Chinese Soft Power: Friendship Instead of Fearship

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Chinese Soft Power: Friendship Instead of Fearship


Jonathan Doc Bradley

Department of Political Science

University of Nevada, Las Vegas


The People’s Republic of China’s position on the world stage has greatly increased over the last 30 years. Countries who are seeking a path to modernization, or authoritarian governments who wish to maintain power but still reap the benefits of being a modernized state, can look to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a model. The PRC now wants to be viewed as a “good neighbor” instead of the socialist threat so often espoused by the West. To this end, the PRC is consistently using soft power to increase its stature among the nations of the world. Through soft power, the PRC is trying to create a harmonious, multi-polar world. In conjunction with the PRC’s application of soft power, less developed states have started to view the PRC’s meteoric rise as a new path to modernization and success. Beyond that, the PRC’s incorporation of soft power is helping to create and strengthen friendships both regionally and abroad.

The PRC is a resource-hungry nation, but its needs go beyond food and land. A pressing desire for the PRC is new and expanded markets for its goods. Central America is a ripe market for PRC trade. The countries of Central America are reasonably accessible to the PRC through ocean shipping. These countries also have experienced improved conditions and economic stability over the last two decades. The countries of Central America are at various stages of modernization themselves, but most have not yet reached the industrialization level of the PRC. Whereas the PRC once reached out to the world for help on its path to modernization, it is now in a position to help others in the same situation. To be sure, this help is not completely altruistic. Central America’s proximity to the United States (US) market, as well as Central America’s food production capabilities, raw materials and cheap labor, make Central America a very attractive location for Chinese foreign direct investment. However, in Central America, only Costa Rica and Mexico officially recognizes the PRC as the legitimate, or as is often referred to in the literature, one China (Lum et. al, 2009). Official diplomatic recognition is important to the PRC.

This article will examine PRC’s soft power and its effectiveness in the international relations arena. The research will show that the PRC application of soft power has aided the PRC in creating good will towards itself from other nations in the world, particularly in Central America. The use of soft power has aided the Chinese Communist Party in its goal to further isolate the Republic of China on the island of Taiwan thus increasing the chances of reunification. The PRC is also working to increase its hard power through economic and military means, especially regionally. Utilization of economic prowess is included in the definition of hard power, but not all aspects of economic power are easily attributed to hard power. Economic aid, unfettered foreign direct investment, the general appeal of a strong economy, and trade can all be either direct applications of soft power or they can aid in creating more good will between states thus strengthening friendships. It is also important to present information on the Beijing Consensus which is becoming more prominent in the International Relations paradigm of research on the PRC. The overriding investigation of this article is “Is the PRC’s soft power initiative actually producing results, especially in the arena of reunification?” This article shows evidence that the answer is yes. The conclusions section will reiterate the points made through the article and also include a discussion on how the US is affected by the PRC’s growing power.

Concepts and Methods

Joseph Nye coalesced the idea of soft power in his 1990 work Bound to Lead. His work builds on the concept of national power as detailed by Hans J. Morgenthau’s (Huang & Ding, 2006). In essence, soft power is the ability for a nation to achieve its goals through attraction, and not through intimidation or bribery (Nye, 1990). In Nye’s concept, soft power relies mostly on foreign policy, political and social values, plus national culture. Soft power is an external manifestation to be applied to foreign states. Nye additionally conceptualizes soft power going hand-in-hand with hard power (economic power and military power). Soft power refers to achieving goals through attraction rather than coercion or payments (Cho & Jeong, 2008). Soft power is the power of attraction (Huang & Deng, 2007). Where Nye defines western soft power as a tool that developed on its own, somewhat independently of state planning, the Chinese Communist Party is actively employing soft power as part of its charm offensive around the world.

