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China’s Soft Power: Room for Improvement


SINCE implementing its reform and opening-up policies in the late 1970s, China has gradually moved into the international spotlight to become the second biggest economy and exporter/importer. In 2001, China joined the WTO and became part of the global economy. Its international standing has grown, and its voice is heard more and more within the international community. But what about its soft power?

The concept of “soft power” was first conceived by American thinker Joseph Samuel Nye, Jr., in an article in Foreign Policy magazine in 1990. He later also introduced the concept of “smart power.” These ideas soon became popular in the field of international economics and politics, and for some years China has been making advances in terms of its soft power.

With its rich traditions and history, China has attracted much attention and has been engaging in more and more exchanges with the world at large, particularly in the realm of culture. From 1996 to 2010, the number of tourists drawn to China by its cultural and historical attractions increased from 6.74 million to 26.12 million, and the number of outbound Chinese tourists increased from 7.59 million to 57.39 million. With people flowing both ways, exchanges in culture, science, technology and religion have naturally increased and proliferated. Furthermore, international events, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2010 Shanghai EXPO, exemplify not only the soft power of its more traditional lures, but also of the draws that have come from recent modernization.

China has also begun to grow more influential in international organizations. When the international financial crisis hit, it played its expected role in organizations such as the IMF, WTO, and the UN, arguing for liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment. The use of RMB in settling bilateral trade has also been on rise, and some neighboring countries and regions have even started to carry out offshore transactions in RMB.

The past few years have also seen China hit by a number of natural disasters and targeted by groups intending to split the country. The Chinese people have faced these challenges as a dedicated and cohesive force. Following the devastating Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008, touching stories of people helping each other could be heard everywhere as people from all walks of life stood up and worked together to overcome the disaster. Meanwhile, all ethnic groups in the country are united against terrorism when seperatists have conspired to break up the country, including and especially during the violence and looting that occurred on July 5, 2008 in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

On the whole, with its stable currency, improved living standards, stronger economy and greater ability to deal with crises, China has exhibited a growing soft power and has won international respect.

Yet there remains room for improvement in China’s soft power. A solid and reliable base is required in areas such as exports, overseas investment, national image building, and international negotiations. There is a particular need for intangible and tangible results achieved in these areas to be broadcast outside of its borders. China has been slow in creating a more positive image, despite the fact that it has been involved in developmental work beyond its borders for decades.

For many years it has been investing in less developed countries and regions with a focus on infrastructure. Such investment has improved the everyday life of locals and helped them achieve more sustainable economy and society. Yet these mutually beneficial relations between the Chinese government, organizations and investing companies and the people in host countries are sometimes misunderstood and even vilified.

There is also much room for China to improve its negotiation skills. The underperformance of Chinese officials and entrepreneurs in international negotiations has undermined China’s position in international trade, investment and cooperation. What starts as an advantageous situation may thus become the opposite and incur high costs. Poor negotiations have in the past resulted in failures in discussions to establish bilateral trade agreements and activities. This is indeed a weakness in China’s soft power.

It is imperitive that China, with its huge economy and population, improve its soft power. Human resources are at the core of soft power, and it is important to reduce administrative intervention in order to get the most out of them. Product quality is also a major concern. China was yet again at the center of world health and safety concerns when the recent toxic medical capsule and gelatin scandals emerged. To guarantee people a healthy and happy life, rigid supervision of product quality must be carried out. Furthermore, as multinational companies contribute to the growth of soft power, the development of companies and entrepreneurs’ involvement in the international market should be encouraged. Multinational companies like Huawei Technologies and ZTE have already achieved success overseas, presenting the best of China’s design, technology and product quality to the world. They have also helped overturn consumer distrust in the “Made in China” label, thus pushing China’s soft power one step further.

VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us