It is quite symbolic that at the opening of EXPO-2017, the president of Kazakhstan sat in between the leaders of China and Russia, two neighboring states with great ambitions. The only difference is that Beijing still emphasizes its "soft power", while Moscow prefers "gunboat diplomacy" more.


Humanitarian investments

Will Kazakhstan drown in the Chinese water diplomacy?The entire previous week in Kazakhstan was dedicated to China. Following the meeting between Nursultan Nazarbayev and Xi Jinping, 12 agreements were signed, while over 20 agreements worth $8 billion were concluded during the fourth meeting of the Kazakh-Chinese Business Council.

Although economic agreements between the two states are signed with certain regularity, it is worth attention that the documents signed this time put serious emphasis on cultural, humanitarian, and information cooperation between Kazakhstan and China, be it an agreement on joint film production or a memorandum on media interaction.

By the way, back in 2009 Beijing announced its plans to allocate about $6.6 billion for expanding the broadcasting of Chinese media in foreign languages.  It is not surprising, since the intensification of China's global activity had propelled Beijing to increase financial technical and human resource investmentsinto improving its foreign policy image in different countries of the world.

With the launch of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” project, China has now additional reasons for increasing "humanitarian investment" in this direction.

In some cases, this is done in order to reduce the already existing anti-Chinese sentiments in some states. In others, it is being carried out before any Sinophobia could arise in the future. Moreover, as last year's "land rallies" in Kazakhstan have shown, such sentiments are already present in the country, which Beijing regards as an important element in the implementation of the Silk Road.

On the one hand, this project presupposes the creation of three transport corridors: northern, central and southern, which shows that China is not going to put all the transit "eggs" in one basket and Kazakhstan is just one of the puzzles in this mosaic. On the other hand, the PRC also understands well that without Kazakhstan the implementation of a Chinese transport infrastructure program orientated toward Western markets is certainly possible, but it will be economically less expedient.


From panda diplomacy to soft power

Previously, the so-called panda diplomacy was popular in China, as one of the instruments of public diplomacy for establishing partnerships with other countries, when a bamboo bear used to be presented as a friendly gesture to foreign states. And now Beijing wants neighbors to perceive China not as a dragon, but rather as a peaceful panda eating bamboo on the banks of a calm river, making a serious bet on the export of numerous cultural, educational, media and other projects. A kind of diplomacy of water.In principle, this is consistent with the thesis of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who once said: “There is no object in the world that is weaker and tenderer than water, but it can destroy the hardest thing.”

After a thousand years, the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci put forward the concept of “cultural and ideological hegemony”, which later became one of the signs of any superpower. And it was only in the early 1990s when the American political scientist Joseph Nye dubbed this policy "soft power", which, in his opinion, is needed in order to achieve a country’s goals in international politics not by coercion, but by persuasion and increasing its attractiveness in the eyes of other external players.


Silk Road Economic Belt and Marshall Plan

In principle, here China does not reinvent the wheel. After the Second World War, the United States got actively engaged in this kind of policies, getting rid of their pre-war isolationist image and becoming used to the role of a global player. With a certain stretch, some analogue of the Silk Road Economic Belt project at that time was the famous American "Marshall Plan", whereby via subsidies and loans, Americans from 1948 to 1951 spent about $13 billion not only on the economic recovery Western Europe, but also on the formation of a favorable image of the U.S. in the Europeans’ eyes. In parallel to the economic channel, this goal was also being achieved through different mechanisms: educational, cultural, cinematographic, media, etc., which were just as well used later in the post-Soviet space after the collapse of the Union. Therefore, the joke that Hollywood, jeans and cola did more than the State Department to increase the attractiveness of the United States, is still closer to reality than to mere humour.

Although a little later, these images played the role of a boomerang, which painfully hit the States themselves. After all, the excessive cultural, ideological and media dominance of the United States in other parts of the world, coupled with active military and political activities, began to be perceived as signs of Westernization, which threatens local self-identification. As a result, it gave rise to a wave of anti-American radicalism.

By the way, after the Second World War another state had also experienced serious problems with its image. It's about Germany,  that took decades of hard work and services of numerous PR offices to be recognized in 2010, according to the annual sociological survey of the BBC, in which 30,000 respondents from 28 countries took part, as the most positive country in the world. In 2016, Germany again ranked first in the ranking of the best countries of the world, compiled by


A merchant, a priest, a soldier

It is clear that the restoration of the economies of European states after a devastating war is not the same with what China is doing now to the countries of Central Asia within the framework of the Silk Road. Nevertheless, for players with global ambitions improving their own image then and now remains an important element of consolidating their geopolitical and geo-economic positions. The only difference is that if we paraphrase one proverb, in some cases a priest comes first, followed by a merchant, and then a soldier.

In other cases, on the contrary, first a soldier appears, then a priest and only then a merchant. As to China, its "soft power" policy usually begins with a merchant, from the economic dimension of its image- the label “Made in China”.

But only recently Beijing’s strategists began to think about the "priest", who would assume the role of promoting China's interests along educational, humanitarian and cultural, as well as information lines. For instance, since 2002, the People's Republic of China began actively creating centers abroad to promote the Chinese language and Chinese culture, which in 2004 were called Confucius Institutes. In 2004, the Fourth Plenum of the 16th Central Committee of the CPC called for "strengthening the complex power of China's culture, promoting Chinese culture, better going out into the world, improving its international influence."

The Summer Olympic Games 2008 or EXPO in Shanghai in 2010 also fit into the policy of improving the image of the country on the international scene. But how effectively this policy goal is being implemented is still difficult to say.

For example, if you look at the results of a BBC poll, in 2005, 49% of the respondents characteried the role of China in world politics as positive, while in 2009 and 2010 only 34% did so. In its turn, in the Global Peace Index, compiled by the London Institute of Economics and Peace, last year China ranked 120th among 160 countries, although in 2014 it was at the 110th place. In 2017, the country slightly improved its position in this rating, moving to the 116th position. For comparison: Kazakhstan in the Global Peace Index took the 72nd place, most likely because of its multi-vector foreign policy, and also its assumed role of a moderator in resolving conflict situations.


Golden dust in the eyes

It is interesting that Kazakhstan, with much less resources than China, also spends a lot of money to improve its foreign policy image, although in the conditions of high personification of power it is difficult to draw a clear line between work on the image of the country and the head of state. In addition, these expenditures are channeled via several directions. A part of it goes through the Foreign Office. By the way, it will soon be exactly ten years since within the Foreign Office a special department of international information was created, whose aim was set to deal with the formation of the country's image abroad. And if in 2006 about $3 million was allocated for the image program of Kazakhstan, in 2010 this sum already constituted $10 million, and in 2015- $15.4 million. In other words, there is clearly a trend for an increase in the budget under the program "Ensuring Implementation Information and Image Policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan".

Other expenses on image work go not directly, but indirectly, through various state and quasi-state structures, which are also engaged in creating a favorable image of the country, particularly in the eyes of foreign investors. Recently, various structures have been actively calling for them, starting from the Samruk-Kazyna National Welfare Fund (within the second wave of privatization of state assets) and ending with the Astana International Financial Center.

Although all this does not, of course, compare to the costs that the country incurred and continues to incur with the implementation of such expensive image projects as the Asian Games, Universiade or EXPO, the attitude to which in the country has been far from unambiguous. After all, many believe that instead of throwing golden dust in the eyes of foreigners, trying to gain their trust, it is better to think about increasing the trust in power in the eyes of the country’s own citizens.