It is not a secret that the Chinese government is prone to exercise its soft power – the ability to rule by attraction rather than coercion or payment.China is not the only country that dreams to persuade others in its own values and to influence fellow states to do what it wants. Major powers such as US, Russia, and most of the European countries tend to spend significant resources at public diplomacy tools, but China’s eagerness for soft power is over the top. By now, China has engaged in numerous activities of soft power promotion, including establishing a network of Confucius institutions worldwide, conducting Summer Olympics in Beijing and Shanghai Expo, developing Chinese official news channel with a coverage in more than 100 countries and regions, filming expensive commercial spots to be shown at the most popular Western TV channels, promoting the concept of Chinese “soft rise”, as well as assigning huge amount of foreign aid to other countries.
However, in academia, there is much less excitement about the extensive governmental-run programs for promotion of soft power. According to Nye, sources of soft power are both governmental and non-governmental. For instance, American soft power is based not only on foreign policy of US, its promotion of own values, and democratic foundations of the state, which are governmental sources of soft power, but also on Hollywood films, high quality of education and high living standard – thus, non-governmental sources of soft power. In this vein, governmental efforts for promotion of soft power have to be complemented with non-governmental activity, delivering a private image of the country to foreign audiences. Furthermore, attractiveness of particular broadcasted values does also matter: democracy and liberal rights, according to Nye, are universal values shared by many people and thus extremely seductive for foreigners. Whether other values like socialism or state-controlled economy could be as seductive as democratic values, is a matter of major discussion. It is also ought to be noted that governmental-run programs for soft power promotion could be not that successful as intended. There are no methodological ways to measure the effects of soft power promotion programs, and it is difficult to assign any changes in foreign policy of other countries or general sentiment towards the promoter to usage of soft power promotion programs. Despite methodological difficulties with the concept of soft power and seemingly not-so-universal values to be broadcasted, China is increasingly relying on this specific tool.
The motivations behind using public diplomacy
The announced goals of using public diplomacy, for China, are quite clear: improving national image, broadcasting cultural and political values and fostering a perception of China’s peaceful development into a world’s promising major power. A great illustration of China’s concern about own national image is an issue of choosing the national symbol, either dragon, a manifestation of imperial power, ancientness, and – in Western eyes – aggressiveness, or panda, a throughout cute and beloved animal. Despite the fact that 90 percent of Chinese people see dragon as a preferable national symbol (commonly, the Chinese people designate themselves as “Descendants of the Dragon”), in 2006, vice president of the Shanghai Public Relations Association Wu Youfu offered to use a panda as national symbol, sparkling discussions among the Chinese. For supporters of panda as a national symbol a big motivation was that panda is not perceived by Westerners to be as aggressive as the dragon, thus, such national symbol does not contradict the image of peaceful China.
Why then in the first place China is so concerned about being seen as peaceful rather than a powerful country, able to contest the established – by Westerners – world order? Maybe, the answer lies in the indigenous Chinese culture’s respect for harmony and peace. Confucianism, one of the pillar of the Chinese society, puts a big emphasis on living in harmony with yourself, nature, and declares social harmony as an ideal social order. According to Chinese authors, harmony was among governing principles of Chinese ancient ruling dynasties. What is also important, the concept of Chinese peaceful rise complies with foreign political goals of China. The proponent of Chinese “peaceful rise” and adviser of political leadership of China Zheng Bijian has stated that China should choose a peaceful way of transcending into a major power, rather than to seek global domination and most probably to be involved in wars – like Germany and Japan or participants of the Cold War.The best path for a rise, Zheng Bijian argues, is in cooperation with others while contributing to world’s peace, whereas the task of Chinese government is “to construct a harmonious socialist society” in China. Therefore, the extensive usage of public diplomacy may be consistent with a goal to transform China’s image from a communist threat to a peace-loving and strong nation that cares about the world’s security. Intriguingly, Chinese public diplomacy in practice contributes to self-respect and proudness sentiments among Chinese rather than actual improvement of Chinese perception among foreigners.
