The CPD Blog is intended to stimulate dialog among scholars and practitioners from around the world in the public diplomacy sphere. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect CPD's views.


Public Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics

May 4, 2011

China’s quest for “soft power” in recent years is a direct consequence of its dramatic economic transformation over the last several decades. It is now an all-too-familiar story of how China is vigorously pursuing image-building efforts, from the global expansion of its media properties to the rapid growth of the Confucius Institutes. This has become particularly poignant at a time when, in stark contrast, the U.S. public diplomacy enterprise is facing shrinking budgets.

The first thing to understand about Chinese public diplomacy is the domestication of the underlying idea of “soft power.” Perhaps, nowhere else has “soft power” been as widely discussed, embraced, and appropriated as in China. Its domestic dimension is manifested by the inclusion in this endeavor of not only cultural development within the country, but also the home public as audience of public diplomacy.

China’s international image is a key anchor of contemporary Chinese national identity. Nowadays, the Chinese public is paying greater attention to how their country is perceived and judged overseas. For them, it is a question of collective identity, prestige, and arguably, China’s “face.” How the Chinese leadership handles China’s image abroad has serious consequences for its credibility and legitimacy at home.

Many wonder just how effective China has been in capturing the “hearts and minds” of the world. The story, so far, is mixed—with hits, duds, and many unknowns. For instance, the hosting of the Olympics has helped to broaden and reframe the international discourse about China, much to the benefit of the country’s image. On the other hand, the vastly expanded Chinese state media has increased the production of news and information, but with little consumption by foreign publics. The influence of the Confucius Institutes seems subtle and will only be felt over time if the current operating model is to be sustained.

However, the positive image China hopes to project is constantly overshadowed and undermined by negative headlines on the country’s policies and governance. Just recently, the exposé of yet another spate of food safety scandals prompted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to lament in the Chinese media that, without strengthening culture and morality, “China will never become a truly strong, respected nation.” These shifting political and communicative contexts underscore the grave challenges facing China’s soft-power project which will not likely be an instant great-leap-forward, but a long, gradual process.

Neither should China’s active outreach be viewed simply as a one-way, mechanistic process of charm offense. Since public diplomacy also has a reciprocal platform for soft power, these engagements produce ample opportunities for cross-cultural learning by Chinese practitioners, thereby potentially effecting the country’s adaptation to international norms and practices.

Above all, China’s pursuit of soft power has been driven by a desire to gain and reclaim respectability for the country as an equal to the West, rather than to become, as the noted scholar Wang Jisi has put it, a “hegemon or standard bearer” on the world stage. Indeed, China’s return to global prominence puts the country and the world in an unprecedented historical situation. Its outcome depends as much on how China charts a course of development and engagement as on the response of other countries to its re-emergence.

The story of China’s rise and its soft power, while significant and fascinating, remains open-ended. In this sense, we are all “crossing the river by feeling the stone.”


I wonder if Chinese government-backed efforts to promote the country's image throughout the world by lanuching "soft power" programs will be successful or not. There must be a methodology to measure the effectiveness of the programs. It’s all about “perception” which is difficult to gauge and can change over a small incident/event. I think the author has a good point about the fact that the government’s objectives in designing and implementing “soft power” programs in the world are to a very large degree for domestic reasons.

Thanks, HC. Yes, there are ways to evaluate public diplomacy programs. But any meaningful evaluation depends on whether program objectives were well defined in the first place. A related issue is how much we understand about the drivers of “country perception,” which are multifaceted, contextual, and often times shifting. It is therefore most challenging to impute effectiveness, or the lack thereof, from the individual initiative level to the aggregate level of country perception.

Jay, this is a great post!

I'm very much in agreement with the implicit assumption of the piece that "soft power," the power to influence the hearts and minds of others internationally has to somehow rest upon a set of inclusive, attractive, and relatable values. I'm reminded of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's cautious words almost 20 years ago of China's dilemma:

"Now, China may well become the world’s largest economy, but will it become the most admired and the most influential society? Will it have the technology, the standard of living, the quality of life, the lifestyle that others want? Have they got songs, lyrics and ideas that engage people? That is going to take time."

Despite his championing of a narrow set of so-called "Asian values", Lee was very much aware of the kind of value-based "soft power" and the dilemma China would face with its authoritarian approach in governance.

I’m getting your book on China's soft power! I wonder about a couple of things: 1) One can reasonably expect that China's domestic policies serve as a foundation of its soft power abroad. Is the Chinese government's authoritarian style of managing the society intrinsically incompatible with its desire to project "soft power"? 2) In your observation, to what extent is the government taking steps to reconcile these differences? 3) What in your estimation may be a reasonable set of societal values China can use to converse with the rest of the world and promote its soft power?

Sorry, these are rather broad questions, but I’m curious what you think. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks, Min. Great comments and questions! No easy answers, of course. The domestic mandate will continue to be a crucial foundation of China’s “soft power.” The country has come a long way in a very short time, and its societal values are in flux. But China also has a long memory of its culture. It’ll be most interesting to see how China’s historical experience is and will be brought to bear in the process of its “re-emergence.”

The work of public diplomacy general includes three sets of activities, promoting polices, communicating values/ideals, and building common understanding. It’ll be more meaningful to disaggregate and examine China’s efforts along these different but inter-related dimensions.

Any kind of attractiveness (including a country’s) exists in the eyes of the beholder. How one perceives another country is also a function of one’s self-image, which needs to be better integrated into our analysis and understanding.

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