China’s Growing Influence: The Role of its Soft Power

Simon Leitch, PhD*

The rise of China has become one of the most discussed features of international politics in the 21st century, and policymakers and media pundits around the world are involved in an unending debate about the near-term and long-term significance of China’s return to great power status.  Analysts are captivated by China’s growing military potential, its cyber-weapons, its space program, its assertive nationalism and its growing economic leverage over its neighbors and trading partners.  These are all interesting issues to be sure, but an underrated element of China’s rise has been its rising “soft power” assets.

For most academics to have soft power means having the ability to persuade others to want what you want, or to attract them to your cause through the strength of your argument or legitimacy of your actions.  Of course, bribes and threats are a form of power often used in international politics (and often used by China) but threats and brides are sometimes clumsy weapons to use.  By crafting and advertising policies in such a way as they appear legitimate to outsiders, and by cultivating a positive national image, a state can operate with fewer barriers, less resistance and less resentment.

Chinese soft power has grown rapidly in recent years.  Thirty years ago China’s only friends in the West were those seeking to use China as a counterweight to Soviet ambitions in Asia, or those members of the radical left who were duped into believing that communism was liberation.  Today the story is different.  Global public opinion surveys continue to show that China is perceived fairly favorably by large swathes of the world’s populace, from the Asia-Pacific to Africa and Europe.  China has garnered cooperation from a diverse group of states in areas such as trade, tourism, education and infrastructure development, and Chinese statesmen are sure to be given a warm welcome in almost any foreign capital.  These developments are both causes and effects of Chinese soft power.

Beijing has been working on enhancing its soft power for many years and is equipped with increasingly well-oiled soft power machinery.  By opening China to tourism, foreign students and journalists whilst at the same time restricting foreign access to “approved” places the PRC has been able to present its best face to the world.  With a tightly controlled state media and highly disciplined and knowledgeable spokespersons, the information flow out of China is carefully monitored, filtered and disseminated with the aim of projecting a positive image of China and the ruling regime.  Foreign journalists and academics who propagate negative images of China are denied access for the future, and though such Chinese policies may themselves blur the lines between hard and soft power they do,  in the end, contribute enormously to soft power assets by altering how it is permissible to discuss China in international society.  Whereas Western politicians and journalists seem perfectly happy to label Kim Jong-un or various Iranian leaders as dictators, the government in Beijing has acquired a measure of legitimacy unheard of for a nominally communist state.

The coming of the digital age, marked by greater computerization and the mass utilization of the internet, has had important consequences for the exercise of soft power.  Although Beijing has been adept at digital censorship it is important to note how Beijing has embraced the internet and new media to promote its message.  Through translated press releases and dedicated foreign language broadcasts the PRC has challenged negative interpretations of its policies, advertised the positives of China’s development, reached out to foreign constituents and argued its position in international disputes.  Beijing now employs professional lobbyists in foreign capitals and it has been effective in promoting its self-serving version of history (to both foreign and domestic audiences) in a way few other major states can.  China paints itself as a victim of foreign aggression, and has helped perpetuate an influential discourse about China’s traditional culture and foreign policy which provide a convenient justification for its lack of democratization and territorial claims alike.

As China has grown more powerful and the United States has staggered under the weight of financial and political stagnation, the PRC has begun to offer itself as an alternative model of government for others to emulate, and as an alternative to the United States as a great power partner.  China’s veto powers in the UN and its growing importance as both market and supplier make it a valuable ally, and it is unsurprising that many states, particularly authoritarian regimes, see a partnership with China as a way of loosening the grip of liberal-democratic powers over the international system.  If China wants the United States and its allies to loosen their grip on the international system, so too do many others.  By presenting its foreign policy as a quest for sovereignty, non-interference, anti-hegemonism and economic development, whilst at the same time giving legitimacy to corrupt, authoritarian regimes, Beijing has made others realize that they want what Beijing wants.

Most analyses of Chinese soft power believe that China’s regime is a liability to its soft power, and insinuate that democracy is a key element of soft power.  Similarly, it is often thought that Chinese soft power is undermined by Beijing’s relations with dictators and human rights abusers.  This is wrongheaded for a number of reasons.  First, China’s soft power is often directed towards undemocratic regimes or states that have greater concerns than Chinese suffrage, and it has successfully attracted them.  Second, China’s government appears to have built legitimacy perfectly well to international audiences irrespective of its lack of democracy or high levels of corruption.  Which of the following figures was last able to meet President Obama in the Oval Office; the Dalai Lama or the President of the PRC?  If that is not extending legitimacy then the concept is too vague to quibble about it further.

*Dr. Leitch is an expert on International Relations theories. He examined Chinese Soft Power in his Doctoral Thesis. He writes from Brisbane. This is author’s personal view . It is neither reflective of his employer’s view nor Alochonaa’s view. He can be reached at

Categories: Asia, China, Politics, Soft Power

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