultural etc. I define “cultural soft power” as that which relates to channels in which the country promotes itself through cultural symbols: film, tv shows, literature, music, sporting events, brands etc.  

Now I think it is also necessary to differentiate the practical goals of American and Chinese soft power. There is an important distinction between the two. Often “soft power” is viewed through the lens of the classic American example. Because of this, there are many scholars that argue that China simply doesn’t care about or doesn’t need cultural soft power because, unlike the US, it doesn’t want to force its way of life on other societies.[2]This is not the full story. In my estimation, it is a mistake to conflate the pursuit of soft power with the pursuit of hegemonic influence or coercive conversion to one’s way of life. The American case and the Chinese case are different and have to be treated as such. The spread of democracy and democratic capitalism have been the primary goals of American foreign policy[3]The more countries that adopt the democratic capitalist model, the better it is for the US, in terms of both security and economy. Therefore, “converting” countries to the “American way” has been a natural goal of American hegemony—and one that has failed on many spectacular occasions. But, also, one that has been successful more often than not. According to Max Roser, there were 9 liberal democratic countries in 1943. In 2010 that number was 87.[4]Other sources measure an even higher number. The influence of America and the West on this number cannot be denied.  

But, it is not China’s mission to spread Chinese cultural values across the world—at least not to the extent of the US. It is not China’s mission that every country will embrace “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” But, still, China does need cultural soft power—perhaps even more so than the US—because it needs to be likedand understood. Cultural soft power is a nation’s public relations. This, it appears, is the driving force behind China’s soft power initiative. Whereas the United States’ soft power efforts have been about getting other countries to be likethe US, China’s soft power campaign is more about getting other countries to likeChina.


Understanding Soft Power’s Importance to China 

In 2007 Chairman Hu Jintao said, at the 17thPeople’s Congress: The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture… We must enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country… We will further publicize the fine traditions of Chinese culture and strengthen international cultural exchanges to enhance the influence of Chinese culture worldwide”[5]Xi Jinping echoed this sentiment at the 18thPeople’s Congress in 2014: “We should increase China's soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China's messages to the world.”[6]


It is estimated that China spends $10 Billion a year promoting “public diplomacy” ie cultural soft power.[7]


Clearly, the Chinese government has devoted a great deal of time and resources in the direction of cultural soft power. This is not an American style soft power aimed at cultural coercion. It is one aimed at getting the rest of the world to understand and like China. Yet, by most accounts it is not really working. We see that the countries who view China most favorably tend to be those it has helped economically.[8]Modern Chinese culture is relatively absent outside of China. Professor Stanley Rosen of USC: “Chinese soft power has not been that successful outside of the developing world.”[9]


Consider some of China’s favorability numbers. In 2018, 42% of Europeans had favorable views on China, according to Pew. That number was 38% for the USA. However, 67% of Kenyans and 61% of Nigerians held China in a favorable regard. It should be noted, however, that in 2014, 77% of Kenyans and 78% of Nigerians viewed China favorably. See Chart below:

屏幕快照 2019-02-05 下午6.21.25.png


            Today, the perception of China can be described using its products as a metaphor. Many things are made in China. The world knows that China is deeply important in most facets of global society. But, like the Chinese products that the world consumes, China doesn’t really have a brand.



1: Too Much Government Interference 


            One of the arguments as to why the Chinese soft power offensive has not been overly successful is that it is not organic. As noted in The Economist, the Chinese Communist Party has not bought into the idea that soft power springs largely from individuals, the private sector, and civil society. Instead, it has clung to the view that the government is the main source of soft power, promoting ancient cultural icons that it thinks might have global appeal, often using the tools of propaganda.[10]Joseph Nye argues that “as long as China fans the flames of Nationalism and holds tight the reins of party control, its soft power will always remain limited.[11]


            This common criticism is essentially framed in two ways. First: government interference directlyrestrictscreativity. This seems to be partly true, but less true as time goes by. One recent example that does support this theory is the government’s ban on hip-hop culture.[12]Chinese hip-hop had begun to gain a following, however small, abroad.[13]Yet, many popular groups were banned from the Chinese internet in 2017 and excoriated by state-media as being vulgar and unseemly. Many foreign stars have at times been banned from even entering China due to comments perceived as critical by the government, mostly involving Tibet.[14]Yet, there are more and more examples of media that are both of relatively high production value and even advance some criticisms of Chinese society—consider 我不是药神(Dying to Survive). The film was highly successful in China and even gained some modest exposure abroad. It included no discernible nationalism and criticized greedy drug companies (and police) for gouging sick patients with high drugs costs—a clear critique of certain elements in Chinese society. 


