Written by Gary Rawnsley.

In 1990, Joseph Nye published Bound to Lead, which first introduced the term Soft Power to the vocabulary of international relations. Just three years after it first appeared in the US, Bound to Lead was translated into Chinese and was published in the PRC. Since then there has been an explosion of interest in China’s soft power capacity and performance, and we no longer need to question the value that the PRC attaches to its international outreach. Long gone are the days when we might concur with Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, who wrote as recently as 2002, ‘China today exports televisions, not ideas’. Today China not only continues to export televisions (and increasingly television programmes), but also China’s idea of China is more noticeable around the world.

But do the Chinese understand soft power? I suspect they are not alone in failing to appreciate what soft power is, how it works within particular cultural and political contexts, and how to evaluate whether the government is meeting its soft power objectives. This is understandable since soft power has become a fashionable concept which has been abducted from its natural home in International Relations and Politics and re-shaped to assume convenient catch-all characteristics. In the rush to understand soft power as only a communicative act – as a synonym for public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, strategic communications, international broadcasting, nation-branding, public affairs, etc. – the original political nuances have been sidelined or neglected altogether: The ‘power’ in soft power is swept under the carpet, and governments overlook key questions, such as ‘power to do what? Power over whom? And how will we know when we have met our goals?’. Only a political or strategic perspective can adequately address these questions. They require an understanding of what power is, how it is distributed, how it is deployed, the constraints on exercising power and what it may achieve in a particular set of circumstances. These concerns also remind us of the weakened boundaries between hard power and soft power. When audiences in the Middle East conclude that Hollywood movies are designed to spread American values and indoctrinate their viewers, the hard and soft nature of power is blurred. Perhaps despite labels power is just power after all.

It is unfortunate that China has chosen to appropriate ‘soft power’ in this way – as a ‘method’ by which Beijing communicates with the international community, tries to persuade audiences to understand China better, and therefore influence the image of China among the global public.  Beyond these narrow ambitions, it is difficult to observe any actual exercise of ‘power’ in China’s soft power push. This is why I believe the Chinese government subscribes to the Don Draper school of international communication. As the central character in the US television series Mad Men, Don Draper tells his clients: ‘If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.’ Transformations in the media and communications landscape, together with the rapid proliferation of so-called ‘social media’ – which are difficult and expensive both to monitor and manage, even in China – have persuaded governments that old-fashioned methods of controlling information are no longer efficient or cost-effective. Rather, governments concerned about the circulation of news, information and culture into and within their countries have grasped the value of trying to manage the narrative itself – of changing the conversation; and China’s soft power strategy, supported by vigorous public and cultural diplomacy campaigns as well as old-fashioned-style propaganda, has been primarily concerned with changing the global conversation about China.

However, what works on Madison Avenue may not work so well at the international level. There are five key reasons why China encounters problems in trying to manage the global conversation.

First, the power and scope of the conversation is not under China’s control, but rather resides in the audience. China is not able to determine or guarantee how the audience for its soft power will decode the meaning of messages according to their own prevailing cultural, social and political beliefs, attitudes and norms. Power also resides in the domestic and global news media which help shape perceptions about China, and Beijing has no control over the news agendas or values of journalists who may choose to highlight the more negative narratives about China’s rise. China’s challenge is to change the context of the story reported, not to demonise journalists as biased against China.

The second problem follows the first, namely that the audience’s image of China, derived from the media, is conditioned by the politics of the country: the authoritarian political system, a flaccid approach to human rights, the rise of an aggressive style of nationalism, the treatment of dissidents, China’s behaviour towards Tibet, continued intransigence on the status of democratic Taiwan, and problems in domestic governance (especially political corruption). All of these issues explain the cognitive dissonance that prevents the ready acceptance of more positive images of China.

 Third, the government has devolved responsibility for fulfilling its soft power vision and agenda to agencies and institutions that are either embedded within the state or are answerable to China’s political authorities. This architecture exaggerates the problems associated with building and maintaining credibility as such soft power structures generate scepticism, suspicion and even hostility among audiences towards a strategy designed and directed by the CCP in Beijing and who prefer the pejorative term “propaganda” for state-directed communications.  If, as Nye maintains, “political struggles occur over the creation and destruction of credibility”, China has reason to be anxious. The most effective soft power activity occurs as far away from government as possible.

 The fourth problem is the most important and most urgent for Beijing: The political and strategic motivation for China’s soft power is unclear – power to do what, and over whom? Soft power should not be considered merely as a way of creating a positive image, as if China can be branded like any commodity in the supermarket. There is a danger of evaluating soft power initiatives as one would a beauty contest. The dilemma for China is how to move its soft power beyond the limited ambition of changing the global conversation and fulfil tangible political objectives, once it decides what those political objectives should be.

Gary Rawnsley is Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University and China Policy Institute’s Senior Fellow. He blogs at Public Diplomacy and International Communications.


Huang, Y.Z. & Ding, S. (2006), ‘Dragon’s belly: An analysis of China’s soft power’, East Asia, 24(4), pp.22-44.

Nye, J.S. (1990), Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Thatcher, M. (2002), Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (London: HarperCollins).

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