China’s Soft Power Conundrum

If you read Chinese newspapers, watch CCTV, or go to your local Chinese Cineplex, then it becomes clear that China already sees itself as a major world power, if not THE world power.  The factors backing up this widely-held Chinese belief are numerous – the modernity and scale of its urban areas, its overall economic might, its manufacturing base, and its growing role within international politics. 

Yet, for all the factors that reveal Chinese strength, many outside of China still see China as a relatively weak, if not quickly rising, country.  Its economy is completely dependent on exports, making it subject to international fluctuations, not to mention highlighting the absence of a strong domestic consumer market.  The Chinese military, for all of its modernization, remains untested.  Its political leadership is highly questioned, with many wanting China to take on a larger role internationally while condemning its continuing habit of free-riding on the benefits created by other international players.

Thus, China has embarked on an effort to boost its international prestige by emphasizing its soft power – the cultural, artistic, linguistic, among other features that are “sold” to outsiders to create an image.  In today’s world, the preeminent soft power player is the United States.  Its music, television, film, literature, and art are consumed all over the world and help to project the United States as the strongest nation-state on the planet.  In East Asia, considerable soft power is held by South Korea and Japan, two countries whose music, film, and fashion are widely consumed beyond its borders. 

Contemporary China does not come close to these other countries in soft power.  Its film industry, while massive, does not attract international audiences to any great degree.  Its music has little appeal beyond Chinese borders.  One can easily go on.  In fact, today’s Chinese youths are as likely to be listening to K Pop or J Pop, watching British television, or going to see Korean or American films as they are to consume the equivalent Chinese offerings. 

The question is why, given China’s immense strength in other areas, are international audiences not interested?  Why is China’s soft power weak?  Many analysts have posited reasons, but I am more interested in your thoughts.  Is China simply bad at marketing its offerings?  Or is something lacking in the quality of Chinese soft power? 

It may not be fair (i.e. people thinking that Americans always blow things up based on action movies), but soft power contributes to outsider understandings of a country.  It allows a country to project strength without threatening, outmaneuvering, or opposing others.  So long as China’s soft power is weak, it will prove difficult to convince the world that China is a real player.

 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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