How Improved Soft Power Could Help Boost China’s Global Brand

How Improved Soft Power Could Help Boost China’s Global Brand
Dec 10, 2019 By Degen Hill ,

When it comes to a country's global influence, people primarily refer to two things: hard power and soft power. While China remains heavily reliant on its hard power — money, military, and a massive domestic market — it has been working to develop, hone, and ultimately strengthen its soft power over the past few decades. The Chinese government has spent billions of dollars on improving its public image abroad, but has it worked? Could increased soft power help China boost its international reputation and, if so, how can this be achieved?

What is soft power?

Soft power may seem unimportant compared to hard power, but, very often, it has a significant impact on how a country is perceived by the wider world. Politics aside, countries that have great examples of soft power include the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, the United States, and Japan. All are associated with specific cultural indicators, be it food, movies, music, or iconic landmarks.

Now think of a country that doesn't have great soft power. When you think of Ecuador, Kazakhstan, or Bulgaria, for example, you don't necessarily perceive them negatively, but, for me personally at least, there isn’t any one thing I associate with any of these countries. There's nothing that makes me think, "I want to travel there" or "I really love_____ about that country.” Opinions and perceptions will vary for numerous reasons, but these opinions and perceptions are directly reflective of a country’s soft power.

Now think about China. What comes to mind? What's the appeal? How do you perceive China and its soft power offerings in the modern world?

Hard power vs. soft power

Any successful world superpower uses a combination of hard power and soft power to sway global opinion, improve its international reputation, and influence other countries and publics. This is often where the phrase "carrot and stick" is applied, referring to the use of a combination of reward and punishment to induce a desired behavior.

China has traditionally relied heavily on its hard power (money, investment, infrastructure projects, trade, etc.) while struggling to win the hearts and minds of foreign nations through its culture, sports, diplomacy, and political values.

David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said: "Originally, the Chinese thought you just needed economic and military power to be a global power, but in the early 2000s they realized that image matters."

Like any country, China’s soft power is made up of several elements, including Kung Fu, calligraphy, the Confucius Institute project, aid projects in Africa, and the hosting of the Summer (2008), and Winter (2022) Olympics. Soft power also includes language, educational exchanges, media offerings, food culture, and pop icons — all things China is looking to promote to international audiences.

 China's effort to improve its soft power comes at a critical time for the country as it seeks to continue opening up and play a greater role in the international community. A 2018 Pew Research Center study surveyed 26 countries, asking participants if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of China. Here are the results:


*Sample sizes for Pew Research Centers cross-national studies typically range from 700 to 1,500 interviews per country, with 1,000 interviews the most common sample size

Whether or not those surveyed answered based on their view of China’s politics, economy, culture, or simply what they read in the news, is unknown, but improved soft power could have a substantial impact on increasing China’s favorability going forward.

Why Chinese soft power isnt working abroad

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, "We should increase China's soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China's message to the world," calling for a stronger national effort to enhance China's popularity and likability. But despite the intent, Chinese soft power hasn't yet had quite the global appeal Xi had hoped for.

One of the main reasons for this is that China has focused too much on creating a strong national image domestically. An average of Pew surveys over the past 10 years shows that 95 percent of Chinese hold favorable views of China. However, soft power is typically aimed at other countries, and essentially the Chinese government is preaching to the converted. China also relies very heavily on traditional forms of soft power, such as calligraphy, pandas, Tai Chi, Confucianism etc, instead of working to create new, modern, and globally appealing offerings.

Another challenge in developing China's soft power is the need to develop a vehicle or mechanism by which China can project this soft power. Besides Chinese smartphones, people around the world aren’t generally interacting with or using leading Chinese products on a day to day basis. They aren't listening to Chinese pop music, and except for The Wandering Earth, which was recently added to Netflix, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, most Chinese movies go unwatched in the West. One could argue that it's a language issue, but that loses weight when compared to the global success of K-pop, French movies, manga, and other popular foreign-language media.

Why improved soft power is important

China, like many countries, faces domestic and international challenges every day, politically, socially, and economically. If China were to improve its soft power around the world, ideally these issues would be easier to deal with, especially with support from foreign publics.

