Written by Gary Rawnsley.

It is not surprising that the government in Beijing has privileged culture and tradition in its soft power strategy as these should be the easiest themes to sell and they avoid giving further prominence to the political and social issues that undermine China’s soft power credibility. The Chinese clearly have an abiding faith in the power of culture to overcome and possibly transform the attitudes and prejudices of audiences throughout the world; as their investment in the Confucius Institutes suggests, they are confident that exposure to culture will have soft power rewards – that intangibles can be converted into tangible benefits. In other words, the Chinese are following the soft power maxim, ‘to know us is to love us’, which, as the Americans know to their cost since 9/11, rarely works if the message and policy are not aligned.

This brings us to the first weakness with associating cultural projection with soft power: The clear disjuncture between its aspirations and the external perceptions of its behaviour at home and abroad. China’s authoritarian methods of political management undermine the credibility of its cultural soft power. In other words, China experiences problems within the political realm which prevent its soft power – including strategies privileging culture – being as attractive to international audiences as they otherwise might be.

Such problems are revealed by opinion polls, which indicate there is no correlation between expenditure on soft power activities and positive changes in attitudes towards China (especially in Europe, North America, Australia, Japan, South Korea and India – centres of strategic importance for China’s global ambitions). In fact, we have tended to see a reversal of fortune despite the huge soft power push engineered in Beijing, and one can only conclude from this that the reversal is due to negative perceptions of China’s policies and behaviour. Thus we must question seriously the justification of China’s expenditure on, and faith in, soft power as a remedy for defects in the international community’s attitudes towards China. In short, there is no obvious correlation between enjoying and liking Chinese culture, and liking contemporary China and its policies, its political system or its behaviour at home or abroad. In this way, there is a serious disconnect between culture and ‘power’ in the soft power equation.

The second weakness of a cultural approach to soft power is that it is extremely difficult to measure impact. After all, culture is subjective: What appeals to one member of the audience may not necessarily appeal to others, particularly when cultural products are dispersed around the world for consumption by audiences who have little or no cultural appreciation of what they are seeing. This means the audience holds the power. As Joseph Nye (2008: xiii) has noted, success in soft power means recognising that ‘outcomes [are] more in control of the subject than is often the case with hard power.’ In other words, audiences for international communications and cultural flows decide whether and how they will accept, internalise and act upon the message, and this decision may depend on a range of other internal and external influences – education, family, religious, peer pressure etc. – that affect and determine response. Perhaps this reveals that current approaches to soft power focus too much on the source of the communication and not enough on the power of the receiver living within distinct political, social and cultural contexts. Moreover, there is a danger that the audience may interpret the most benign cultural diplomacy as yet another example of ‘cultural imperialism’. Janice Bially Mattern (2005) called this the ‘hard character of soft power’ whereby claims of universalism or moral superiority may ultimately rebound as the ideas, principles and values that one nation-state communicates may be a challenge to, and be challenged by a range of alternatives. Confidence in the global value of one set of principles can easily be translated as cultural and political arrogance.

So given the difficulties associated with measuring results the Chinese government, like most governments around the world, obsess on outputs rather than the impacts of its soft power strategies, especially in the cultural realm. How many viewers does the international channel have? How many foreign students are studying in our higher education system? How much aid have we given a particular country? How many people went to see a film? These are merely quantifiable measures of outputs and tell us nothing about impact: did the film or television programme actually change viewers’ attitudes and opinions towards the source? These measures are a useful starting point to unpack and consider the effects of soft power instruments, and they are understandably attractive to bureaucratic machineries fighting for resources and looking only at short-term horizons. However, they cannot and do not measure human response.

A third weakness of locating culture and tradition at the forefront of soft power is that there is no guarantee that cultural interest will convert into tangible soft power outcomes. How does cultural power connect with one’s soft power aspirations and foreign policy ambitions? Favourable outcomes depend on converting the resources into measurable effects. Indeed, there is no direct correlation between consuming a cultural product and an increase in sympathy or empathy with the source. Watching a Chinese movie, attending a Chinese food festival or being thrilled by Yao Ming’s prowess on the basketball court does not necessarily translate into a change of attitude, opinion or behaviour towards China.

Finally, the Chinese government is far too involved in Chinese culture – defining it, financing it, deciding who represents China culturally, how it is projected, etc. Even the Hanban’s management of the Confucius Institutes generates credibility problems that the British Council, the Alliance Francaise or the Goethe Institute never have to experience because they maintain more distance and autonomy from their respective governments. Culture – national or otherwise – is not a state-directed phenomenon; its spontaneous, sometimes critical and even rebellious nature partly explains its appeal. Until the Chinese government allows its cultural industries the freedom to flourish, to create products that are challenging and sometimes defiant (and one only has to keep up-to-date with weibo to see how creative and sometimes subversive the Chinese can be), it is difficult to imagine how cultural forms of soft power will progress.

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.


Mattern, J.B. (2005), ‘Why “Soft Power” Isn’t So Soft: Representational Force and the Sociolinguistic Construction of Attraction in World Politics’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, vol.33, no.3.

Nye, J. (2008), ‘Forward’, in Y. Watanabe & D.L. McConnell (eds.), Soft Power Superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe).


  1. i’ve come to think of soft power as something you can not really generate from the top down, you can only harness it as a state once your society has generated its ‘raw material’. think of the hbo show the wire for example. it has had a big influence on the way people view the us. actually it shows america’s dark side much more than the us govt would have wanted. and yet i think it does enhance america’s credibility as a cultural power and a democracy. china’s soft power seems more like unauthentic exoticness and cliche philosophical fluffiness–fun for beginners, but hardly convincing in the light of what we read every day in the news

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