China`s soft power: expectations versus realitiesGenerally speaking, the perception of politics and political processes going on in the world can differ significantly from country to country due to various local and specific features. Our educational, cultural, or social backgrounds also affect our understanding of global events and trends. This can also result in the collision of the reality and the image we created in our minds about the specific person, country, or the region. For instance, in many people Russia may arouse sympathy because of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, or Tchaikovsky and it might be sometimes hard for them to accept the image of “aggressive Russia”. Or in another example, there is a portrait of a peaceful, wise, innovative, and respectful Japanese person engraved in most of our brains thanks to technological achievements, cultural activities, documentaries, and traditional arts although cases of brutality and atrocities committed by the Japanese empire throughout the first half of the 20th century are also the part and parcel of this country’s history. China, in its turn, brings to our minds colourful dragons, kung-fu movies, harmony, wisdom, Confucius, well as stereotypical and pejorative images. Here also comes a question: whether the role of the culture, arts, sports or educational programs is important in the political life of the country and if they can shape the political realities or distort them by distracting the public from the main processes and problems? To answer such questions, there is a need to analyse the specific features of the soft power in the example of China. 


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According to Joseph S. Nye who coined the term “soft power”, there exist three ways to get what you want from others, namely coercion, payment, and finally, attraction and persuasion. The first two are called hard power whereas attraction and persuasion come under the soft power. Meanwhile, according to Michael Klare, “soft power, being a less aggressive form of persuasion, includes economic aid, diplomacy, and propaganda”. This definition, specifying the elements of the soft power, also reveals its difference from conventional hard power by highlighting “less aggressive” character of the former one. Stemming from those definitions, culture, values, or public diplomacy inherent to a specific country can help it attain the level of soft power which can create sympathy towards it and its policies among people across different countries and regions. For the most of politicians and governments, coercion, one of the examples of which is the military force, could be more important in relations with other states in the past but it should not be forgotten that nowadays the advance of globalisation and communication technologies in the world, as well as the rise in the importance of  global peace after the Second World War, makes soft power more popular as it creates a positive image and helps to achieve foreign policy goals and legitimacy with fewer costs and problems. The attractiveness of the state can help the society of another one to develop positive views for its actions and policies and it is easier to win hearts and minds through this way rather than enforcing only hard power which can result in distrust and hatred, as it happened with the U.S. in the Middle East after the invasion of Iraq. And in the century where guns are not considered effective to solve the problems and every step can be easily monitored by the world community, even the most illiberal regimes try to justify their actions under the framework of the accepted rules of conduct.

But as Nye mentions, the credibility factor is very important in the transmission of soft power as it is not possible to convince others if your narrative contradicts your own actions. And Nye considers that credibility can be more successfully achieved if respective efforts are taken by the civil society rather than solely by the government itself as the former one is much more effective to get the attention of the public.  Hollywood is a good example for the export of the American soft power to the world through this way.

