May 31, 2023

China, Money Can’t Buy You Love

Why does China struggle to win hearts and minds abroad? Why is it still “uncool” in the international arena?

Image Credit: Taylor Callery

The American political scientist Joseph Nye once said: “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.” These revolutionary notions of diplomacy and soft power seemed implausible when they were introduced in the late 1980s at the peak of tensions between the Soviet Union and the West. Yet, even before Nye and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Iron Curtain had been pierced by American television and movies. And in today’s globalized world, soft power is the “new great game” for global influence. It is Disney’s vast catalog of movies showcasing America’s embrace of weirdness and diversity that led me here. It is K-pop boybands like BTS that had a generation of young people rally behind the concept of soft masculinity and broaden the idea of manhood. It is anime-induced tourism that became a driving force of Japan’s economic growth over the past two decades. 

Indeed, it is also what China has been attempting to accomplish over the last decade. According to David Shambaugh of George Washington University, China has spent $10 billion a year on soft power. This is more than the combined government spending of the US, UK, France, Germany, and Japan on soft power. But China still ranks 27th in the extensively conferred Soft Power 30 Index

Why does China struggle to win hearts and minds abroad? Why is it still “uncool” in the international arena?

In his book The Future of Power, Joseph Nye states that the three pillars of soft power are political values, foreign policies, and cultures. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) knows that its political ideologies and values hold little allure for other countries or even its own citizens. Therefore, China’s soft-power strategy is fundamentally rooted in bolstering its culture and promoting a “benevolent” foreign policy by building roads, railways, and stadiums for countries across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Commonly known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), these investments are intended to fortify China’s image as a benevolent and altruistic country keen to use its newfangled affluence for the good of the world. 

Nonetheless, Nye sees these efforts as nothing more than thinly-veiled expressions of hard power since this so-called “soft power” comes with a very hard edge. One of the reasons why the United States has wielded soft power with such success on the world stage for so long is due to the preeminent role of multilateralism in its foreign policy. By binding nations together through shared values and concerns and giving small powers a voice, other countries do not feel as threatened by the United States’ supremacy. According to Nye, “The multilateralism of American pre-eminence was a key to its longevity because it reduced the incentives for constructing countervailing alliances.” In contrast, rather than seeking to achieve influence by creating international networks, communicating compelling narratives, and upholding international rules and norms, the CCP utilizes the traditional “carrot-and-stick” strategy in its foreign policy. 

The world has seen this time after time. We saw it when China imposed trade sanctions on Norway in 2010 for honoring the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo with the Nobel Peace Prize. We saw it when Beijing threatened to ban exports of German cars to China in 2019 on “safety” grounds if Berlin excluded Chinese firm Huawei from building Germany’s 5G communications network. We saw it when China took a series of trade actions against the Australian export sector throughout 2020 after Australia sought an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. We saw it in October 2022 when Muslim-majority countries such as Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, and Pakistan voted against a motion that the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should hold a debate on China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, since these countries are profiting from billions of dollars in Chinese investments through China’s BRI program. Above all else, China’s power comes from its economic might; it comes from having a domestic market of 1.4 billion people; and it comes from economic coercion. Other countries fall in line not because of China’s benign foreign policy, but because they don’t want to be shut out of its lucrative market. 

In addition, China’s soft power languishes far behind that of its Western rivals and East Asian neighbors because the CCP’s political ideologies undermine its ability to spread Chinese culture abroad. In other words, this deficiency isn’t due to a lack of culture to share and export to the outside world. It is due to the fact that everything that is to be shown has to go through censorship and propaganda which filters out anything that is organic or can be perceived as damaging to the party, a definition that is highly arbitrary. Unlike the Berlin Wall, the Great Firewall is more solid and impenetrable. Restrictions on information may hinder any unwanted intrusion of banned material, but it also prevents the rest of the world from accessing and learning about contemporary Chinese culture. Its colorful communities of scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, and celebrities are absent from global forums, where presence is everything in the modern technology age.

When Joseph Nye wrote about soft power, he argued that governments could not manufacture it and that much of America’s had originated from its civil society: “everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture.” Conversely, the CCP does not trust this connected world of the internet and its leaderless attribute. It does not trust a world where a new generation of political leaders could cultivate their support through impetuous worldwide debates. A world where celebrities could chime in on diverse topics and deftly engage in dialogue on business, politics, and social discourse. A world like that seems too volatile. 

The party is obsessed with social stability, which is instituted through orthodoxy and deliberately entrenched through a social credit system. Paranoid of the potential for volatility at home, yet eager to better China’s image abroad, the regime strives to thoroughly script everything its scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists have to say. This kind of state control is embodied in the form of pop songs that endorse the CCP leaders and castigate Western institutions. For instance, the songwriter Wufeng Jifeng wrote his most famous pop hit, “As You Wished” to praise China’s first Premier Zhou Enlai. But this sort of song has failed to generate any fanbase for the singer outside of China because, candidly, nobody is going to think that state-sponsored entertainment is cool, or believe that rap about communism is the next big thing. It only serves to make China seem out of touch with the rest of the world.

Without a doubt, due to how the censorship apparatus works in China, creativity that would have otherwise flourished in unfettered and free-thinking societies is suffocated and stifled. Anything that does not align with the CCP’s ideologies is not allowed in the media. Things like men’s earrings and tattoos, which are a bedrock of pop culture fashion trends, are banned since they go against the “core socialist values.” In 2014, President Xi Jinping called for artists to “carry forward the banner of the Socialist core value system” and “use true-to-life images to tell people what they should affirm and praise, and what they must oppose and deny.” Even though the statement did not discriminate between genres of arts, the rock scene was most impacted, particularly in cities like Beijing which has a lively music scene but has some of its venues shut down.

The CCP cannot limit the creative expression of artists and expect them to create good artwork. Out of everything, Chinese books seem to have been affected the most negatively by censorship. With contemporary literature, what usually happens is that any original storylines and main plot points that don’t line up with the party’s narrative must be rewritten in order to adhere to state regulations. This alters the entire story and dilutes what could have been an amazing plot, and eventually, it does not have the same effect anymore when China exports the material to other countries or even to its domestic audiences.

This phenomenon is best illustrated by one of my all-time favorite novels, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (魔道祖师), written by the Chinese author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. The novel is a danmei, a genre of literature that features romantic relationships between male characters. However, when it was adapted into a live-action series by Tencent Penguin Pictures, a Chinese production company, the trope went from the two male protagonists being love interests to platonic “best friends” who would do everything for each other. This is a prime example of chopping and changing what is essential to the integrity of a work and forcing it to fit the political ideology of the party.

Ultimately, China’s authoritarian political system is the biggest obstacle to the positive image that the CCP yearns for. What the party fails to acknowledge is that, regardless of the country’s economic growth, its endeavor for soft power will be an uphill battle so long as its political system prevents the development of freedom and ingenuity and forbids its people from interacting directly with everyone else. At the end of the day, China cannot simply buy love. It cannot merely throw money around and expect to see progress. Soft power needs to be earned.

“Water is the softest thing, yet it can penetrate mountains and earth. This shows clearly the principle of softness overcoming hardness.” I doubt Lao Tzu was able to conceptualize something like 21st-century international politics, diplomacy, or a globalized world when he wrote this, but he certainly could understand the strength of soft power because “what is soft is strong.” If China ever hopes to be cool, it needs to let the water run through and “cool” off the Great Firewall a bit. “That would mean loosening draconian restraints at home and reducing efforts to control opinion abroad. Only then could the country tap its enormous reserves of unrealized soft power,” as David Shambaugh put it.

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