            The second way the “government interference” argument is lodged is that the Chinese government’s actions indirectly hurt its soft power. One writer refers to this as “stepping on your own message.” Events like the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize issue serve to propagate certain global perceptions of China and often strongly overshadow and cast doubt upon other aspects of Chinese soft power. Much of this is due to the fact that it is very difficult to separate state-sponsored activity from non-state sponsored activity. Even so, a 2008 opinion poll by Ingrid d’Hooghe at Clingendael found that French and Germans each had a roughly 50% favorable view of Chinese people, however less than 30% had a positive view of China as a country.[15]This suggests that international observers make a distinction between the citizens of China and its government, with views of the government being significantly worse. The US government may severely hurt its image with foreign military aggression and, now, Donald Trump’s rhetorical aggression, but most people understand that America’s famous pop stars are a wholly separate entity from the government. Even people who despise the American government often revere other aspects of American popular culture—recall Kim Jong Un’s fascination with Dennis Rodman. 


            When consulting Chinese government sources in regard to soft power, I find two themes that are not particularly encouraging. Firstly, there is persistent call to action. There are persistent references to slogans and ambiguous exhortations. From a piece by Jiang Zhengxiang in Guangming Online’s theory section: “精心打造文化品牌战略”(We must carefully cultivate brand strategy). “着力推进形象由“他塑”变“自塑”战略(Promote the shift in strategy from “created by others” to “created by ourselves”).[16]The problem with this type of rhetoric lies in its ambiguity. Government thinkers or representatives may say that “China’s story must be told to the world,” but rarely are specifics provided. There are many voices saying that a problem exists and that the problem must be solved, but there seem to be very few providing a concrete solution.


            Secondly, in Chinese language media regarding the promotion of soft power, the concept of promoting “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” comes up repeatedly. From a piece by Kuang Yanchang: 提升我国文化软实力,在促进文化产业健康发展、推动马克思主义大众化、构建社会主义核心价值体系等方面意义重大(Promoting China’s cultural soft power is of great significance in promoting the healthy development of the ‘culture industry,’ popularizing Marxism, and building socialist value systems).[17]I do not believe that this type of rhetoric is necessarily representative of the whole Chinese establishment, but I do believe that it is counterproductive. As I will discuss later, one of the great barriers to the promotion of Chinese soft power is a wariness of insidious Chinese influence on the part of the rest of the world. Couching soft power development in such overtly political terms is unlikely to assuage these fears. To the extent that soft power is a means to a political end—which it is—the key is to first let your country’s culture serve as the attractive force. Only then—when the culture is viewed as attractive and something worth aspiring to—does consideration of political alignment gain greater endorsement. 


2: Overemphasis on Ancient Culture


            Another argument for the ineffectiveness of China’s cultural soft power is the culture itself. In Confucius institutes (孔子学院) and in Chinese culture classes for foreigners on Chinese university campuses, the culture that is often promoted is “ancient Chinese culture.”[18]This however, is not the culture that exists in China today. Professor Wei Liang explains that popularizing ancient culture abroad is a big challenge. She notes that “The fact that China has to rely on its ancient culture in its soft-power projection is an admission that it lacks an attractive contemporary culture.”[19]While it may be intriguing to a certain group of Sinophiles, promoting culture from centuries ago comes with two main problems: 1). When foreigners actually come to China to interact with its society, they will not find the culture that they have learned about. 2). It seems to imply that what wasmay be more interesting than what is


            There is perhaps a deeper issue here that is outside the parameters of this paper. However, it does beg the question, what is modern Chinese culture? This is, perhaps, the root of the problem of China’s soft power issues: China itself cannot always answer this question. 