In this context, it can be claimed that the image of China and Chinese people has always been different in the world depending on various factors such as cultural impact, migration, and racial features. While the country was mostly mentioned as one of the cradles of Eastern philosophy, arts, and culture through the history the image of an ordinary Chinese person has been controversial, especially after the mass migration of the population to different parts of the world. Besides, physical appearances, illegal activities committed by the gangs in the Chinese communities, and the communist regime in China can be regarded as some of the reasons for the cautious, sometimes even negative attitudes towards the Chinese people. For example, a fictional villain character named Doctor Fu Manchu who had stereotypical Asian features, including the famous moustache style, was popular during the last century in the U.S. Such Asian villains being the outcomes of the racist “Yellow Peril” ideology were quite common in the American fiction and movie industry. “Slitty-eyed, yellow-skinned people” were the racist marks (unfortunately, even nowadays) to refer to people coming from Asia, notably China, in many countries. Therefore, one of the aims of the Chinese authorities and the communities was to eradicate such stereotypes abroad towards the Chinese people and the country as well. The rise of China also accelerated the attainment of that goal by making it much more possible, compared to previous times. In such moments, cultural forms that have evolved throughout centuries, often came to rescue.. For example, the Confucius centers in many countries teaching the Chinese language and culture, exchange programs, exhibitions of the collection of the Chinese dynasties, and movies are directed to bring down such negative perceptions and show the vast cultural heritage of China.  China also emphasises its history of being “the victim of the imperial powers” in order to gain new friends among the developing world and closely align itself with small powers rather than to act as a global power. The abundance of narratives about foreign oppression, struggle to bring the stolen cultural heritage pieces back to the country, or fight against the dominance of foreign influences are quite common in Chinese movies. For example, Ip Man, a Hong-Kong made biopic trilogy, narrates the life of Ip Man, a kung fu master, during the Japanese invasion of 1937 and in the aftermath. The praise and prevalence of the Chinese martial arts in a conflict with the overseas ones, including Japanese karate (as in Bruce Lee’s films) or English boxing, is also depicted in the movies and symbolizes Chinese struggle and resistance against foreign aggressors. Such movies mixed with the elements of action and martial arts aim to attract the audiences (they are especially popular in developing countries) and deliver the message about the painful colonial past and the Chinese struggle against foreign imperialism. In these ways the Chinese authorities can somehow attract sympathy towards their policies in foreign countries and forge a positive image of China.     

Currently, China invests as much in its soft power as it does with its military or infrastructure projects. The rapid soft power strategy, launched during President Hu Jintao’s term in power in 2007, has entered a new level under President Xi Jinping. In October 2011, the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”), by emphasising the issue of culture in a whole plenary session, set tomakethe country a socialist cultural superpower” as a national goal. In one of his speeches Xi mentioned the need for the increase of China’s soft power, “a good Chinese” narrative, and the delivery of Beijing’s messages to the rest of the world. And the importance of the notion of “soft power” increased as it began to be constantly highlighted by the leaders of the country. The need in soft power can be linked to the idea that China did not want to confine itself to economic and military development only. In order to become a global power and a rule maker, it also needed to employ smart power to attract the world and get support in its actions (J. Nye). Huge amounts of money spent for this purpose can also represent a new source of income for the state bureaucracy as there is a perennial lack of transparency in the government spending on soft power projects and events in closed regimes. Furthermore, as China gets global, there grows a need in a good success story and effective tools to preserve the regime which is being harassed by other powerful international actors. In this competition, Beijing even coined a new term – “Chinese dream” – which aims at contesting the attractiveness of the U.S. and other major powers by using its striking economic development. This idea can seem a bit idealistic for now but maybe in future China can be a new location for the migration from the developing nations. 

It is also crucial to have a quick glance at the soft power tools separately. The Confucius Institutes, for example, focus on teaching the Chinese language and cultural values in foreign countries. These educational soft power establishments by reaching to the figure of 500 and operating in 120 countries now surpass renowned similar organizations, such as Germany’s Goethe-Institut and the British Council. They currently play a much more important role in promoting and disseminating Chinese values around the world, including democratic countries as well. Its success can also be explained by the less political character of these institutes although controversies do arise sometimes because of their attitude to the Taiwan issue and other “taboo” matters.

Another fast-growing soft power tool is the broadcasting and news agencies, the famous of which are Xinhua, CCTV, China Daily, and China Radio International. Xinhua News Agency, employing 3,000 journalists, is rapidly growing due to huge financial resources from the government. Having been created to conduct news reporting and the CCP propaganda domestically and internationally, Xinhua aims to go further and expand to the rest of the world. However, under the current realities, it can only be described as the Chinese version of Russia Today due to the anti-Western sentiment and firm regime support it delivers. Yet, Xinhua has achieved to gain a wide audience in developing regions like Africa and the Middle East, striving to turn into a big media conglomerate in the near future. It is true that in the West such news agencies don’t get similar attention as their credibility is not considered very high, but China anyway seems more interested in winning hearts and minds in newly emerging countries rather than the developed ones for now. Besides, such Western-style information agencies are also useful for the regime as they meet the demand for domestic “information consumption” of millions of citizens, including growing educated middle classes.