For the purposes of this article, modernization theory is also a guiding framework, but only as the seedbed from which PRC soft power grew. It is difficult to do an accurate assessment of the PRC without including its rapid and structured modernization. To that end, modernization theory is utilized as the over-arching theoretical framework. Much modern Chinese academic scholarship views the rise of the PRC in a modernization paradigm, but it is somewhat different than the traditional view of western modernization theory. Western modernization theory states that socioeconomic development is linked with coherent and somewhat predictable culture and political changes (Inglehart & Welzel, 2005:19). A liberal democracy is not required for industrialization. However, where modernization theory extols western liberal democracy is in the post-industrialist phase. In this phase the goal of modernization is to become like the west in all aspects (Cao, 2009). “The western world is widely perceived to be the highest development stage of human social evolution. And it was believed that the non-western world would use the western as an example to pursue” (Peng, 2009). The PRC’s success in modernization without liberalization (at least not western style liberalization) has made the PRC model, referred to as the Beijing Consensus, attractive to authoritarian regimes that seek to modernize without democratizing.

Many countries in the Global South are starting to be attracted to a modernization path known as the Beijing Consensus (Huang & Ding, 2007). The Beijing Consensus, also known as the China Model, stands in contrast to the western model known as the Washington Consensus. The Washington Consensus places heavy demands for democratic reforms and neoliberalism from countries seeking various types of aid from the West. The Washington Consensus tends to measure success in economic terms (Chen & Goodman, 2012). Whereas, instead of pure Gross Domestic Product, the Beijing Consensus model measure quality of life and equality as importantly as economic success, at least in theory. It also measures a nation’s level of self-determination in its actions on the world stage. The Beijing Consensus model takes into account the level of innovation a nation employs in its own development (Ramo, 5/11/2004; Huang & Ding, 2007).

Hegemonic Stability Theory postulates the world stability is greatly increased if there is a single, dominant, world power (hegemon). The leadership of this dominant state becomes a focal point for world harmony. The hegemon uses coercion, intimidation, economic or military power, diplomacy, or simple persuasion as tools to maintain stability. The sheer scope of power of the hegemon makes the before mentioned tools effective on the world stage (Koehane, 1980). The PRC, however, advocates a multipolar world in which regional hegemonies promote regional stability. For the PRC, regional hegemony provides much more stability and understanding through cultural similarities. The PRC has experienced the effects of domination by foreign states from the other side of the world and seemingly seeks to prevent that in the future for itself and other states (Turner, 2009). The Chinese Communist Party claims it has no desire to see the PRC turn into a world hegemonic power to rival the US. However, it is possible that regional hegemony by China would require a relinquishing of US dominance in the region. This is most likely true of US military posturing in East and Southeast Asia, but the US’ own soft power in the region should easily coexist with PRC soft power.

Significance of Research

The Chinese Communist Party’s policy of a “harmonious world” is a signal to the other nations the PRC is placing itself on the world stage (Zheng & Tok, 2007). The PRC is using soft power to redraw the map of geopolitical alliances to help propel itself to a position of power (Huang & Ding, 2006). The PRC has become a major factor in international relations, and its policies have an effect on many nations throughout the world. Its rise to power has become a very attractive pathway to many states in the global south who no longer want to adhere to the western model of modernization, or more importantly, the West idea of what a modern nation/state is supposed to look like.

The Beijing Consensus, at this point, is more of a theoretical concept than a stated goal of the Chinese Communist Party. However, if the PRC continues its rise and can stabilize itself to be a lasting power, the Beijing Consensus will become a very attractive alternative to the Washington Consensus in many Global South nations that are seeking to modernize. Even though the CCP is not actively exporting the Beijing Consensus model, it may very well become a viable path for other states to follow. By utilizing soft power throughout the world to improve its image and further its goals, the CCP is making the Beijing Consensus more attractive. This research will provide a better understanding how PRC soft power is creating a new paradigm in international relations.

Additionally, multi-national military conflict seems to be giving way to internalized conflict. Massive, over-the-border wars may become aspects of history as opposed to future threats. Not too completely discount the possibility of future state to state warfare, but global wars that involve entire continents do not appear to be looming on the horizon. This could very well be a result of the US’ unipolar hegemony. Because of the sheer dominance of US military might, it would be unwise for any country to attempt to usurp US hegemony through military means. However, economic dominance has become a possibility. This has become more feasible after the Great Recession of 2008. Soft power could become a very effective tool in the international arena of the 21st century. The PRC is incorporating soft power directly into its foreign policy, instead of just allowing it to act amorphously. If the PRC is able to create strong friendships through soft power, instead of international “fearships” through its growing military power, the PRC could possibly create a soft-power-based hegemony. Arguably, that likelihood is remote, but the Chinese Communist Party seems to think it is possible. And if it does, Hegemonic Stability Theory will most likely need to be retooled (Keohane, 1980).

