China Goes Soft: Understanding China’s Use of Soft Power

China Goes Soft: Understanding China’s Use of Soft Power
Mar 03, 2014 By Tom Watkins ,

The Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming. The Chinese are coming to a theater near you. They are exporting their history, language and culture around the globe. In the coming decades, you will find all three as plentiful and ubiquitous as the inexpensive Chinese-made gifts under your Christmas tree are today.

As China’s economy and exchanges with the world have seen rapid growth over the last three decades, there has also been a sharp increase in the world’s demand to learn more about the people, history and language spoken by one of every five people on the planet. To accompany this we have witnessed China’s use of soft power grow and grow.

As a boy, my mom would implore me, “Eat your peas, children are starving in China.” Today, it seems China is eating our lunch on a number of levels. What has transpired in China over its 5,000-year history is truly mind-boggling. The last thirty years alone are both remarkable and universally acknowledged as China becoming a more powerful economic and military power. Consider this:

  • In 2012, China became the world’s largest trading nation in goods, ending America’s post-war dominance.
  • 400 million people have moved from abject poverty to “middle class” as China has become the world’s fastest growing, large economy.
  • Chinese students have significantly outperformed U.S. students on international educational tests.
  • China is the world’s largest auto producer.
  • China now holds roughly 7.2 percent of total US debt, worth around $1 trillion.
  • It is estimated that 33 percent of China’s international trade will be in Chinese currency - the Renminbi - by 2015.

Beijing’s Grand Theater
Beijing’s Grand Theatre
Source: madiko83

Joseph Nye of Harvard University coined the phrase “soft power,” now widely used in international affairs, in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. Like many things, China has latched on to this “intellectual property” and is making the concept work for it. Soft power is a concept that describes the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce, and use force, or give money, as a means of persuasion for a nation.

Back in 2007, China’s then President Hu Jintao proclaimed in his keynote speech to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that the CPC ought to “step up the development of the press, publishing, radio, film, television, literature and art, give correct guidance to the public and foster healthy social trends.”

The Growth of Confucius Institutes

The Chinese understand the soft power of spreading knowledge of their history, language and culture around the globe and, since 2004, has formalized these efforts through its Confucius Institutes.

The Confucius Institutes are governed by Hanban, a non-profit organization affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education and is committed to, “Making the Chinese language and culture, teaching resources and services, available to the world, to meeting the demands of overseas Chinese learners to the utmost, to contributing to the formation of a world of cultural diversity and harmony.”

Today there are hundreds of such institutes in nearly every corner of the world map. The Confucius Institutes have provided a focal point for people to learn about Chinese language and culture. They have become a spring board for cultural exchanges as well as a bridge reinforcing friendship and cooperation between China and the citizens of the world. In my home state of Michigan, we have four Confucius Institutes located at prestigious universities: University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and Western University.

As 2012 came to an end, China unveiled its first non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of soft power - the China Public Diplomacy Association (CPDA). It quickly moved to elect Li Zhaoxing, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress as its first president.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi speaking at the kickoff of the CPDA stated, “Under the new circumstances, boosting public diplomacy and cultural exchanges will foster mutual understanding between China and the world, deepen the ties in between and strengthen efforts to achieve positive interactions and common development.”

Clearly the Chinese are not content to be the factory for the world. On multiple planes, the Chinese are striving and succeeding in reclaiming their status as a cultured, educated and innovative nation. Let’s not forget that China held the title of the worlds largest economy, 18 out of the last twenty centuries and is likely to recapture the title within the next decade, if not sooner.

In their book, Wealth and Power: China’s Long March To The Twenty-First Century, old China hands Orville Schell and John Dulury brilliantly walk us through, “How a nation, after a long and painful period of dynastic decline, intellectual upheaval, foreign occupation, civil war, and revolution, manage to burst forth onto the world stage with such an impressive run of hyper-development and wealth creation, culminating in the extraordinary dynamism of China today.” The authors weave a tale through Chinese history seeking ways to explain China’s “century of humiliation” and its quest for fuqiang, “wealth and power.” The Chinese, buying up Smithfield Foods Inc., the worlds largest pork producer, valued at $7.1 billion are buying more than pork. They are buying global influence.

