China's soft power situation in 2020

China's soft power, the power of attraction, is often debated and misunderstood. The United States has Hollywood, globally recognized brands and companies, and the pursuit of democratic "evangelism." The European Union is romantic and tourist attraction, with a sense of supranational unity (in the struggle), and its far-reaching diplomatic aid policy; Japan and South Korea are both powerful pop culture exporters. But what about China's soft power resources and strategy? When reading Joseph Nye's ternary combination of culture, values ​​and policies, it can be difficult to determine the source of attraction. The appeal of Chinese culture is still limited. Its values ​​do not reflect the country’s image and reputation abroad in most cases. Its foreign policy is at best skeptical, and at worst it is a hegemonist. Therefore, there is reason to ask whether China's "charm offensive" is losing momentum.

Following the amazing economic growth of the past few decades, most of China’s appeal lies in this success story, especially in the eyes of developing countries. However, the process is still being developed. Although tens of millions of citizens have been lifted out of poverty, people are still worried about falling into the middle-income trap and facing domestic problems such as an aging population and concerns about the pace of sustainable innovation. More broadly, it can be said that China's soft power depends largely on its economic influence.

Joshua Kurlantzick is one of his frequently cited works "Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Changes the World" . First of all, China's understanding of soft power is broader. Through international aid, the country has been blurring the line between soft power and economic power. Similarly, Huang Zonghan observed that China is building its economic soft power. This includes skilled economic diplomacy, as exemplified by major regional trade agreements or expanded official development assistance (ODA) for cooperation. One of China's most famous experts, David Shambaugh, claims that the most powerful tool in Beijing's soft power toolbox is money.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is a stark example of China's "soft" economic diplomacy. It was initially accused of covering up the problem, and since then has begun so-called "mask diplomacy", portraying itself as a responsible and helpful international role. Even in this case, the reaction is complicated. But it is undeniable that due to China's economic capabilities, China has been able to provide various forms of assistance. Xi Jinping recently promised that as long as he is ready, the vaccine will be generally available. This is in sharp contrast to Donald Trump's attempt to purchase a vaccine developed in Germany and first used in the United States. It is too early to say, but it can be said that countries that have benefited from Chinese aid will not forget this act.

Even from a narrow cultural perspective, it is difficult to distinguish China's attractive strategy from its economic strength. Few countries have the financial resources to open cultural centers around the world to promote mutual understanding. At present, there are more than 500 Confucius Institutes and classes in China. Although some people are shut down for fear of academic freedom on university campuses, most developing countries welcome them, especially considering that they teach an increasingly useful language and also provide scholarships to study in China.

Another example is China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious plan that aims to connect the world to the "middle kingdom" and is beneficial to all relevant partners. One of the principles is to connect diverse communities and cultures. Even in this case, it is supported by economic initiatives and incentives. Although the pandemic affected several ongoing projects, China will move forward as circumstances permit. Because of Covid-19, the widespread demand for infrastructure has not decreased, but some aspects should be reconsidered, such as employing local workers instead of using Chinese labor. Western countries have been widely criticized. So far, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that there is a "debt trap."

Having said that, although the two are not equivalent, there is already a comparison between the US Marshall Plan and the “Belt and Road” initiative. Following the 2009 financial crisis and the 2020 pandemic, will the Belt and Road Initiative define a new era of global socio-economic interaction towards shared prosperity? If this is the case, the beneficiary countries will be expected to recognize China’s strengths, at which time China will at least regain its central position on the Asian continent. Such major structural advantages (to achieve economic interdependence through interconnection) will give Beijing multiple channels of influence. Suppose that due to land connections and the Digital Silk Road, China's achievements may eventually be considered or even surpassed by the United States.

This situation shows that there is a close interaction between China’s soft power and economic power, such as through funding to activities that affect the diaspora community. . This is why observers believe that the country’s strategy is not so weak after all.

According to the above example, China's "cover-up diplomacy" depends to a large extent on its economic capabilities and extensive diplomatic influence. The global influence of the Confucius Institute depends on the availability and distribution of funds, and the “Belt and Road” initiative is possible because of China’s unprecedented economic achievements. Although uncertain, this country has received generous and timely assistance when needed, or its youth can enjoy the educational and professional opportunities provided by cultural institutions, or it will receive considerable economic benefits after the high-speed railway or new 5G network ( Even a combination of all of these) is expected to establish goodwill for China. This is especially true if these developments bring greater benefits to leaders and decision makers, and this in turn leads to a true win-win situation.

To sum up, what is China's soft power situation in 2020? Is there soft power with Chinese characteristics? Several studies have marked Indian behavior as a deceptive and manipulative "sharp force", but these methods are not always recognizable or necessary. Depending on who you ask and what information and values ​​you are promoting, propaganda attempts are not unique to authoritarian actors. China does not seem to imply that Beijing’s intentions are consistent honesty and transparency, but rather seems to adjust its strategy to suit each country, and its soft power will "hone" when necessary. However, skeptical observers tend to emphasize the negative aspects of their actions.

That means that China’s external interactions are complicated, but according to official policies, it can still be argued that China’s intentions are firstly economic, and secondly ideological and political. Regardless of whether or not to start a new Cold War, China’s efforts are mainly aimed at developing countries, especially its neighbors in Southeast Asia, so the demand to further attract them may be stronger than ever.

Compared with the United States, both countries have benefited greatly from economic achievements, but the United States can obtain the structural advantages of hard and soft, and most countries can not choose to withdraw. These are reflected in its role in international institutions, the prominent position of the US dollar in global trade and exchanges, and the almost ubiquitous American brands, cultural products and lifestyles accepted and taken for granted by many people. For the time being, although it can be said that it declined due to Trump's "America First" policy, this phenomenon is self-sufficient and China has limited opportunities to challenge it.

Countries such as Japan and South Korea managed to establish an attractive national image abroad, mainly due to China’s lack of freedom in creative industries. Therefore, it is said that soft power originates from multiple players outside the country, such as the private sector and civil society. In contrast, China's soft (hard) efforts are concentrated under government control. This has led to restrictions on some resources, such as the development of an attractive mass culture, while enhancing other resources, such as through the rapid allocation and deployment of financial and human resources when needed. Although China's "Charming Offensive" is not as "soft" as K-pop or Disney movies, and is harmless on the surface, it may be more effective in producing specific results. After all, the impact of attractive lifestyle and culture can be said to be weaker than the attractiveness of tangible aid and scholarships, especially when needed.

Nye realized the subtle boundary between soft power and economic power, he lamented that “sometimes in the real world, it is difficult to distinguish which part of the economic relationship includes hard power and soft power.” China’s strategy highlights its decision makers .

Although some investor relations scholars may say that China cannot afford to give up on soft power, soft power efforts are an important aspect of modern international relations. Although it is unclear how Covid-19 will continue to affect us and how to build China's image and reputation from it, the “Belt and Road” initiative is still the best option for the country to prove its critics wrong. Therefore, as long as it is supported by economic assets and growth, China's soft power will surely attract. In the end, a softer method with Chinese characteristics may appear, but there seems to be no urgency.

From E-International Relations

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