One potential flash point that could lead to armed conflict is Taiwan. The US has repeatedly assured the Taiwanese that if the PRC attempted to take the island through military force the US would intervene. The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly stated that an attempt by Taiwan to become independent could result in a military intervention by the PRC. If this did happen, and the US decided to hold to its stated obligation, it could result in a limited conflict in the South China Sea that could escalate into a very ugly war. As of now, there appears to be a level of détente between the PRC and Taiwan over reunification. The PRC is, though, using ample doses of soft power to lure Taiwan to reconciliation, thus preventing any need for military conflict. Better understanding of this application of soft power will contribute to the growing literature on resolving internalized and externalized conflicts without resorting to military or economic means.

Scholarship on Chinese Soft Power Utilization

Utilizing soft power to promote regional stability and rapid but controlled modernization are both stated goals of the PRC. These paradigms are readily being used by the Chinese Communist Party to further its goals. Because of this, there is a plethora of scholarly material on both. Some of the most interesting aspects of the application of soft power by the PRC are discussions of the rich cultural history China possesses. Sharing culture and the attractiveness of one’s culture are very powerful forms of soft power. Chinese religious history has permeated the world and become a strong aspect of PRC soft power. Buddhism, Taoism and the philosophy of Confucius (Master Kung-Fu-Zi), all teach harmony, virtue and peace. The PRC has reincorporated these ideas in its application of soft power as a way of showing the world that it seeks to live in harmony without suppressing differences (Li, 2008). The Chinese Communist Party has distaste for religion, even the ones ehich originated in China, owing to Mao Zedong Thought and Marxist ideology. However, Confucianism is not a religion, no matter how the western world characterizes it. Internally, Confucius has always been treated as a philosopher. Under Chairman Mao and the early communist, Confucian thought fell out of favor because of its link to feudal China. Recently, Confucian thought has seen a revival, especially in the area of soft power (Cho & Jeung, 2008; Ding, 2008). Confucius has become a powerful tool in the PRC’s soft power policies. The PRC sponsors Confucius Institutes throughout the world at various major universities. At the time of this writing there are well over 100 Confucian Institutions worldwide. These institutes teach Chinese history, culture and the Mandarin language (Li, 2008, Madsen, 2010). With the spread of the Confucius Institutes, the PRC is fostering interest in Chinese culture, and a better understanding of China.

Li Mingjiang examines the overall understanding of soft power among Chinese intellectuals and decision makers, and how that understanding affects China’s international strategy. Li’s work is very useful in that it is an overview of the scholarship of Chinese academics and state policy makers. Li coalesces the works of other scholars to show the restructuring of western interpretations of soft power are the same as what the Chinese Communist Party did in defining modernization. Western style modernization presses the ideas of individualism, materialism and science as the driving mechanism of industrialization. But these driving forces create tension between people and states. The Chinese Communist Party is trying to stave off the individualism that arises out of modernization by reshaping soft power to deal with its own people. Confucian philosophy teaches that a state’s priority should be to the people and that the people should live in harmony with the world. Moderate and liberal members of the Chinese Communist Party are now advocated that these ideas should be reembraced as a guide to dealing with the oncoming post-industrialism of the PRC (2008).

Returning to externalize uses of soft power, the Chinese Communist Party has started propagating ideas of “responsible power,” “peaceful rise and development,” “harmonious world,” and a “good neighbor policy” internationally in an effort to mitigate the fears of its neighbors (Cho & Jeong, 2008). These ideas are very rooted in Confucian ideology, but they also borrow from traditional Chinese religion. There is a concept in Taoism which has been cited in the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward non-intervention in foreign state affairs. In Taoism, wu-wei is a principle concept. It has been poetically referred to as the “art of doing nothing” (Locke, 2000). More accurately it advocates non-activity and non-intervention in hopes of preserving life and avoiding harm (Ding, 2008). The PRC has exemplified this concept in its international relations. The PRC seeks, are at least it claims to seek, that part of being a good neighbor is not forcing neighboring states to act and/or think a certain way. The Chinese Communist Party has no stated desire to “easternize” the world.

