Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The soft side of China

In 1990 a well-known political scientist, Joseph Nye, coined the term "soft power." For those of you unfamiliar with the term, soft power is when other countries want what another country wants. In regards to China, soft power would be reflected when other countries want the same thing China wants. No need to threaten or persuade. It's similar to a person having Golden Retriever (without a wagging tail), where a Golden is up to doing anything its owner wants to do (especially playing fetch or eating).

This "soft power" is different from military or economic power (otherwise known as "hard power") in that its sources are cultural attractiveness, political ideology, and activity abroad. Put simply, if other countries like the culture and have good feelings about China, then China will have a lot of soft power. The problem is that measuring soft power is really hard. How does one quantify or qualify cultural attractiveness? The number of movies, pop songs, or Nobel prize awards? Using any of those doesn't quite do the trick, as we don't know how one more movie, pop song, or Nobel prize enhances a country's soft power.

That all said, people are making a big deal about China's "soft power." I'm really skeptical on the subject, especially when everyone agrees that the source of soft power is the attractiveness of culture to foreign audiences; it isn't something that a state can really promote. After all, when you know that a government is trying to shape your opinion, you're more likely to believe the exact opposite of what it is saying. So when I see something like CFR's article on China's soft power, I cringe. It details China's commercial diplomacy more than anything else. Sure, people in Southeast Asia and Pakistan have favorable views of China now, but Southeast Asia definitely has concerns about China in the future. Soft power, like any other type of power, comes and goes. Moreover, because soft power's primary source is culture, it takes a while (say more than a generation) to actually see any payoff. China just really started to focus on soft power in 2006. Little too early to talk about its soft power from my perspective.

In the Western world (including South Korea and Japan), there is still a lot of anxiety surrounding China's intentions. Throw Tiananmen Square and Tibet on top of China's increasing military capabilities and you have a recipe for almost continual suspicion of China. For all the talk about China's "soft power" there really isn't much to it.

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