Effects of Chinese public diplomacy
As we can see, the main goal of Chinese public diplomacy is to improve China’s perception by foreign audiences and its national image. If you look at the concept of soft power closer, another goal of using public diplomacy tools is to persuade foreign politicians and audiences to do what one wants, e.g. investing more in Chinese industries. The problem with public diplomacy in this context is that one has to distinguish between effects of using public diplomacy tools and some other factors while examining transformation of country’s national image or general policy towards this country. As the global survey from 2014 has shown, the perception of China has improved worldwide in the last decade. Many respondents find China’s economic development impressing and its future economic development promising. Such beliefs are especially strong among respondents from developing countries. Could such results be perceived as the direct effects of Chinese extensive public diplomacy?
Probably not. In recent years, China’s economy has been rapidly growing, demonstrating more than 10% relative growth in every year. Furthermore, during the 2007-2008 economic crisis, China seemed to not to have the same economic difficulties as its Western counterparts, demonstrating the same, over 9% GDP growth rate. At the moment, China seems to produce almost everything in the world. Chinese consumer market becomes more significant for big businesses as purchasing capability of ordinary Chinese people is increasing. In short, China has drastic economic growth at a time when most Western markets overcome some dark periods of crises and decline. Surely, such economic rise goes not unnoticed by foreign audiences, which start to perceive China as one of the world’s biggest economic powers. As for the world’s developing countries, their populations perceive China’s economic development generally more positive than other countries, maybe, because China represents a role model of rapid economic development.
However, the audiences of developed countries do not have too favorable views of China, if speaking about the country as a whole and not only of its economic development. As one can observe from the chart above, among developed countries there are hardly any (except Australia) states, where more than a half of population has favorable views of China. From the next chart, which presents attitudes towards personal freedoms and liberties in China, it could become clear, why Western audiences are not so positive about the state. .Regarding political liberties and rights, China is ranked among the worst countries in the world, according to Freedom House. In developed countries, a big emphasis put on democracy and personal liberties, while in China both of them are – more or less – absent.There are political harassment of activists, academics, non-governmental organization, oppression of freedom of speech, repression of Uighur national identity, absence of political pluralism, and various restriction at personal liberties, including a ban for rural residents to access many social services in cities. Of course, such image is not an attracting one for foreign audiences, and therefore, Chinese ability to persuade others by means of public diplomacy is very limited.
What the Chinese public diplomacy is really good at, is at persuading domestic audiences in greatness of China, as was the case during the Olympic games in Beijing. Even though more positive attitudes among Chinese about their own country and government were probably not the main goal of extensive public diplomacy usage, it seems that to the moment only such transformations in perception could be assigned to Chinese public diplomacy program.
So what is next for the Chinese public diplomacy? Are there any ways to persuade publics of developed countries in the aspired by Chinese national image?
Probably, there are some ways to do that. Rather than to use massive, propaganda-like messages of public diplomacy tools at foreign audiences; one should probably focus on non-governmental channels of information exchange.For Asian countries, great examples of how non-governmental and cultural sources improve overall perception of a country could be the Korean culture of K-Pop or the Japanese anime and manga, both creating worship subcultures among youngsters all over the world. Even an only well-known “Gangnam Style” clip of South-Korean musician PSY must have improved perception of South Korea by Western audiences, or at least make more people familiarize with South-Korean culture, as more than 2,5 billion people have watched this video. Of course, China has also many cultural products to be adored by various Western publics – like the films by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Although, due to the government’s limited investment in the local private film industry, it is very unlikely that Chinese films will find its audience among the developed countries like are Korean television dramas, for instance. In such context, the Chinese public diplomacy has to be developed and transformed, so that its messages would not resemble propaganda for any foreign publics. After all, a country like China has a lot to offer to foreigners – be it cultural products, a role model for economic development, or a perception of peaceful world order – but such messages should be delivered carefully to foreign audiences and be more understandable.
 Joseph S. Nye, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, Pbk. ed (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 14.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."