As part of its soft power offensive, the PRC has laid out five principles in its relations with other nations. The PRC seeks peaceful coexistence, mutually beneficial cooperation on the basis of national equality, mutual respect between states, non-interference in internal affairs, and the resolution of conflict through dialogue (Chan, 2004). All of these concepts can be traced back to Confucian thought, with subtle doses of Taoist non-action and Buddhist respect. The way the PRC enacts these policies in its relations with the rest of the world has become part of what is known as the Beijing Consensus.

The Beijing Consensus is not a PRC policy. It was first conceptualized by J Cooper Ramo, managing director and partner at the Beijing office of Kissinger Associates, as a way to describe the PRC’s intended path to modernization without incorporating western political ideology. More importantly though, it lays out how the world has come to interpret the PRC’s ascendancy to modernization without “westernizing.” It also details how Beijing is willing to invest in foreign countries regardless of those countries records on human rights or citizen freedoms (2004). The Beijing Consensus is a powerful tool for PRC soft power. Although the PRC does not actively export its path to modernization as a model for developing countries, many pre-industrial states that are resistant to the neo-liberal, string-laden Washington Consensus model have found it an attractive path to modernization (Li, 2008; Cho & Jeong, 2008; Ding, 2008).

Because of the Chinese Communist Party’s carefully crafted soft-power foreign policy, the Global South has become a prime location for Beijing to extol its “harmonious world” ideals (Ding, 2008). The countries of Central America are parts of the global south where the PRC has lately been applying its soft power. The PRC’s foreign policy in Central America is particularly attractive to the countries of that region because of the ideals behind the Beijing Consensus. Part of the appeal of the Beijing Consensus is it doesn’t come with the morality issues, democratic reforms, and liberalized business policies extolled in American aid packages based on Washington Consensus’ neo-liberal policies which interfere with state autonomy.

However, the PRC is most likely not being completely altruistic in its relations with the countries of the Global South. Instead, it is more likely trying to change the state policies of those countries through the use soft power for the benefit of the PRC. For instance, Central America has the highest concentration of countries that still officially recognize Taiwan. Reunification with Taiwan is a primary goal of the Chinese Communist Party under its “One China” policy. The PRC interactions with Central America are “no-strings-attached” as described by the Beijing Consensus, the Chinese Communist Party has a long term goal to further isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world (Ding, 2008). This has been a point of contention in the PRC’s relations with the countries of Central America. Stronger ties to the countries of Central America could lead those states to change their official diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC.

Right now, the PRC is using soft power defensively for its own security by trying to cultivate a better image of itself amongst its neighbors and the outside world. Soft power is also being used to dispel outdated concepts perpetuated by western cultures attributed to the authoritarianism and repressiveness of communist and socialist nations. However, the Chinese Communist Party leadership is aware that as it becomes more powerful other states will become more worried about PRC hegemony. It is the Chinese Communist Party’s goal to use soft power to dissuade this fear (Li, 2008) Although the PRC is actively strengthening and modernizing its military, it still has a very limited ability to project that power around the world, especially if its attempt was countered by the US, Europe or Russia. Because of this, it has been much more practical and prudent for the PRC to rely on soft power in international relations (Ding, 2008).

Chinese Soft Power

The PRC’s interest in soft power probably resulted from its realization that the use of hard power would be insufficient and unproductive for the PRC to accomplish its goals of becoming a major player on the world stage (Withnow, 2008). This is especially true in light of the PRC having stated that it is employing soft power to lessen the impression that the PRC is a militaristic nation (Li, 2008). The PRC has distinct advantages in soft power that other countries may lack. China has the perhaps the oldest, continuing, intact cultural heritage of any nation in the world. In creating a base for soft power, culture is very important. The stronger and longer lasting a culture is the more likely other cultures and people will be attracted to it (Huang and Ding, 2007). Chinese around the world proudly claim to be part of a 5,000 year old cultural history which has remained essentially intact, at least conceptually. The PRC is now making overtures that China is not so much a nation/state as a civilization/state (Jacques, 2009:13). Nations come and go, but civilizations endure. China has the rare benefit of both being a continuing civilization, and a much adored ancient civilization.