The Big Screen

China, as it spreads its global wings, is looking not only to make money but to increase its influence far and wide. Why not go “Hollywood?” Hollywood is synonyms with America. The movies made in Hollywood have shaped global attitudes for generations. The American films, to this day are entertaining, highly visible, and have broad global appeal. The spread of American and Hollywood culture took off as film gave way to technology as cheap video’s and DVD’s (can you say pirated, knock-off video’s/DVD’s) became ubiquitous. Children from around the world can quote lines from American films. President Obama underscored the importance of Hollywood on pouring American ideas, values and ideals around the globe on a visit there late last year when he said, “You help shape the world’s culture.”

In 2012, China’s largest entertainment enterprise, Dalian Wanda Group, owned by billionaire real-estate developer Wang Jianlin, and China’s second most wealthiest individual, (behind Robin Li, founder of China’s largest Internet search engine Baidu Inc., who has become the wealthiest individual in the world’s second-biggest economy) bought AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. for $2.6 billion. This purchase expanded his reach into the US to become the world’s biggest cinema owner.

Wang followed this purchase with a $20 million donation to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for its new film museum, slated to open in 2017. “With the Hollywood-China connection heating up, Wang has made himself one of the key players - and the one with the most money,” said Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at USC who specializes in Chinese politics, film and society.

“We will see more of such offers coming from China down the road as cinema has become China’s new frontier for battles against the West for the hearts and minds of global audiences,” says Ying Zhu, a US based scholar of Chinese cinema and media and a professor of Media Culture at the City University of New York.

Wang plans to invest as much as $10 billion in US entertainment and property deals. He told the WSJ that it would take some years but that, “I strongly believe that China will be the center of the global film industry.” Wang is leaving his imprint on Hollywood and the world as permanent as the undisputed shrine of Hollywood, the Grauman’s Chinese Theater where Hollywood stars’ footprints, handprints and autographs are immortalized in the legendary cement.

Not only will Wang’s investment impact Hollywood, going forward, like all things China, it will impact all of humanity. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in China today will spread around the globe tomorrow.

Clearly the movies and other mass media outlets can have a major influence on us having the power to shape our opinions and beliefs and influence our decisions. As China continues to awaken from its slumber, it will not be content to be a silent movie.

[Editor’s note: This is a re-edited version of a column Tom Watkins wrote for Dome magazine. Tom has had a lifelong interest in China and with more than three decades of experience fostering ties between the US and China. He now acts as an adviser to the University of Michigan Confucius Institute, Michigan’s Economic Development Corporation and Detroit Chinese Business Association. You can follow him on twitter @tdwatkins88]

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Keywords: China’s economy; Dalian Wanda group; Confucius institutes China’s use of soft power


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PS: Some of the information of this article are simply drawn from Wikipedia or

Jul 17, 2015 17:54 Report Abuse



Clearly this isn't an accurate reflection of nowadays China. I'm living in the poverty-stricken province of Guizhou, China and culture here seems harder to develop than anywhere else in China. The only true development here is the real state craziness, which leads to the construction of thousands of new 'window-cities' spreading to the countryside and kicking out poor farmers, forcing them either to work in cites or just strive. China is definitely not using soft power within its frontiers. As for the cultural opening, well being a big movie fan I can tell that Chinese movie industry still has a lot to learn. Between extremely cheesy or propagandist plots, it's still difficult to find movies where one feels true freedom of expression has been unleashed. And hasn't it been said that XiJiPing is considered as the new Mao by, for instance, reinforcing the internet censorship - tons of VPNs aren't working anymore since last January 2014 - and promoting Chinese-centered culture...

Jul 17, 2015 17:39 Report Abuse




Apr 15, 2015 09:06 Report Abuse



An interesting choice of photo to illustrate an article about China's cultural influence. The Beijing Grand Theatre was designed by a Frenchman.

Mar 07, 2014 18:48 Report Abuse



While the CCP loves talking about "soft power", what they seem to have forgotten is that you need produce something that people want. What other countries want from China is clothes and other factory products. What they don't want is lectures about "Confucian Values". The West has had tons better philosophers, and the market for China-prop thinly disguised as simplistic philosophy is not actually that big. -------- By the way, the article is rubbish. Reading pro-China slogans regurgitated verbatim by a lazy non-thinking Westerner fills me with contempt.

Mar 06, 2014 20:00 Report Abuse



This article is so biased, clearly the guy who wrote this rag doesn't know much about China. If China is a soft powerhouse, then why they keep bullying their neighbors and claim/conquer other's territories all around them? This is more the behavior of an imperialist nation than that of a soft powerhouse.