Sports cannot be ignored as it can serve an indicator of a country’s welfare, development, and healthy young generation. It also acts as the regime’s makeup: authoritarian regimes always use domestically organised sports events and achievements in order to increase their popularity and reputation both at home and beyond. For example, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing was accepted inside the country as a huge success and the logical consequence of China`s development. This great sports show was also a part of the soft power strategy, the performances of the Chinese sportsmen playing a positive role in that aspect. The China team ended up in the first place for the number of gold medals, effectively ending the American hegemony in Summer Olympics. It’s noteworthy to mention that since that period China has been being the major candidate in every big sports events, including Winter Olympics, rivalling with other traditional sports nations, such as the U.S., the UK, Germany, and Russia.

After all, China would still remain attractive even without spending much on bolstering its reputation. The unprecedented economic development of the country is a magic stick for Beijing which can silence all the opponents of the political regime in the country and overseas. “The rise of the Asian Phoenix” from the ashes of the wars and hard years is seen as a miracle by lots of people across the globe. Amid the financial and economic crises going on around the world, including developed democracies, China’s growing economy undermines the effects of criticism of its authoritarian political regime. China, being an important trading partner, also becomes a “good friend” for other countries due to its vast economic power and resources. Therefore, China’s negative image arising from its political system is somehow balanced with the help of strong economy. China is also using the outcomes of its economic growth in terms of economic aid to gain new allies and partners across developing countries, most notably in Africa and Latin America. China’s generosity is much more favourable for countries with poor human rights records as their “Asian friends” do not push for reforms or changes as the “stubborn Westerners” do. Maritime Silk Road, Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, Silk Road Economic Belt projects are also attracting all the possible beneficiaries by bringing them closer to Beijing. The Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank is also a part of this “giant magnet” which can be also regarded as one of the most remarkable soft power achievement of China.

Another important factor is China’s rise as a major global power although this idea is sometimes refuted by the domestic political circles themselves. However, whether Beijing admits it or not, it is urged to behave as an important actor of the global governance every passing year. And being a major power also brings responsibilities and a considerable attention with itself. It also helps China fulfil its ambitions and become a standard-bearer in the world through the active participation in the UN and other international organisations. Additionally, involvement in the deals regarding nuclear non-proliferation, climate change, economic integration and other important issues also positively shape China’s image and adds value to its soft power. Recently, the Chinese government has also started to try to find solutions to internal problems, the main of which can be considered corruption, lack of transparency, a high level of pollution, economic differences between the country’s western and eastern regions and secessionist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang. The ruling regime understands that good governance can bring China closer to major economic and political powers- despite ideological differences- and contribute to the stability and prosperity in the country. Therefore, the fight against corruption should be given a priority in the country in order to “look sexy” rather than spending millions of dollars on sports events or international conferences. China’s big investment projects on renewable energy alternatives are also worth to be applauded as such policies can further improve the reputation of the country and be a good example for other big polluters in the world.

The actual impact of the soft power on China’s reputation in the world is also interesting to observe. The surveys of the Global Attitudes Project by the Pew Research Center in 2016 demonstrate that more than half of the respondents in the major European countries (France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and Spain) and the US had an unfavourable view on China. When it comes to major neighbouring countries, such as Japan and India, 86% of the respondents in the former one had negative views about China whereas that figure was only 34% in the latter one. In response to the question about whether the Chinese governments respect fundamental freedoms or not, respondents in Western Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan gave a negative answer. Despite all the vast expenditures aimed at altering the perceptions, it seems that China’s soft power is not so effective in the Western democracies and neighbouring countries. The reason why China cannot win hearts and minds in the West should be linked to the government’s involvement in the soft power policies and generally authoritarian character of the ruling system. It is not secret that the information and propaganda operations in China are controlled by the State Council Information Office (“SCIO”). Acting as a censoring body, it also regulates the work of media agencies domestically and abroad. The use of such Orwellian techniques can is hardly improve sympathy in the Western societies. In the meantime, the lack of positive attitude towards China by its neighbours mostly arises from China’s territorial disputes with them. China is seen as a threat by several regional countries which are backed by the U.S. Besides, the rise of nationalism and assertive policies by Beijing undermines the effectiveness of its soft power in East and South-East Asia. Therefore, it is not a case that surrounding nations like Japan will pursue a “China dream”, at least, in the near future. 