3: Countries do not Want to Like China


            There is also the simple fact that the West and many of China’s neighbors do not wantto like China. Recently at a discussion at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center, Alexander Gabuev, a China expert, explained the near-impossibility of getting articles, however factual, that paint China in a positive light onto the pages of American newspapers.[20]In the West, China-positive or even China-neutral sentiments are difficult positions for politicians to hold.[21]This is even more true in Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, India, and Vietnam. In general, the leaders of the current world order seem to have—or at least think they have—more to lose than gain from a powerful China. In this sense, their initial approach to Chinese soft power is one of suspicion. Overcoming this willful suspicion is one of the greatest challenges facing Chinese cultural soft power. 


            In many ways this argument is connected to the above argument relating to government interference. It is not the content that is necessarily the problem, but the fact that China’s political activities occupy such an overbearing place in the minds of certain countries, that, in the absence of political reform, no amount of cultural diplomacy will be able to penetrate. Consider a Pew poll from 2018 that asked various countries whether they believed China respected its citizens personal freedoms. 

屏幕快照 2019-02-05 下午6.22.01.png


            Interestingly, chart 2 mirrors chart 1 in many respects. Countries that have favorable views of China tend to believe that China respects the personal freedoms of its citizens—the opposite is true as well. A large part of the purpose of cultural soft power is reversing the sentiments in this chart. 


            Let us also consider another chart—chart 3. Here, respondents from multiple countries were asked whether they preferred China or the US to be the world’s leading economic power. The overwhelming majority chose the US. 

屏幕快照 2019-02-05 下午6.22.13.png

      This data appears to show that, presently, it is up to China to convince the rest of the world that its intentions are benign and that it will be a positive force in international affairs. Effective utilization of cultural soft power is, again, the means by which these numbers will trend more in China’s direction. 


4: Lack of Diversity/Sociocultural Ignorance


            Another argument: there is also a commonly cited sociocultural ignorance on the part of China that may affect its global soft power. The United States, for example, is a diverse country. Its actors and pop stars and star athletes are from many different cultural backgrounds—the most famous NBA player of Chinese descent today is Jeremy Lin (林书豪), an American. America’s diversity is part of its global appeal. This is something China cannot imitate. And, at times, its attempts to do so are received very poorly. A domestic skit at the Chinese New Year’s Eve gala (春晚), likely the most watched event in all of China, featured actors in blackface and tone-deaf tropes of Africans and African culture.[22]There was also the viral video of a Chinese businessman in Kenya who made multiple racist claims about Africans.[23]Being a foreigner in China, I can attest to some of these claims. However, based on my own personal experiences, I do believe things are improving in this respect. Ignorance tends to derive from lack of exposure. And, as more foreigners spend more time in China, these incidents will probably decrease. But, for now, improper or patronizing depictions of foreigners will continue to hamper China’s international soft power. 


5: These things Take Time 


            Another argument is infrastructure. This argument is the most encouraging for China’s efforts. In this argument, it is not that China is culturally incapable of a strong soft power campaign. It is simply that it is too new to the game. Today it seems unlikely that the state-sponsored media that has worked—albeit in the absence of alternatives—in mainland China will project itself positively in the rest of the world. However, it goes without saying that China will do whatever it can to refine its tactics, perhaps even recognizing that organic cultural soft power—not the state-run variety—is the most effective kind. Hollywood has been around for a century. The American talent agencies and musical promotion machine has been around nearly as long. The major American sports leagues, universities, and, of course, large companies, are established global commodities. These initiatives do not bear fruits overnight. It is perhaps a chicken-and-egg argument. What comes first, the cultural institutions or the culture? Perhaps once China builds up more powerful cultural institutions, the rest of the world—and China itself, for that matter—will begin to better understand what modern Chinese culture really is. 


            Taken together, there are many competing explanations for the relative shortfalls in Chinese cultural soft power. Some scholars argue it is due to a restrictive creative environment, others that the perceptions of the Chinese government are currently too onerous in many countries for soft power to gain a real popular foothold. In conjunction with this line of thought is the difficulty global consumers have separating organic Chinese cultural symbols from the Chinese government—a separation that may, in fact, be impossible. There is also the argument that the culture that China is promoting is not well-suited for the 21st century. This argument also speaks to the fact that it may be hard to define what exactly modern Chinese culture is. I am of the mind that this process is still underway, as China is so new and changing so fast. Also discussed was lack of diversity and instances of cultural illiteracy. This, again, is presumably something that will improve with time. And, finally, and perhaps most compellingly, is experience. China is a new power. It has not yet had the opportunity to fully develop its culture and cultural soft power infrastructure. This will take time, it will take mistakes and refining.



