The Myth of China’s Soft Power

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The economic influence of the world’s rising power grows by the day, its trade surplus climbing month after month– never, it appears, to be reversed. It carries in its pocket almost $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves—the cold hard cash that is the very essence of influence in a post cold war world. Meanwhile its direct investment, soft loans, and aid to poorer countries soar; its embassies in key capitals grow in size and influence, often surpassing those of the United States, whose power around the world seems to wane, in inverse proportion to its rising debt and trade deficits. It’s no wonder that diplomats, academics and journalists around the world speculate with increasing frequency about the growing “soft power” of the new kid on the block, and how there seems to be so little the flagging United States can do about it.
And as we all know, Japan went on to become the new super power in the 1990s. American workers now sing the //kimigayo//, Japan’s national anthem, and do calisthenics every day before going to work in Japanese owned companies, while little girls all over the world learn the tea ceremony and wear //geta// and //kimono// as fashion statements.
Ok. I made that second paragraph up. But not the first. No sir. In the late 80s and early 90s, as a bureau chief sitting in Tokyo, I did my bit to help forge what became the conventional wisdom in New York, Washington and wherever else elites gathered to mope about the United State’s grim future. To say that we were wrong about the supposed `soft power’ of Japan became laughably obvious about halfway through the 90s. Journalists then spent the latter half of the 90s writing about Japan’s “lost decade.”
It’s useful to keep that in mind as the trope about `soft power’ again gets tossed about earnestly, only this time with China as the newly ascendant power, linking its own economic miracle to admiration and influence the world over. Let’s first state the obvious: China’s influence, particularly in its own east Asian backyard, //is// growing. And that is, in fact, a result of the country’s torrid economic pace in the last decade, as once suspicious neighbors get increasingly drawn into Beijing’s economic sphere of influence. At the same time, every poll shows admiration for the United States diminishing abroad, thanks mainly to its inept flailing in Iraq. But from there be careful about what conclusions to draw. It’s one thing to say China’s economic clout is rising in its backyard and beyond (mineral rich Africa is the other, often cited case of Beijing’s rising influence), but it’s quite another to say that its “soft power”– its ability to get other countries to do what it wants without coercing them– is on the rise. The two aren’t the same, at least to the constituency really in play when it comes to `soft power’s’ influence: people, not governments.
Soft power is not about a government’s inherent attractiveness, but a //society’s//– of which a government is only a part. The originator of the term, former Clinton administration official and Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, would have no trouble with that distinction. And that’s why much of the talk about China’s soft power is exaggerated. There’s no question that China’s economic success, coupled with its ongoing political repression, is a symbolic and substantive godsend to a lot of governments, particularly despots and dictators throughout the world. It says to them, see, your citizens can be economically satisfitied without you having to worry about this democracy stuff. China ostensibly offers an economic “model” in which state owned companies (unlike in the United States or much of Europe) continue to play a big role. And when there are screw ups— when, in a `you get what you pay for’ economic culture, companies obsessed with cost cutting contaminate a bunch of food exports—you can swiftly execute (as China did this week) the corrupt former head of the country’s Food and Drug Administration. Forget messy hearings and public trials and things like evidence of crimes committed; you can show a mortified populace (both at home and abroad) a bloody head on a pike and get on with things. If you’re a developing world dictator, what’s not to like?
The problem is that soft power’s constituency isn’t solely, or even mainly, other governments. Soft power includes economics, sure, but goes well beyond it; it deals with how a country is perceived, what it stands for. Yes, everyone the world over knows that China’s economy continues to grow rapidly. And an increasing number of people abroad benefit from its economic largesse. But in an interconnected, wired world, an awful lot of people also know that there’s more to China than just 10 per cent GNP growth. They know China’s soon going to be the world’s largest source of Co2 emissions—and that that’s likely to be the case for a long time to come. That 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. That Beijing censors its press and even the internet with withering efficiency. Just this week, to take but one example, the authorities shut down a sober, informative and mostly uncontroversial site called the China Development Brief (dedicated to covering economic development and the advancement of civil society in China) because it conducted “unauthorized surveys” in contravention of a 1993 “Statistics Law.” No question about it, nothing says `soft power’ more than when your Public Security Bureau feels compelled to kneecap a nice if somewhat dull little web site dedicated to covering China’s civic and economic evolution.
The fact is, no matter how much foreign aid it doles out or how big its embassies in southeast Asia are, I’m not even sure China is the real comer in Asia when it comes to soft power. Think of India, and what comes to mind? Poverty—sure. An icy relationship with Pakistan? Check. But how about Bollywood, booming software and high tech industries, and, oh yes, democracy.
Those who exaggerate the rise of China’s soft power—and mourn the US’s loss of it—tend to dismiss democracy. In the US, they’ll often say, it produced George W. Bush, who begat the Iraq mess in democracy’s name. But George W. Bush is gone in a year and a half, and his party has already been tossed out of power in Congress in elections last year. Any bets that if there’s a change in power in the White House in 2008 there will be a sudden decline in the global hand wringing about the US’s loss of `soft power?’ Meanwhile, in allegedly beguiling China, winning friends and influencing people the world over, the Communist Party will still be in power in 2009 and, I’d bet, for quite a long time to come. And 1.3 billion people, whether the economic miracle goes on or not, will have no real say in the matter. That’s a fact– a hard fact, you might say, nothing soft about it.

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