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Soft power, despite being a new term in the political vocabulary, constitutes an important part of the agenda in the major global centres of power including Beijing. The necessity of the positive image of China in the world has been often repeated by the bosses of the country and new projects and recourses spent on this matter can speak to support it. China currently uses soft power tools such as economic aid, propaganda, and public diplomacy to attract others and achieve its economic and political goals on the domestic and international level. Xinhua, 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Asian Infrastructure and Development Bank, Silk Road Economic Belt and dozens of other projects are the most notable ones which draw the attention globally.  

Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the Chinese soft power is also disputable, as Nye mentioned that the credibility factor is missing in the propaganda part of those projects. The CCP aims to create “smiling China” by the same way as it does for infrastructure or economic development through spending lots of resources. However, soft power becomes much more powerful when it comes from the civil society rather than government or government controlled civil society actors. The lack of independence in this aspect and the existence of harsh monitoring and censorship by the government turn all the efforts into the Sisyphean task in the end. Global surveys also show the weakness of the Chinese soft power in the West where liberal democracies are dominating. Besides, as it is common in most illiberal systems, corruption is very common when it comes to expenditure in the name of the “country’s promotion”.

However, it would also be wrong to conclude that the soft power tools of China do not work at all, or that the ruling party naively believes in the efficiency of the propaganda abroad, especially in the West. As mentioned before, China would still have soft power with its role as an accelerator in the world economy. Despite the existence of the “low quality” prejudice towards Chinese products, the relocation of big companies and brands to the country increases its role day by day. In the world where everything is “made in China”, it is hard to criticise or complain about much. China, also as an emerging global power and necessary partner, is trying to assert its rules by actively participating in the global organisations or initiating new ones. Thus, the more China is doing for the better world the more soft power it is getting. China is also projecting its “historically humiliated developing nation” identity to the regions like Africa, Middle East, and Latin America. Infrastructure projects, financial aid, exchange programs, and media channels are helpful in the approximation process between China and the developing world although the anti-Chinese sentiment is also growing among the local population of those countries towards Chinese investors and labour force coming with those projects.

To conclude, China will be in the center of attention for a long time even if it still tries to follow the “do not seek leadership” policy. But the realities also urge the political elite of the country to invest large amount of money to improve the “appearance” of China in order to strengthen their power and find a common language with the rest of the world. There is also a hope that the aim of “attraction” will push the political system to gradually implement reforms and give freedoms to the civil society to reduce the burden on the government in this process and survive in the soft power competition by its rivals. Such an approach would end the disparities between the West and the East by strengthening the intercivilisational integration trend.     



1. 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Medal Tally, available at> [03/01/2017].

2. David Shambaugh, “China’s Soft-Power Push: The Search for Respect” (2015), Foreign Affairs Magazine.

3. David Shambaugh,“Coping with a Conflicted China” (2011), The Washington Quarterly, 34:1, 7-27.

4. Global Indicators Database (2016), Pew Research Center, available at and> [02/01/2017].

5. Joseph S. Nye, “Is China’s soft power strategy working?”(2016), available at> [22/12/2016].

6. Joseph S. Nye, “On Soft Power” (2016), available at> [20/12/2016].

7. Michael T. Klare, “Hard Power, Soft Power, and Energy Power: The New Foreign Policy Tool” (2015), Foreign Affairs Magazine.

8. Phil Baker, “Fu Manchu and China: Was the 'yellow peril incarnate' really appallingly racist?” (2015), available at> [02/12/2016].

9. Scott Moskowitz, “Beijing Does It Better: The Charm Offensive And Chinese Soft Power” (2013), Foreign Affairs Magazine.

10. Synopsis for Ip Man (2008), available at> [03/01/2017].

11. Wang Jisi, “China's Search for a Grand Strategy: A Rising Great Power Finds Its Way” (2011), Foreign Affairs Magazine.