Success of China's soft power campaign can't be gauged by rich countries

By Nicholas Dynon Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-7 23:48:01

US political scientist Joseph Nye claims that the leaders of China and Russia just don't get his concept of "soft power."

In an article published in Foreign Policy in April, he reminds us that soft power springs from individuals, the private sector and civil society. China and Russia, Professor Nye points out, "make the mistake of thinking that government is the main instrument of soft power."

Clearly there is dissonance between Nye's soft power and the strategies followed by Beijing and Moscow in their respective pursuits of it. But are they all talking about the same "soft power?"

Hong Kong University's David Bandurski, charting the appearance of the term "soft power" in Chinese print publications from 1998 to 2008, has identified massive growth in the importance of the concept.

Usage of "soft power" in Chinese newspapers grew from a negligible number of appearances in 2003 to around 7,500 in 2008.

A closer look suggests that China's increasing interest in soft power has less to do with Nye than it does with an ongoing focus on the unprecedented growth of its own national power and the need to measure it, assess it and control its implications.

Usage of the term "comprehensive national power" (CNP) first appeared in the mid-1980s, when it was suggested by some Chinese scholars considering various national power equations as methods for analyzing the international balance of power.

Huang Shuofeng of China's Academy of Military Science, a founder of the CNP concept, writes that the CNP "refers to the combination of all the powers possessed by a country for the survival and development of a sovereign state, including material and ideational ethos, and international influence as well." 

As Deng Xiaoping once stated, "in measuring a country's national power, one must look at it comprehensively and from all sides."

As part of the CNP equation, the soft power concept, rendered in Chinese as ruanshili, has evolved in Chinese discourse into a range of concepts quite distinct from that envisaged by Joseph Nye.

As Nye has pointed out, polls show that opinions of China's influence are positive in Africa and Latin America, but not so much in the developed world.

China's approach to soft power doesn't resonate as much with the rich nations of the world as it does with much of the developing world where Beijing's traditional non-alignment and aid work has had positive reputational results.

Similarly, as the same international polls indicate, China's reputation at home far exceeds its reputation within the developed world.

An emergent China is unsurprisingly perceived far more positively by its own population relative to how it is perceived by publics in Europe, North America and developed East Asia.

Beijing's idea of soft power appears to be working relatively well across large tracts of the developing world for whom its emerging success shines as a relevant alternative to Western models.

Beijing's "internal" soft power also appears to be doing nicely in articulating China's national power ascendancy to its own increasingly globalized population.

And while many Western policymakers and media commentators pen a pervasive narrative of concern in relation to China's rise, how much of the rest of the world is actually listening?

Does Nye's comment that China doesn't quite get his version of soft power really matter? Probably not. They have their own.

The author is a former diplomat and doctoral candidate at Macquarie University, Sydney.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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