Many of China's current challenges involve other countries, so with a strengthened national image abroad, the potential to solve these issues and even prevent them all together becomes greater. For example, the results of the 2018 Pew survey have a direct correlation to real-world events, such as the controversy over Huawei and whether or not foreign publics would be receptive to Chinese tech. Improved soft power might have helped sway public opinion or made it a non-issue from the start. 

How China's soft power can be improved

Improving a country’s soft power is easier said than done. For China, they first need to understand their audience. Yes, China has won favor among developing countries, particularly those that stand to profit from the Belt and Road initiative, but it hasn't managed to fully charm the majority developed Western nations through the sharing of its culture alone.

Creating content that appeals to a more global audience instead of making movies, such as "My People, My Country”, for the domestic market is an obvious place to start. Additionally, hiring foreign experts to consult on how other countries will perceive certain content is fundamental to achieving successful soft power. Chinese soft power arguably has a lack of global appeal because it is sanctioned and censored by the Chinese government rather than being produced organically or tailored to specific countries or markets. 

One of the biggest setbacks for Chinese soft power is the widespread censorship, mass propaganda, and government control that are found in every facet of Chinese society. As such, when Western states receive Chinese content (news, media, literature), there is an immediate wariness or distrust in the message.

For soft power to work, those creating it must be credible and those receiving it must be trusting. Building such an ecosystem takes time, and it's also important for China to develop genuinely organic cultural offerings that don't have blatant underlying messages about the greatness of China. Every country has an agenda and goals to achieve, but giving authentic homegrown culture space to develop and garner interest is equally as important as pushing political messages.

A country's global image and international prestige is heavily dependent on its soft power, which is by nature difficult to measure. As of yet, it’s fair to say that China lacks substantial soft power, but it has the capability to improve. With big-budget movie studios, publishing houses, thousands of popular actors and athletes, famous designers and artists, big tech companies, and a number of media and educational outlets, there's no excuse for China to have weak soft power game.

Ultimately, either China will change its current course and realize that developing more authentic forms of soft power will be an asset on the global playing field, or it will continue down the same path of Confucianism, pandas, and a wavering reputation on the international stage.

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Keywords: soft power in China


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Wow amazing chin

Apr 13, 2020 02:03 Report Abuse


thanks for removing my comment ECC !!! did someone have 'hurt feelings'?

Dec 11, 2019 22:26 Report Abuse


You mean the below comment?

Dec 16, 2019 09:43 Report Abuse


the below comments were removed for about 12 hours. i posted this comment, and surprise surprise, the comments were back.

Dec 16, 2019 13:20 Report Abuse


China relies on 'hurt feelings' now as their version of 'soft power', not logic or rational behaviour.

Dec 10, 2019 21:02 Report Abuse


Then I keep wondering; what feeling if they know to show they have none?

Dec 11, 2019 03:36 Report Abuse


While there are international information resources about China in English, information about China is lacking in local European languages. Most news about China in my country in national (local) media are fake and in no way represents the picture which you can see if you come to China as a tourist or a worker. Recently, there appeared single publications in some media thanks to the tourists' or expats' observations, but overall people have no idea of what is happening in China today and they have a kind of false image of "communist authoritative China" or "China at the time of Cultural Revolution". So, I would propose China creates media not only in English, but also in some of European languages (Russian and so on).

Dec 11, 2019 15:32 Report Abuse


I am curious, which publications (in English) are you saying carry fake news? Global Times? China Daily? South China morning Post? Sixth Tone? The first 2 above carry a lot of 'fake news' about non-Chinese countries. Are you saying that Chinese publications are 100% honest and fact checked? even within the English speaking world you can access many publications that carry the same stories about China expressing different persectives, as each country sees every other country through the filter of their culture. i know of factual occurances that took place in China that the Chinese people themselves dismiss as 'fake news'. For example the rate of child abductions, which have been down-played by local media. The issue is when China annouces or reports one thing, and people on the ground know this to be completely innacurate. It could be also that there is not an audience in non-English speaking countries for news/information about China, so any pubication would fail, unless backed by the Chinese government, which would hence more likely be propaganda, and therefore recognisable as such by the intended target market. You don't make people in a country like you just by publishing 'news' in their language

Dec 11, 2019 16:36 Report Abuse