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The unique nature of China’s soft power

by on April 2, 2012

  J. Nye described soft power as attraction rather than coercion in order to shape the opinions and preferences of others by promoting one’s culture and political values. ( Holyk,2011,223) China developed traditional concept of soft power in two significant ways. First, although Chinese discourse largely conforms J.Nye’s conceptual framework , it is not limited to its scope. Second, Chinese soft power is applied both to international public as well as to domestic audiences.

In the age of communication technology and global interconnection the Communist Party’s legitimacy faces serious challenges. Meanwhile,  foreign praise provides significant respectability and legitimacy of the government. One of the implications of China’s efforts to form a positive image of the state abroad is increasing positive attitudes towards the government among the Chinese society. Boosted legitimacy helps the government to gain public support for its domestic and foreign policies.  Even though China’s public diplomacy is intended directly  for foreign audiences , it has  indirect impact on domestic public as well. Western acceptance of China as a “responsible great power”, even if it is only a lip service, provides the Communist party legitimacy at home , which is a great success of Chinese public diplomacy in the domestic sphere (Wang,2011,53). Moreover, Chinese leaders themselves have talked about public diplomacy with the reference to domestic context. For example, Hu Jintao declared that  soft power was not only a major component of national comprehensive power , but also an important “source of national cohesion”. (D’Hooghe,2010,6)


In order to influence foreign countries China not only uses such traditional tools of soft power  as  cultural exchanges and media , promotion of cultural and social  values,  but also economic power, foreign trade and investment and even  development aid.  Economic power, actually, is at the heart of China’s soft power. As J.Kurlantzick notices, for Chinese soft power means anything outside  military and security realm.( Kurlantzick,2007,6) Chinese  has developed and expanded Nye’s concept of soft power ; Nye’s dichotomy of hard and soft power is irrelevant  in China’s case. Chinese soft power is based on two fundamental concepts: “Beijing consensus”  and  “Harmonious world” . “Beijing Consensus” is China’s   economic- political model. This pragmatic and authoritarian model shows that you can have economic success without far-reaching political reform.(d’Hooghe,2007,15) .The second concept-“harmonious world”- can be described as China’s image of the world order . The main principles of the concept are the following: first, democratisation of international relations, which means multilateralism; second, justice and common prosperity, which means aid for developing nations; third, diversity and tolerance, which advocates non- interference and opposes imposition of Western values around the globe; fourth, peaceful resolution of international conflicts.(Wang,2001,42) To conclude ,”Beijing consensus , “Harmonious world” and economic power constitute China’s soft power.


In practise, autocratic regimes such as the ones in  Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, etc., try to copy and apply  the Chinese  model in their own states. They are attracted by China and develop close ties with the state. Venezuela’s decision to reorient its  oil industry toward Beijing and away from Washington is a telling case.( Kurlantzick,2007,9).  “Harmonious world’s” principles of non-interference and development aid with no political strings are also highly attractive for the most developing states, especially in Southeast Asia and Africa. China provides these states aid and investment, which is crucial for their economies , but do not directly require to make  any political cohesions or internal political reforms. Finally, China’s economic strength makes even established democracies take into consideration Beijing’s interests, when pragmatic economic interests become more important than values . G.Holyk has made a deep research on China’s soft power and concluded that in many areas such as politics, diplomacy, culture and human capital its public diplomacy is relatively weak.  China is not well respected by some of the most important states in Asia as well as in the Western world beyond its economic dynamism.(Holyk,2011,243-247) Another study showed that Europeans are not attracted by China’s ideas and values, nor they are concerned with its hard military power.  China’s influence in Europe is based on Europeans expectations they will benefit economically and politically from relations with China. (D’Hooghe,2010,33) Then, is attraction dictated by economic interests  a soft power?  In China’s case, it is, as Chinese themselves regard economy as one of the main components of their public diplomacy.


In conclusion it can be argued that China today faces a great challenge : how to ensure domestic stability in light of rapid social changes and to manage international environment for continuing growth? China’s solution has been a modified conception of soft power which  has included economic initiatives and direct diplomacy – traditional tools of hard power.





  • Holyk,G.G.,(2011), “Paper Tiger?:Chinese Soft Power in East Asia”, Political Science Quarterly, vol.126,no.2
  • Kurlantzick,J.(2007), “ China’s New Diplomacy and Its Impact on the World”, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol.14,no.1
  • Wang,H.,(2011),” China’s Image Projection and Its Impact”, in , Wang,J.(ed.), Soft Power in China: Public Diplomacy Through Communication, Palgrave Macmillan, New York
  • D’Hooghe,I.,(2010), “The limits of China’s Soft Power in Europe :Beijing’s Public Diplomacy Puzzle”, Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael”, viewed on:27/03/2012
  • D’Hooghe,I.(2007),”The Rise of China’s Public Diplomacy”, Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael”, viewed on:27/03/2012



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One Comment
  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this subject. It is very interesting how China has stretched the notion of soft power to make it applicable to the domestic realm (indeed, Nicholas Cull argues that even external public diplomacy is really all about domestic stability and the legitimacy and authority of the Communist Party (see his chapter in Fisher and Lucas (eds), Trials of Engagement)), while also including tools of economic statecraft which Nye would see as elements of hard power.

    Is it possible to link public diplomacy to these tools which have some element of coercion attached? The coherence of Nye’s account of soft power seems to break down in Chinese hands, with no hard and fast distinction between attraction and coercion. It would be good to hear your thoughts on these issues.

    It is interesting to note that the Obama Administration has recently linked diplomacy with development assistance and aid more generally. Perhaps this has been spurred on by the Chinese example and the potential for rivalry.

    Finally, there are a fair number of typographical and grammatical errors. Please check for spelling and phrasing errors when you revise the entry for inclusion in your seminar log.

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