The 16th CCP congress in 2002 pointed out that in today’s world, a nation’s culture is intertwined with the economics and politics of a nation. Culture cannot be separated out. PRC President Hu Jintao reiterated this idea again at the 17th party conference in 2007. Additionally, he stressed the need for the PRC to continue building its soft power for both internal stability and international competitiveness (LI, 2008). For the future, soft power will be the operational frame work that the PRC employees in its international relations. Soft power is also being readily used by the PRC in pursuit of a harmonious world and in creating good neighbors.

The PRC has been actively exporting its culture around the world as part of its soft power initiative. It has built over 200 Confucius Institutes around the world as a way of introducing people to Chinese culture, other than the local Chinese restaurant (Luehrmann, 2009). The Confucius Institutes have a broader purpose than just exposing foreign peoples to the culture of China. They also present a kinder, less militarist PRC. Although vast majority of these institutes are on foreign college campuses, the Chinese Communist Party still controls the curriculum. This allows the Chinese Communist Party to shape the message of the Institutes and present the Chinese Communist Party’s own perspective on what it is to be Chinese (Gill & Huang, 2006). Additionally, some of China’s leaders see the traditional religions (Taoism, and Buddhism) as ways to promote Chinese culture to a global audience. These religions are incorporated into the curriculum of the Institutes, but they are taught as part of Chinese culture and not so much as religions. Chinese religious history as soft power is taken seriously by Chinese leaders. (Kuhn, 2010:360). Eastern religions appeal to peoples of the West and the Global South as philosophical alternatives to Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions.

Chinese Military power

The PRC is very limited in projecting its hard power around the world, but the PRC can project economic and soft power globally. Until recently though, it could not compete with the US or the European Union in economic projection , but with the Great Recession of 2008 the US’ ability to project economic power globally has seemingly been curtailed (Kay 2012:89). Often, the PRC is viewed as a military threat because of its large army and nuclear capability. The PRC has always maintained a low number of intercontinental nuclear missiles, mostly as a deterrent against western and Soviet/Russian nuclear proliferation. The PRC does maintain a sizable number of short to medium range nuclear weaponry that could be employed against Taiwan. The PRC has made overtures that it will produce more warheads and missiles as part of its defense modernization (Kay, 2012: 110).

The world’s view of the PRC being a dangerous military threat was foster by Chairman Mao Zedong. It was important for Mao to project military strength with a threatening Soviet Union on one side and anti-communist, US-backed alliances on the other. Additionally, Moa legitimated his regime through military might. After the communist came to power in 1949, Chairman Mao and the communist employed a rule by the sword method of legitimacy. There is a common misconception in the West that the People’s Liberation Army has been almost a co-ruler of the PRC. Although this may have been true throughout the early years of the PRC, it has not been the case since the 1970s. Throughout Mao’s chairmanship, the military was used to basically run the infrastructure of the PRC. Initially, Mao tried to create strong institutions to manage the PRC’s internal structure, but Mao laid those institutions to waste during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. During these periods Mao relied on the army to keep order in the state and to “keep the trains running” (Grasso et. al, 2009: 190-202). From the end of the Great Leap Forward to the last days of the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Liberation Army’s power was second only to Mao’s. However, it was during the Cultural Revolution that the seeds for the eventual fall from power of the People’s Liberations Army were sown. It is important to understand that the controlling authority of the military was not naturally given away, nor was it forcibly put down. Instead, the military was politically managed by Mao, then later by the defacto leader of the PRC Deng Xiaoping, and then by Deng’s hand selected successor President Jiang Zemin. All three of these leaders seized moments of opportunity to keep the military in check.

