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Chinese Quest for Soft Power

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Mao Zedong taught the Chinese people that power comes out of the barrel of a gun. Military strength was his priority. Deng Xiao-ping taught the Chinese people that power actually comes out of the wallet. Military strength without economic power would have only limited value. Economic strength became his priority. The present Chinese leadership headed by President Hu Jintao believes that military and economic power alone would not enable China to emerge as a major power aspiring to be on par with the US without the soft power of cultural and intellectual influence over the rest of the world.

2. The term soft power was first coined by Joseph Nye, a Harvard Professor, who had served as an Assistant Secretary of Defence under President Bill Clinton. Nye was quoted more frequently than any other American analyst during the session of the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC), which was held at Beijing from March 5 to 16, 2007. The importance of China strengthening its soft power was repeatedly stressed by different speakers at various sessions dealing with China’s economic development, military modernisation, the working of its Foreign Ministry and the various institutions dealing with the development and propagation of the Chinese language and culture.

3. There were references to the importance of strengthening China ‘s soft power even at the sessions devoted to discussing the preparations for the Olympic Games of next year, which are to be held in China. Many Chinese athletes – men and women – who had participated in the past Olympic Games, spoke about the opportunity that would be provided by the forthcoming Olympics to project a soft, lovable image of China to the world through the thousands of participants and journalists from all over the world who would be coming to China for the Games.

4. This is not the first time that the importance of soft power has received such attention. Since 2004, many analysts had been drawing attention to the various steps being taken by China to develop and increase its soft power to promote its national interests and to make its influence felt across the world through means other than coercion. But this was the first time that this subject received such concentrated articulation.

5. Among the various characteristics of the American soft power highlighted by Nye were its ability to create in the people of the rest of the world a desire to emulate the US and the Americans and to carry the American message directly to the people of the world in their drawing rooms over the heads of their rulers. The value of soft power arises from its ability to influence others unintrusively and unconsciously.

6. The State plays an important role in the creation of the hard power consisting of military and economic strength. However, the State has very little role in the creation of soft power. It grows spontaneously out of the cultural milieu of a society. The State encourages it and uses it, but it cannot create it. It is created by its people. If the State can create soft power, the erstwhile USSR should have been able to create it and use it to keep the Communist world together.

7. As one reads the statements and writings coming out of China on the importance of soft power, one is struck by the almost total preoccupation of the Chinese with the American model of soft power. There was not a single reference to the Indian model, showing how little the Chinese know and understand India . Indian soft power – its music, its dance, its other art forms, its culture, its literature, its print and electronic media, its film industry, its writers in Indian languages and English is far, far ahead of China’s though India lags behind China in military modernisation and economic development.

8. India’s soft power was not created by the State. It grew out of its cultural past and was kept nourished not only by its people, but also by the Indian diaspora abroad. The growth of India’s Information Technology (IT) industry was an Indian miracle of the past decade. The growth, influence and reach of its electronic media and publishing industry would be an Indian miracle of the coming decade. When this happens, India’s soft power would be further enhanced.

9. Everybody, who spoke in the NPC session, repeated parrot-like the line on the importance of soft power, which had apparently been laid down for them by the Communist Party. Nobody tried to analyse why soft power has been the defining characteristic of only the Western countries and India and not of the rest of the world. Why the communist world was not able to develop the soft power? Why the dictatorial countries, despite their rich culture, have not been able to develop the soft power? Why military-dominated Pakistan , which shares hundreds of years of history and culture with India , has not been able to develop its soft power in the same manner and to the same extent as India?

10. If they had examined these questions, the Chinese speakers would have realised that a vibrant democracy is the basic condition for the growth of a strong soft power. The growth of soft power gets stunted in the absence of a genuine democracy. The Chinese rightly emphasised the importance of diplomatic skills and the propagation of the Chinese language and culture across the world in order to strengthen China’s soft power. An increase of 37.3 per cent in the budget of the Foreign Ministry and 23.9 per cent in the budge of the Ministry responsible for cultural development was announced. In recent years, it has already established 130 Confucius Institutes (CI) in 50 countries to propagate the Chinese language and culture.

11. The importance of improving personal behaviour was also stressed for improving the image of the Chinese in the eyes of the world. The NPC stressed five “don’ts” in this connection – don’t spit, don’t smoke. don’t swear at people, don’t break queues and don’t kill and eat wildlife.

12. “We should never underestimate the importance of building soft power as economic miracle is only one side of China’s rising in the world arena,” said NPC deputy Peng Fuchun, a philosophy professor at Wuhan University in central Hubei Province. He added: “In the light of this, China is striving to achieve the other side, namely exerting more international influence through diplomacy and national image lifting.”

13. Has China changed? Is China changing? One has to wait and see. Many are convinced it has changed and continues to change remarkably. But there are still many skeptics. As one blogger remarked: ” Not all Chinese have the same understanding of soft power. For some Chinese, soft power means the art of establishing their hegemony softly and not crudely as in the past. Their objective has not changed, but only they are trying different means of achieving the same objective.”

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For Chinese Studies. e-mail:

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