Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attraction rather than coercion or payment. It less dramatic and takes more time than hard military and economic power, but can be crucial in the long term. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was not under a barrage of artillery, but came from hammers and bulldozers wielded by people who minds had been changed by the soft power of ideas.
In recent months, China has engaged in a soft power campaign to counter the narrative of its failure in the early phases of the COVID19 crisis. It is sending medical equipment to other countries to curry favor and seem more attractive. The success of these ventures is still uncertain.
Having coined the phrase soft power in a book I published in 1990, I have long been interested by the fate of the concept in China. As China dramatically developed its hard power resources, leaders realized that it would be more acceptable if it were accompanied by soft power. This is a smart strategy because as China’s hard military and economic power grew, it could frighten its neighbors into balancing coalitions. If it could accompany its rise with an increase in its soft power, China could weaken the incentives for these coalitions.
In 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that they needed to invest more in soft power, and this continued under President Xi Jinping. Once the top leaders had spoken and the word was out, billions of dollars were invested to promote soft power, and thousands of articles were published on the subject. China has had mixed success with its soft power strategy. Its impressive record of economic growth that has raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and its traditional culture have been important sources of attraction, but polls show it lags behind the United States in overall attractiveness in most parts of the world, including Asia. And the British index, Soft Power 30, ranks China at number 27.
Chinese often ask me how to increase China’s soft power. My advice is always the same. China should realize that most of a country’s soft power comes from its civil society rather than from its government. Propaganda is not credible and thus does not attract. China needs to give more leeway to the talents of its civil society, even though this is difficult to reconcile with tight party control. Chinese soft power is also held back by its territorial disputes with its neighbors. Creating a Confucius Institute to teach Chinese culture will not generate attraction if Chinese naval vessels are chasing fishing boats out of disputed waters in the South China Sea.
On one occasion, I was invited to address 1500 students at the School of Marxism at Peking University. I mentioned the harassment of the great Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei as an example of too tight control over civil society. There was a slight titter in the crowd, but at the end of my lecture, the dean took the stage and said “we are flattered to have Professor Nye here, but you students must realize that his use of the concept is overly political and we prefer to restrict it to cultural issues.”
I doubt this will be sufficient and remain skeptical of China’s current soft power offensive. Success will require deeper reforms.
Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard and author most recently of Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.