Written by Barry Buzan.

There is little doubt that in relation to its size, wealth, and culture, China underperforms in the area of soft power, is conscious of that weakness, and wants to improve its performance (Li, 2008). Soft power is about the non-coercive ability to change the preferences of others, to make them want what you want purely by the force of attraction and persuasion (Nye, 2004). It is about economic and especially cultural power, in contrast to the hard power of military capability.

It can be understood in terms of Wendt’s (1999) argument that social structures can be held together by three different means: coercion, calculation and belief. Of these, belief produces by far the most stable and efficient social structures. Hard power holds social structures together inefficiently and temporarily by force. Soft power works by calculation (it is to my advantage to behave in this way) and by belief (it is good, or right, to behave in this way).

The Chinese government understands, rightly, that it needs soft power both to increase its status abroad, and to possess a more balanced power profile to compete with the West. It also needs it to defend its own culture and ‘Chinese characteristics’ from being subverted and replaced by Western cultural values. What it does not seem to understand, or at least cannot seem to find a way of dealing with, is that soft power comes mainly from civil society. Although governments can do some things to generate soft power, especially on the calculated, economic side, they can do little on the cultural side, which is where the real, durable effect of soft power works most strongly.

Indeed a good case can be made that when the government is the major player, this works systematically against the effectiveness of soft power. People everywhere rightly treat governments, both their own and others, with suspicion. Governments are self-interested players with well-known propensities to lie, deceive and manipulate. When the government is the main face of a country’s soft power, that soft power will be taken by outsiders mainly as propaganda, and sometimes actively opposed.

Soft power comes from the unmediated voice of civil society which does not attract such suspicions. No clearer example of the link between effective soft power and civil society can be given than the widespread admiration that many people have for American society even while they dislike or hate its government. American popular culture is hugely influential all over the world despite the many reservations that people have about the US government and many of its policies. That popular culture carries American values of individualism, consumerism, capitalism and religion far and wide. The government does not have to do anything other than get out of the way to make this happen.

The problem for China is threefold: 1) China’s government does not in itself have a good image to sell abroad; 2) the Chinese government appears to be afraid of the civil society that its highly successful economic reforms have created; and 3) because of its totalitarian traditions, it does not know how to get out of the way.

The poor image of China’s government abroad has many roots. Most obviously, China’s strong opposition to democracy makes it something of an outlier in Western-global international society (Jones, 2014). The CCP’s firm commitment to its own authoritarian rule creates a gap not only with the West, but also with most other big powers other than Russia. While the government is admired for its economic accomplishments, its sometimes aggressive foreign policy behaviour, and its repressions of both minority peoples and its own civil society, give it a bad image abroad.

People have not forgotten that this is the same CCP that during the 1950s, 60s and 70s went to war with Vietnam and India, subjected its people to the horrors of the great leap forward and the cultural revolution and in 1989 ruthlessly destroyed the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Not surprisingly, many outsiders are disinclined to trust it.

The Chinese government’s fear of the Chinese people is communicated abroad both by its repression of a wide spectrum of civil society voices and by the priority it gives to domestic security, and this adds to its poor image. The insecurity of the CCP, and the high priority it gives to its own survival has huge consequences both for China and for the world. Domestically, it drives a continuous and self-damaging need for coercive control over China’s civil society that undermines the country’s legitimate aspiration to generate soft power commensurate with its size and cultural weight.

The CCP’s suppression of independent civil society voices and activity stifles exactly that part of China’s society that is essential to the generation of soft power on a global scale. The party thus cuts off a key source of the international status and respect that both it and China want (Schell and Delury, 2013: 396-9). China spends as much or more on domestic security as it does on external defence (Shambaugh, 2013: 3, 58). Wang and Minzner (2015) show in detail how, since the domestic and international turbulence in the communist world in 1989, the CCP has securitized domestic political stability, and constructed a massive domestic security apparatus to enforce its control.

It is highly revealing that the first priority of the PLA is still to defend the Party not the country (Harris, 2014: loc. 850). As Shambaugh (2013: 3, 14-18, 309-11), like many others (e.g. (Shirk, 2007: 53), argues, the deep insecurity of the CCP, and the priority it gives to domestic over foreign policy, generates close links between domestic and foreign policy in China. The international consequence of this is that regime security dominates national security, pushing the government to look tough abroad in order to defend itself against nationalist criticism at home. None of this does any good at all for the external image of China’s government.

The third problem is that China’s government does not know how to get out of the way. Instead, it is trying itself to generate soft power by the use of public diplomacy, in the process confusing the two. Its attempts to generate soft power by state action mainly fail or are counterproductive, and reveal that the CCP does not understand the difference between soft power emanating largely from civil society, and public diplomacy and propaganda by the state (Shambaugh, 2013: 207-67).

There is a place for public diplomacy, and even for propaganda, but these activities are not the same as soft power, and can easily be contradictory to it when the government is itself view by outsiders with suspicion. This has been the story of China’s Confucius Institutes, many of which have become targets of protest because they are seen as being too closely associated with the Chinese state, and therefore threatening to the academic independence of the universities that accept them. China needs to get used to the idea, as the US has done, that outsiders make a sharp differentiation between the Chinese party/state on the one hand (which mostly they do not like very much) and the Chinese people and culture on the other.

China’s potential for generating soft power is huge, but it will not be realised until the government realises that this is not something that can be done by the state, and gets out of the way of its civil society. China’s leadership has to make up its own mind about what it wants. If it wants mainly to retain a very tight leash over its civil society, then it will not be successful at generating soft power and will have to forego the benefits of having that kind of power. If it wants to have soft power it will need to find some way of changing its domestic security equation so as to allow a wider range of voices to speak within China and to the world.

Barry Buzan is a Professor Emeritus at the LSE. One of his latest publications is Wilson, Peter and Zhang, Yongjin and Knudsen, Tonny Brems and Wilson, Peter and Sharp, Paul and Navari, Cornelia and Buzan, Barry (2016) The English School in retrospect and prospect: Barry Buzan’s an introduction to the English School of International Relations: the societal approach Cooperation and Conflict, 51 (1). Image credit: CC by Wojtek Gurak/Flickr.


Harris, Stuart (2014) China’s Foreign Policy, Cambridge: Polity.
Jones, Catherine (2014) ‘Constructing great powers: China’s status in a socially constructed plurality’, International Politics, 51:5, 597=618.
Li, Mingjiang (2008) ‘China Debates Soft Power’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2:2, 287-308.
Nye, Joseph (2004) Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics, New York: Public Affairs.
Schell, Orville and John Delury (2013) Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, London: Little, Brown.
Shambaugh, David (2013) China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle edn.
Shirk, Susan (2007) China: Fragile Superpower, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle edn.
Wang, Yuhua, and Carl Minzner (2015) ‘The Rise of the Chinese Security State’, China Quarterly, 222, 339-59.
Wendt, Alexander (1999) Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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