             The five arguments laid out above each contribute to China’s inability to exercise cultural soft power on a level commensurate with the resources the government has put behind it. 


            As someone who has lived in China for some time and someone who studies China, I find a combination of reason two, three, and five to best explicate the issues of China’s cultural soft power. 


            China is developing rapidly. Much of this development required or resulted in the disposal of traditional culture. The Cultural Revolution is the most explicit and insidious example of this. However, this type of cultural transformation is not only common, but essentially a certainty for every globalized country. Japanese women do not wear Kimonos to work. Western Americans do not travel on horseback. In many ways, the jury is still out on what modern Chinese culture is and will be. 


            It is generally accepted that developed, affluent societies become more interested in the arts, literature, film, and other elements of cultural soft power. At present, even though the government has devoted great resources to bolster cultural soft power, the fact remains that China, as a whole, is overwhelmingly focused on becoming an affluent of “moderately prosperous” society. It’s efforts abroad, likewise, are focused on economic development.


            In this analysis, it is not that Chinese cultural soft power is being disseminated poorly, it is simply that Chinese cultural soft power isn’t mature. We are still waiting for modern Chinese culture to develop. This is why the cultural soft power initiatives that are most prevalent today—namely, Confucius institutes—are very much centered on promulgation of ancient Chinese culture—calligraphy, Confucianism, ancient history. 


            After concluding my research, I believe that the relative recency of China’s rise is the main factor behind its inability to successfully promote cultural soft power on a global scale. I do think that with time and the development of a modern Chinese culture, soft power should follow. However, government interference and global wariness (and the connection between the two) will serve to slow the process.




            At present, views on China vary greatly. Western countries and Asian neighbors/historical rivals are wary of China’s rise, particularly from a cultural influence perspective. Countries whose relative economic fortunes have increased markedly as a result of China’s rise, are much more favorable. It is in these countries that China has even made some cultural soft power inroads in addition to its economic and diplomatic soft power initiatives. Much like the economic vacuum China is filling in Africa, it is also seeking to fill a cultural vacuum. It is reasonable that China’s cultural soft power will first be successful in these regions. This will require Chinese people—not the Chinese government—to better understand the people of these regions on a deeper and more nuanced level. 


            I am writing this conclusion from Nairobi, where I am currently doing economic research. I notice there are many Chinese companies and Chinese professionals here, but from my interactions with locals, the opinion of China appears to be at best uncertain and, at worst, starkly negative. This is a result of minimal interaction between the communities that exist on the ground, but also a lack of effective soft power. However, here the views of China may be less concrete or deep-seated. There is opportunity for them to change. 


            In terms of China’s cultural soft power and the West and/or less pro-China Asian countries, there is a far greater challenge. Changing, say, Japan’s cultural perception of China figures to be much more difficult than changing, for example, Cameroon’s. 


            China can and, I believe, will do a better job of telling the story of its modern society. Films like 我不是药神are a good start. More films and TV programs that explain what it is like to live in China in 2019—the simple humanity of the country—are needed to improve the utility of cultural soft power. Music, like that of some of the aforementioned censured hip-hop groups, that truly produce a fresh and uniquely-modern Chinese image. These are the types of things that will attract the rest of the world to China and make China more understood and liked—not the long-used appeals to political values.


Soft power is about cultivating empathy/understanding and aspiration. This is something that happens organically. 


[1]Nye, Joseph S. Jr. “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy, Autumn 1990. 80 153-171 https://www.jstor.org/stable/1148580 

[2]Kivimaki, Timo. “Soft Power and Global Governance with Chinese Characteristics” The Chinese Journal of International 

[3]Lake, Anthony. “From Containment to Enlargement.” Gustave Courbet, 1993, www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/lakedoc.html.

