Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

China needs a (Soft) Power Play

By Max ZimmermanPublished October 11, 2013

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Despite being a country of over a billion people with a 5000 year uninterrupted history and, arguably, the most remarkable level of sustained economic growth ever, the Chinese government and people have a hard time exporting their culture abroad and gaining trust from the international community.
Last week, I read an article in the New York Times about the international clamor to woo Chinese tourists despite the growing resent against them. It is easy to see why nations around the world are going after Chinese tourists; they spend small fortunes. For example, in 2012, Chinese tourists spent $102 billion on international tourism.1 However, the perception of Chinese tourists, from the experience of many locals, is that they are rude and inconsiderate of others as well as local rules and norms. This negative perception got me thinking about China's soft power and cultural influence. Despite being a country of over a billion people with a 5000 year uninterrupted history and, arguably, the most remarkable level of sustained economic growth ever, the Chinese government and people have a hard time exporting their culture abroad and gaining trust from the international community.

Before I wrote this piece, I asked myself, how many Chinese brands did I know? Was I familiar with any Chinese movies or actors that recently became popular? What about Chinese art, fashion, or music? Despite being an Asian Studies major, I essentially knew nothing about these cultural aspects of China; yet I could probably name at least some brands, pop culture icons, or famous artists from Japan or Korea. One thing that is clear, however, is that the Chinese have a hard time exporting their culture. Many people do not know about the Chinese or their culture. While there are certainly many factors that contribute to this, I believe one of the key reasons for the lack of cultural exchange, or rather enthusiasm, on the behalf of the world toward Chinese cultural is due to international tensions and perceptions.

A major reason why the world has not embraced Chinese culture is an underlying tension between China and developed nations due to China's rapid growth. There are certainly economic frictions that always caused tension but there are also sociopolitical9 frictions. China, before the 1970's, purposely did not concern itself with world affairs and only dealt with international issues as it pertained to domestic stability. However, the last 30 years have seen China voluntarily open up to the world for the first time in its history. As a result, China's ideology has started to clash with the rest of the world's Western-based order. Many Chinese claim that they are disliked because they are misunderstood, as in people do not understand Chinese culture. However, David Shambaugh notes in his book China Goes Global that "In other words, to not agree with Chinese official policy or to be critical of it is seen as misunderstanding China." This notion does not exist in most Western-based countries to the same extent. That is not to say that the Western world is not also at fault for this lack of understanding - it partially is - but this is just one example of the perception problem between China and the rest of the world that originates from within China and why the Chinese have such a hard time marketing their culture.

China also is undergoing an identity crisis that has contributed to the lack of understanding by the Chinese themselves of who they are. As stated before, China was primarily concerned with international issues only if they affected domestic order. China's rise has created a conflict in within the country as China tries to answer calls by the West to become more involved in international affairs and pull its weight while maintaining its preference to not become too involved in international issues. This is creating an identity crisis not only in the government but also among the people. The Chinese are acutely aware of their growing abilities, economically and militarily, but still maintain an aversion toward international affairs. The debate over China's international policy in the future is still raging on in China today. While the time will tell China's solution, the answer now remains to be seen. In this lies the problem of how China can affectively market itself if it doesn't know it's identity.

In a world where major powers find themselves fighting amongst each other more on the diplomatic stage than in armed conflicts, soft power is becoming increasingly important. The US, the world's sole hegemon, uses soft power expertly due to its broad economic, cultural and military presence. While China's global economic presence hasbecome well establish and its military abilities continue to grow, the cultural dimension of China's soft power is lacking heavily. The economic and military dimensions of soft power are crucial but are internationally unpopular methods that can often do more damage than good. For this reason, the cultural dimension of soft power, a peaceful tactic, has become so important right now. China is scrambling to improve its world image in order to utilize this dimension of soft power it severely lacks.


1 http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/05/travel/china-tourists-spend/index.html