Mar 06, 2014 08:06 Report Abuse



This article has such little information in it that could have been researched in about 2-3 hours.

Mar 05, 2014 00:35 Report Abuse



Why is China always trying to compete with the US? Different people are good at different things. The entertainment industry is clearly America's strong suit, no other country even come close. No one watches Chinese movies or listens to Chinese music (sans sinophiles and Chinese people themselves). Im pretty sure even little Korea has more "soft" power than China. People in China shouldn't expend resources trying to "take over Hollywood"...that simply isn't going to happen.

Mar 04, 2014 20:48 Report Abuse



Because they secretly love the US. Most won't admit it though. Bottom line. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Even the worst received parts of American culture (spoiled rich kids, gas guzzling over-sized vehicles, money flashing) are perfect fits in China.

Mar 05, 2014 01:21 Report Abuse



What kind of soft-power is projecting the copy of whole Europeans village, down to the individual houses ? China does not have confidence in its *own* culture. As said above, many Chinese don't know their own culture and country very well. And that's a pity, there is much to it. They could clone those magnificent countryside villages (like the wooden house villages in Guizhou), adding modern comfort inside.

Mar 03, 2014 21:47 Report Abuse



-Chinese identity is a racial identity. Since you and I will never be Han (or the Uighyrs, and Tibetans) the attractiveness of their soft power is limited, unlike Brazil, Australia, or the United States.

Mar 03, 2014 10:17 Report Abuse



"On multiple planes, the Chinese are striving and succeeding in reclaiming their status as a cultured, educated and innovative nation." China like many other countries and cultures does have a long history, but the quoted line does not sound like the China I know. The world knows China would rather copy than take time to develop new ideas or products. The education system leaves a lot to be desired and goes a long way to suppressing any innovative thoughts that students have. The Chinese themselves admit this, why else do so many people want their children to be educated anywhere else than China. Culture is something that seems to be lacking as well, a country that takes pride in cheating and telling lies seems to me to be somewhat lacking in culture and morals. When I speak to Chinese students, of all ages, they have very little awareness of their own history. My wife for example seemed to believe that Mao only closed universities and not schools. This is what she was taught, when I showed her the facts in a Chinese museum it came as a real surprise. The points in this article seems to be like so much else in China, divorced from reality. It is a nice idea but does not stand up to close inspection.

Mar 03, 2014 09:42 Report Abuse



Well put. Clearly the guy who wrote it does not live here. China can pour all the money it wants into making movies, but that doesn't mean they will make money or even be good. I recall The Last Airbender, The Lone Ranger, John Carter, Speed Racer, The 13th Warrior, and man does the list go on, but all of those films had 100+ million dollar budgets and they all lost 100+ million dollars. In the end, a tightly controlled industry that can't even film a sneeze without a censor's review and a generation of artists who are trained in Soviet Realist style and to avoid independent thought at all costs... Well, I shouldn't be too hard on Chinese cinema; there are some really good banned films like "The Blue Kite". But they are hardly blockbusters which can spread Chinese soft power. In the end, you hit the nail on the head; China basically does not have a culture to export. America has the cowboy, France the gourmand, and England the proper gentleman. For China, the sophisticated culture of the scholars has been lost, and the replacement is the drunk, naked official, taking bribes and building bourgeois mansions. How are they going to export that?

Mar 03, 2014 14:26 Report Abuse



Hello... Did you ever hear of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? House of Flying Daggers? China doesn't have a culture to export? I think that is a bit of a stretch of a statement to make.

Mar 05, 2014 00:32 Report Abuse



I think this year a Chinese directed film won a Golden Bear in Germany, as well. Didn't check up on what the movie was about, but it was certainly something pretty dark, and it showed a bit of laxness as far as censorship is concerned. Then again, it was marketed abroad and not really domestically, which may have something to do with that. (international tastes esp in film festivals cater more to cold reality) Let's not forget America's "cowboy“ has a negative aspect that goes along with it, as well, and cowboy can be unappealing in certain respects too. As far as chinese movie making goes... yeah, they gotta work on that big time. They took Confucius and turned him into a Chinese Gandalf, which isn't in a good way either =(.

Mar 05, 2014 01:16 Report Abuse