Written by Jan Servaes.

The former dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Joseph Nye, introduced the concept of soft power in 1990. In a subsequent publication he argued that culture, political values and foreign policies have become new dimensions for international relations, which are not directly dependent on the hard power of economics and military might.

Soft power exercises influence indirectly by creating a certain climate, which may result in changes in influence over diplomatic decisions by the public opinion rather than by political elites only. For students of Marxism, this may look like a rehash of the (economic) base versus (ideological) superstructure model, resulting in the ‘determination’ debate during the seventies and eighties (Servaes, 1981). While Marxists continue to argue that the base (or hard power) ‘determines’ the superstructure (or soft power), idealists like Nye see it the other way around: ideas rule the world!

In newer contributions Nye added that public diplomacy is an important tool in the arsenal of soft power, and that, in a certain sense, soft power can only be achieved through public diplomacy (Nye, 2008: 95). For countries with differences in political, economic and cultural systems, the best way to influence public opinion is to increase mutual understanding and respect of differences through positive media messages, and to encourage more cultural, educational and business exchanges between countries.

Obviously in unison with the US State Department he later introduced the concept of ‘smart power’: “Smart power is the combination of the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of persuasion and attraction” (Nye, 2011: xiii).

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Hence, the discussion about soft power is often linked to the issue of public diplomacy. The initial concept of public diplomacy refers to state-driven activities such as scholarly exchanges, cultural events, and state-supported broadcasting to foreign audiences. Over the past decade, however, a new public diplomacy perspective has developed, which refers to activities that are beyond state actors. It has become a more fluid concept in the context of the new media and Internet environment (Pamment, 2013; Servaes, 2012b).

And a comparison between China and the United States is often the result. At present, the public diplomacy tools adopted by both China and the US are varied (Servaes, 2012a). However, according to many observers, China has a number of disadvantages: (a) these public diplomacy tools are trying to win a foreign public’s appreciation, but are not open to discussion; (b) most tools’ policy effects are difficult to control or evaluate; (c) China continues to be viewed as “still a relatively poor developing country”, (d) “the absence of a multi-party democracy”, and (e) at least until recently, China could not enjoy the ‘appeal’ that Western nations, especially the US, had in the rest of the world: cultural capital and ‘national brands’ such as Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Broadway, great sporting events, mega-stars and celebrities. However, the staging of the Beijing Olympics, the Shanghai Expo, the opening of Confucius Institutes, the emerging interest in learning Mandarin, and the growing popularity of CCTV programs and blockbuster movies may have triggered the start of a change in this regard (Servaes, 2012a, Wang, 2011).

In addition, in our opinion, the Chinese Dream and Soft Power aspirations may also be shattered by the reality on the ground. That’s where the interplay of ethics and strategic communication becomes important. While China may be learning fast how to move from propaganda to public relations or strategic communication, it still looses out in the battle of winning the hearts and minds of people (especially in the West, but increasingly also in other parts of the world – including China itself) on moral grounds.

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In a recent article, entitled “The Chinese dream shattered between hard and soft power?”, we tried to assess these tensions between hard and soft power, between the Chinese dream and the reality for the average Chinese. The soft power aspirations of the Chinese government were assessed against the backdrop of two current, still unfolding ‘power’ struggles: Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, and China’s strategy of using the Confucius Institutes as ‘cultural ambassadors’ in the world (see also here)

The elaborately choreographed prosecutions and trials, or confessions on TV may look ‘genuine’ at first, but, when more closely assessed, these show-trials reveal where power lies in an authoritarian state. “Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched an anti-corruption drive when he took over in 2012. But he has also overseen the broadest crackdown on grassroots activism that China has seen in recent years”, observed the BBC already in 2014. And, it doesn’t stop with anti-corruption cases; also other forms of activism have become suppressed.

For instance, just before International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015, Chinese police detained five women’s rights activists in Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou. They were suspected of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”, a charge police have used in recent years to target dissidents. The women were planning to protest against sexual harassment on public transport. “The five are thought to be the first people in modern Chinese history to be arrested for championing women’s rights”, comments the South China Morning Post on March 16, 2015. The Chinese authorities only released them after one month after their detentions sparked an international outcry.

No wonder that activists claim that Xi’s anti-corruption talk is merely a smoke screen for the president that allows him to crack down harder on dissent. They may have a point if one takes the imposed restrictions on press freedom into account as well. For instance, on 9 July 2014, it was reported that China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), bans reporters from sharing unpublished material on the internet or with overseas media: “The regulation would in effect ensure information is reported only after going through the tight censorship process”. For more recent interventions by the SARFT, see here.

“The censorship looks petty, silly and, worse, panicky. But the party has never been as concerned with how things look as with keeping an iron grip on power. If it were a corporation, that would be its core business,” The Economist concluded after the recent round of stricter press regulations and the ‘disappearance’ of human rights lawyers and Hong Kong booksellers (see also Huang & Jun, 2016; Wong, 2016; Wong & Gough, 2016).

Also a further crackdown on university education, especially in communication and journalism departments, is noticeable in this regard. Chinese Education Minister, Yuan Guiren, on 30 January 2015 urged universities to exert tighter control over the use of imported textbooks “that spread Western values”. Universities were urged to keep classrooms clear of remarks that “defame the rule of the Communist Party, smear socialism or violate the constitution and laws”. Which made the last British governor of Hong Kong, Lord Chris Patten observe that even “in Hong Kong, the autonomy of universities and free speech itself, guaranteed in the city’s Basic Law and the 50-year treaty between Britain and China on the city’s status, are under threat. The rationale seems to be that, because students strongly supported the pro-democracy protests in 2014, the universities where they study should be brought to heel. So the city’s government blunders away, stirring up trouble, clearly on the orders of the government in Beijing” (see also here).

The Economist in a special issue on the Future of China sums it up: “Economically and militarily, China has come a long way towards regaining the centrality in Asia it enjoyed through much of history. Intellectually and morally, it has not. In the old days it held a ‘soft power’ so strong, according to William Kirby of Harvard University, that ‘neighbours converted themselves’ to it. Now, Mr Xi may know how to assert himself and how to be feared, at home and abroad. But without the ability to exert a greater power of attraction, too, such strength will always tend to destabilize”.

In other words, there is still some way to go for China before its Dream comes true and its Soft Power will be appreciated and endorsed by people around the world (including China) as ethically sound and strategically commonsensical.

Jan Servaes is Chair Professor at the Department of Media and Communication, the City University of Hong Kong. Image credit: CC by wei zheng wang/Flickr.


Nye, Joseph S. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in International Relations. New York: Public Affairs Press.
Nye, Joseph S. (2008). “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power”, Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science, vol. 616, no. 1 (March 2008): 95.
Nye, Joseph S. (2011). The future of power. New York: Public Affairs.
Pamment, James (2013). New public diplomacy in the 21st century. Evaluating policy and practice. Oxford: Routledge.
Servaes, Jan (ed.) (1981). Van ideologie tot macht. Leuven: Kritak.
Servaes, Jan (2013) “The many faces of (soft) power, democracy and the Internet”.
Servaes, Jan (2016). “The Chinese Dream shattered between hard and soft power?”. 
Wang, Jian (ed.) (2011). Soft power in China. Public Diplomacy through Communication. Palgrave/Macmillan, London

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