[4]Roser, Max. “Democracy.” Our World in Data, 2010, ourworldindata.org/democracy.

[5]胡锦涛. “高举中国特色社会主义伟大旗帜 为夺取全面建设小康社会新胜利而奋斗.” China Daily, China Daily, 2007, www.chinadaily.com.cn/hqzg/2007-10/25/content_6205616.htm.

[6]习近平. “习近平:决胜全面建成小康社会夺取新时代中国特色社会主义伟大胜利--在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告.” 发展改革委、统计局就《循环经济发展评价指标体系(2017年版)》答问_ 解读_中国政府网, 中华人民共和国中央人民政府, 2017, www.gov.cn/zhuanti/2017-10/27/content_5234876.htm.

[7]Shambaugh, David, David Shambaugh: China Is 'Obsessed' with Soft PowerAsia Society, YouTube, 5 Mar. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucn33LGkrow.

[8]Rodriguez-Gitler, Ariana. “Views of China Divided Internationally.” Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, 1 Oct. 2018, www.pewglobal.org/2018/10/01/international-publics-divided-on-china/.

[9]Cutchin, James. “How China Is Building Its Soft Power.” PDiN Monitor | USC Center on Public Diplomacy, 1 Oct. 2018, www.uscpublicdiplomacy.org/blog/how-china-building-its-soft-power.

[10]“Chinese Soft Power in Africa.” Country, Industry and Risk Analysis from The Economist Intelligence Unit - List of Countries - The Economist Intelligence Unit, 21 Aug. 2014, country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=272200811&Country=Burundi&topic=Politics_1.

[11]Nye, Joseph. “The Limits of Chinese Soft Power.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 2015, www.belfercenter.org/publication/limits-chinese-soft-power.

[12]Quackenbush, Casey, and Aria Hangyu Chen. “China Bans Hip-Hop Culture and Tattoos From TV.” Time, Time, 22 Jan. 2018, time.com/5112061/china-hip-hop-ban-tattoos-television/.

[13]Agrawal, Nadya. “Meet the Higher Brothers, the Rap Group Climbing Over the Great Firewall of China.” PAPER, PAPER, 16 June 2017.

[14]Qin, Amy, and Audrey Carlsen. “How China Is Rewriting Its Own Script.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Nov. 2018 

[15]d'Hooghe, Ingrid. “The Limits of China's Soft Power in Europe.” Clingendael, Jan. 2010, www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/20100100_cdsp_paper_dhooghe_china.pdf.

[16]蒋正翔. “提升我国文化软实力,向世界讲述‘中国故事.’” 国势之强由于人,人材之成出于学_光明网, 15 May 2017, theory.gmw.cn/2017-05/15/content_24486400.htm

[17]匡延昌. “中国文化软实力如何‘硬’起来.” 人民论坛, 25 Apr. 2017, theory.people.com.cn/n1/2017/0425/c112848-29233419.html.

[18]Paradise, James F. “China and International Harmony.” Asian Survey, 2009. 49 (4) 647-669 https://www.jstor.org/tc/verify?origin=%2Fstable%2Fpdf%2F10.1525%2Fas.2009.49.4.647.pdf%3Frefreqid%3Dexcelsior%253A5ca6c66d399f561b7ecaedcd2293bf13

[19]Liang, Wei “China's Soft Power in Africa: Is Economic Power Sufficient?” Asian Perspective, 2012. 36 (4) 667-692 https://www.jstor.org/stable/42704810

[20]Loeb, Taylor, and Alex Gabuev. “Alex Gabuev Visits CTC.” Nov. 2018.

[21]Shambaugh, David. “The New American Bipartisan Consensus on China Policy.” China-US Focus, 21 Sept. 2018, www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/the-new-american-bipartisan-consensus-on-china-policy.

[22]Castillo, Roberto. “What 'Blackface' Tells Us about China's Patronising Attitude towards Africa.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 25 Nov. 2018, theconversation.com/what-blackface-tells-us-about-chinas-patronising-attitude-towards-africa-92449. 

[23]Goldstein, Joseph. “Kenyans Say Chinese Investment Brings Racism and Discrimination.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/world/africa/kenya-china-racism.html.



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