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Rise & Decline of China’s Soft Power

By Newsd
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Hu Jintao highlighted soft power in his political report to the 17th Party Congress of October 2007, stressing the urgency of building China’s cultural soft power sufficiently to meet domestic needs and increase international competitiveness.

Hu Jintao, Former President of PRC

Power in ordinary usage is understood as an ability, strength, or capacity. In social and political theory however, power refers to the ability to do things and the capacity to produce effects within social interaction. However, the most well-known definition of power is given by Robert Dahl i.e., ‘A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something which B would not otherwise do.’ This definition assumes two things about power:

a) power is an attribute of individuals (states) which is exercised over other individuals (states), and b) power is domination over others, that is, power is used to make others do what one wants, against their own will.

In the international politics traditional power is generally referred as military power, economic power (use or apply of sanctions), and are classified as hard power. Moreover, Joseph Nye defined a new dimension of power as an ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion and payments and he termed it as ‘soft power’.

Soft power is the ability to get desired outcomes because wants are basically same for those who are in desire of something. Moreover, Nye articulates that the ability to affect what other countries want, tend to be associated with intangible power resource such as culture, ideology, and institutions. He reasserts (strengthen) later that soft power of a country has three primary sources: its culture (in place where it is attractive to others), its political value (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policy (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority).  Nye mentions that soft power also includes the ability to shape international institutions and agendas which actually can be seen as a part of his reference to legitimate foreign policies.

How soft power is different from hard power?

According to Nye, hard power is evident in the practice of threat, coercion sanction, payment, and inducement, where as soft power is demonstrated in attraction, persuasion, appeal and cooperation. Soft power is preferable whenever possible: “When you get other to admire your ideals and to want what you want you do not have to spend as much on stick and carrots to move them in your directions.

Joseph Nye coined the term soft power in his work ‘Bound to Lead’. However, in 1992, Nye’s Bound to Lead was translated and published into Chinese, and the concept was picked by Wang Huning a political advisor to the then president Jiang Zemin. Wang Huning emphasized on culture as a country’s soft power. Since then both academicians and policy-makers in China have shown keen interest in the concept of soft power. According to Joshua Kurlantzick, 1997 East Asian Financial crisis provided an opportunity to China to improve its image in a region where it was traditionally perceived as a threat and a destabilizing factor.

The Communist Party was equally keen on soft power as a necessary component of Comprehensive National Power (CNP). In 2002, the political report to the 16th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China mentioned that ‘culture intertwines with economics and politics, demonstrating a more prominent position and role in the competition for CNP’. In 2007, the political report to the 17th Party Congress of the CPC stressed ‘the urgency of building China’s cultural soft power sufficiently to meet domestic needs and increase international competitiveness’.

In 2011, October 15-18, 17th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee was convened at Beijing to discuss cultural system transformation and promoting socialist cultural development. In 2003, Zheng Bijian introduced the concept of ‘peaceful rise’ (later replaced by ‘peaceful development’) at the Boao Forum for Asia. It was basically meant to counter the threat perception in the international community, especially China’s neighbors about the China’s rising power ambitions. Peaceful development conceals China’s revisionist intentions and emphasizes that it seeks to achieve international prominence not at the cost of other states, but through soft power. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2010 Shanghai Expo and recent mergers and acquisitions by Chinese firms display the nobleness of China’s peaceful rise. In order to teach Chinese language, promote Chinese culture and facilitate business activity, Confucius Institutes have been opened in many countries around the world, the first one being in Seoul, South Korea in 2004. They portray a benevolent image of China rooted in traditional values. In 2004, Joshua Cooper Ramo published ‘The Beijing Consensus’, which denotes the path of development pursued by China combining ideological pragmatism, rapid economic growth and stable political order, extended to the international level.

The path appeals to the developing countries (especially, authoritarian regimes in Africa) as an alternative to the discredited Washington Consensus as China provides aid with no strings attached and adheres to non-interference in domestic affairs. In 2005, President Hu Jintao made a four-point proposal for building a harmonious world in his speech at the UN’s 60th anniversary summit. He advocated multilateralism, mutual benefit, civilizational co-existence and UN reforms. Harmonious world basically subsumes the entire gamut of earlier approaches for enhancement of Chinese soft power.

China’s Soft power is declining

China is losing its soft image in international society. Since communist revolution, China has developed into a single party system, and the basic freedom of speech and expressions have been largely curtailed. In China’s Special Administered Region i.e. Hong Kong, people are gunning for democracy. This is just another addition into the already emanating problems for China’s Soft power Management. Tibet is one of the five Autonomous Regions of China running its democratic government in exile. This is also painting a negative picture of the Chinese Government. Chinese government has often clamped down on Uyghur and curtailed their freedom to fast during the holy month of Ramzan. Wherever the Chinese government invests, it takes its own labor to work on its installations and projects which does not produce enough jobs in the host countries. In case of Confucian institute, China is curtailing the freedom of discussion and debate on the issue like Tibet, Xinjiang and so on. So American Universities have closed a number of Confucian Institutes. However, China claims whole of South China Sea which affects the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of neighboring states. China has also annexed Mischief reef from Philippines in 1998, which shows the hegemonic attitude of China in its neighborhood. These are summed up to a theory called ‘China threat theory’, as China is rising it is also demonstrating its power.


China was suffering from identity crisis since 1949. The country had to go through several revolutions before it finally adopted socialist model of governance based on one party system. It was in isolation after 1989 Tiananmen incident. These all incidents developed China’s image as an authoritarian one party centric country i.e. Chinese Communist Party (CCP). CCP tried to improve its image through Confucian institute, providing aid to Latin American and African countries. China in display of it prowess hosted the extravagant Beijing Olympics in 2008 followed by the Shanghai Expo in 2010. The list of China’s emergence as an alternate superpower in the 21st century is getting endless. However, these could not last long for China as complains were coming from Confucian institute that it curtails the academic freedom of debate and discussion. China was criticized for its poor environment management. Some of the autonomous regions and special administered regions are demanding freedom and democracy. In the South China Sea, China claims whole of South China and demarcate it by ‘Nine-dash line’. These nine dash line affects the sovereignty of neighboring states. It also annexed the Mischief reef from Philippines. Thereafter, Philippines filed a case in Permanent court of Arbitration (PCA) which  China now refuse to accept the verdict of PCA as the verdict is not in favour of China. However, China denied India’s membership in the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) as India has not signed the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) China is now facing awkward position in international society as it cherry- pick the international law for its own comfort. All these factors are directly or indirectly affects China’s soft power image.


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