Continuity and Change: China’s Attitude toward Hard Power and Soft Power

Some observers perceive a change over the past year or so in the priority given to hard power and soft power in Chinese foreign policy. Has there really been a change? From a Chinese perspective, the short answer to this question is that there is both continuity and change.[1] On the continuity side, China’s belief in hard power has not changed much. As a developing country with a hundred-year long humiliating experience in its modern history, China has learned the vital importance of hard power in protecting one’s sovereignty, and has been trying very hard to attain hard power through economic development and military modernization. A Chinese slogan, “guojia zunyan shi da chulai de” (national respect can only be obtained through fighting), illustrates the wisdom gained from this experience. But, as China accumulated hard power over the last several decades, the outside world—especially China’s neighbors and the United States—became increasingly anxious as to how China’s increasing hard power may be used. In part because it recognized this anxiety, China also began to attach greater importance to soft power—the power to persuade other nations through attraction to one’s policies, performance, identity, and culture, rather than through force or compulsion—and has made increasing effort to develop its soft power in recent years.

Before discussing China’s approach to soft power, it may be useful to disaggregate soft power into soft power resources, soft power utilization capabilities, and soft power effectiveness.[2] Soft power resources refers to both “hard” soft power resources and “soft” soft power resources. “Hard” soft power resources refer to the quantity and quality of traditionally defined as hard capabilities such as economic, military, science, and technology capabilities. “Soft” soft power resources refer to culture, education, governance, values, ideas, and visions. Both the “hard” soft power resources and “soft” soft power resources are necessary but not sufficient conditions of soft power. Soft power utilization capabilities refer to the ability to translate soft power resources into actual soft power. This includes efforts to build up institutions and develop appropriate methods and skills for soft power projection. Soft power effectiveness refers to the actual impact of soft power, that is, whether the projection of soft power actually produces the desired results.

China has many soft power resources, and they are expanding. As an ancient civilization with a long history, China can boast many “soft” soft power resources ranging from art and architecture to food and medicine. As a developing country frequently expressing the views of and defending the interests of developing countries, China also has the affinity and support of many developing countries. And with its sustained rapid economic growth, China has made much progress in terms of “hard” soft power resources ranging from a huge and burgeoning economy to a rapidly modernizing military.

Despite this growth, however, Chinese are not satisfied with China’s soft power resources. In general, they share the view that China is still backward in many ways. Many hold the view that China is still a developing country and, despite its size, the quality of China’s economy is still far behind that of developed economies. Many Chinese also agree that despite rapid improvement in recent years, China’s military capabilities are by no means comparable to those of the United States. Many even feel unease with the so-called “Beijing consensus”; they argue that there is no such a thing as a Chinese model for development. At best, it is a path of development with Chinese characteristics. And as such, they add, China’s experience is not repeatable. Chinese are also acutely aware of the fact that China’s political system is not attractive to many in the world. One may debate the strength of Chinese soft power resources, but most Chinese would agree that a nation can only maximize its soft power through smart use of both “hard” soft power resources and “soft” soft power resources.

If Chinese are not satisfied with China’s soft power resources, they are even less content with China’s ability to utilize those resources; one often hears criticism of Chinese public relations efforts. Consequently, China has made increasing efforts to enhance its soft power utilization capabilities in recent years. Among other things, China has drastically increased international assistance, especially to African countries. It has established hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world. It has increased the number of fellowships it offers to foreign students. It has conducted a growing number of training programs for foreign officials and officers, especially those from developing countries. It has also undertaken increasing efforts to propagate Chinese views overseas through media including the recent launch of a Korean language version of The China Daily, a Chinese newspaper.

China has also begun to assign more importance to public diplomacy. It has explored various means to present China in a way that is attractive to foreigners, such as staging the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and the Shanghai World Expo and Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010. It has also experimented with hiring foreign news anchors and correspondents to run some overseas programs broadcast by China Central Television (CCTV), China’s national television network. Finally, it has made efforts to develop new and creative ideas for management of international affairs including the “new security concept” to manage international security issues, the term “democratization of international relations” by which to frame international relations, and the idea of a “harmonious world” to represent an ideal state of world affairs that the world should strive for.

When it comes to soft power effectiveness, China has been quite successful in some areas. For example, it has managed to develop peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with most countries in the world despite its rapid rise over the past three decades—no small achievement given the size of China and the accelerating trend toward interaction on a wide range of issues. This is especially the case with China’s relations with Southeast Asian countries. These countries are mostly small in size. In modern history, China’s relationship with these countries was complicated by either war or confrontation. And on top of this, some of these countries have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. Consequently, these countries are particularly sensitive to China’s rise and were very concerned with its implications during the 1990s. In part as a result of Chinese efforts, Southeast Asian countries now view China more as an opportunity than as a threat.

Similarly, China has maintained good relations with African countries in part because of China’s persistent efforts. In recent years, China has drastically increased its economic assistance to African countries. Like many western countries, China has sought raw materials and market share in Africa. However, unlike many western countries, China has not attached many conditions to its aid to Africa and has devoted much of its assistance to the development of infrastructure in Africa. On balance, despite the fact the overall size of China’s aid to Africa is not comparable to that of the western countries, the result has been more positive in the view of the African people.

Despite this, however, many in China are frustrated with the effectiveness of its soft power. Too often they feel that China has been subject to misinterpretation and insidious attacks in foreign media. Too often they feel that people outside China are willing to buy the “prejudiced” and often “ill-conceived” views of China that may be promoted by others than to subscribe to China’s own more “objective” views. And too often they feel that China’s attempts to address the problem end up with little impact.

In sum, China’s approach toward hard power and soft power has witnessed both change and continuity: a retention of the traditional value placed on hard power is complemented by a dramatic increase in the importance of soft power. Specifically, China has attached much more importance to the utilization of the soft power it has built over the decades, and has made many efforts and devoted many resources to improve its capabilities in this area. These efforts have achieved some desirable effects from the Chinese perspective.

However, its soft power effectiveness is likely to remain limited. This is because China is preoccupied by domestic development and reform, and it appears that China has a long way to go to develop some of its soft power resources—such as political institutions, values, and visions for the future—to a satisfactory level. Given the fact China will need more time to sort out its own domestic problems, it is likely to take some time for China to develop soft power that can live up to people’s expectations. With patience, China’s hard work to develop its soft power resources, utilization, and effectiveness is likely to improve and its soft power is likely to become a more important and visible aspect of Chinese foreign policy.

[1] This Commentary is based in part on the author’s presentation at a conference titled “Korea’s Soft Power and East Asia,” hosted by Brookings and the Korea Development Institute in Seoul on November 30, 2010.

[2] Here the author has benefited from the views developed in the PhD dissertation of Lee Young-hak, “Zhongguo jingji fazhan jiqi yunyong yu zhongguo ruanshili de tisheng” (Developing and utilizing the Chinese economy and elevating Chinese soft power), Peking University, 2010, pp.8-12.