The military had always been very loyal to Mao, but because Mao was busy trying to maintain his position of power and rule the PRC with near dictatorial power, he needed a trusted hand to control the very large and almost all powerful military. Mao entrusted Marshal Lin Biao with the powerful position of Vice Chairman of the Communist Party (1964-1971) and head of the People’s Liberation Army. Lin had been a confident of Mao’s since the Communist Revolution and had steadily risen through the Chinese Communist Party. Lin also controlled the Red Guard militia force which was the central actor in the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution the people were not only kept in line by the military, they also had to survive the whims of the radically pro-Maoist vigilante forces of the Red Guard. As head of both of these PRC institutions, Lin became very powerful. Mao moved to put Lin’s power in check by issuing public and private critiques of Lin. Most scholars agree that by 1971, Lin was ready to attempt a coup d’état, but Lin panicked after he lost the tacit support of the Soviet Union, and it became obvious that Mao was making moves to thwart the coup. Lin escaped by plane to Mongolia, but died when the plane was destroyed in a “landing accident.” Lin’s power base in the military consisted of a large number of senior officer who were mostly removed from their positions of power after Lin fled (Grasso et al, 2009: 230-234).

When Mao died in 1976, Deng Xiaoping began to position himself as the eventual successor. The weakness of the military hierarchy from the fallout over Lin allowed Deng to put the modernization of the military, one of his and Mao’s “Four Modernizations,” on the back burner and instead focus on the economy. As far as control of the Chinese people, the military still existed and was ever-present throughout the PRC, but it did not have the infrastructure or elites anymore to pose a threat to Deng, the Chinese Communist Party, or the world. The after-effects of the Cultural Revolution kept the populace subjugated long enough for Deng’s economic reforms to take shape without having to use mass military mobilization. As soon as the economy started to improve, order was fairly easy to maintain (Vogel, 2011:173). Deng’s concentration on the economy, which helped his regime achieve legitimacy through the power of the wallet instead of the sword, caused the military to become even less powerful. Throughout the late 1980s, the People’s Liberation Army had to invest in many for-profit businesses as a way to offset a continued decline in military funding, supplementing the People’s Liberation Army’s budget by as much as a third. The military proved to be very adept at business. By the time president Jiang assumed power in 1992 the People’s Liberation Army was poised to become a major player in the PRC economy as a financial, not military, force. This situation presented another opportunity to reign in the military before it became too powerful (Vogel, 2011:647).

During the military’s foray into the business world of the PRC the senior officers of the military amassed small fortunes and power. As Deng readied to retire from public life, his goal was to turn control of the PRC over to Jiang. One problem standing in the way of a smooth transfer of power was the growing economic power of the military. Shortly after assuming the presidency of the PRC, Jiang instituted business reforms for People’s Liberation Army that shut down as many as 5,000 businesses operated by the military and managed by junior officers. Jiang also instituted changes in the military to restore discipline and morale, both of which had fallen off as the military became more involved in business ventures. Jiang’s reforms put the military under tighter Chinese Communist Party control (Vogel, 2011:623). Jiang’s reforms created a much more subservient military (Grasso 2009:246-247). Jiang instituted even more successful economic reforms that brought increased wealth to the PRC and its citizens which further strengthened the economic legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party regime. This further reduced the need for the authoritative legitimacy over the people of China backed by a strong military. Following Deng, Jiang continued on concentrating on the modernization of the PRC and creating economic viability at the expense of military modernization.

The People’s Liberation Army is just now starting to be modernized. However, that modernization is supposedly being tailored to meet two specific objectives. The Chinese Communist Party is concerned with modernizing the People’s Liberation Army to have a modern military that is reflective of the world power the PRC has become, and a military capable of retaking the island of Taiwan (Shambaugh, 2005). The PRC military is limited on being able to project its strength beyond its borders. The PRC’s air and ground forces are far larger than Taiwan’s. However, the Chinese Navy still lags behind Taiwan’s in capability, but with the addition of a new carrier group, it will not lag behind for long. China’s Military forces are also rapidly becoming more technologically advances. However, Taiwan’s military forces are better trained (Kay, 2012:139).

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