- China's Soft Power:The Case for a Critical and Multidimensional Approach
Is Chinese "soft power" really transforming the world? Joshua Kurlantzick and Yale University Press provide us with a neat, definitive answer: yes. In 2007, Kurlantzick published a book entitled Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power is Transforming [End Page 439] the World. Looking closely at the period from approximately 1999 to 2006 (virtually all his sources were published during those years), Kurlantzick makes the following case. The prestige of the United States and its relations with China were not going well. There was the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, followed by an unpopular war in Iraq launched by an increasingly unpopular U.S. president (George Bush). The glory days of the Clinton presidency were over. With respect to Sino-American bilateral relations, there was the U.S. missile strike on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and then the nasty spy plane incident off the coast of Hainan in 2001. At approximately the same time, China was becoming an extremely important world economic force. For the first time in its modern history, China was a major actor in international relations and had plenty of money to spend on upgrading its global prestige and influence. "Since most economists," Kurlantzick asserted, "project that China's economy will continue to expand between 7 and 10 percent per year, Beijing can continue its rapid growth in trade" (p. 94).
"Emerging from a shell of defensive diplomacy dating back decades," Kirlantzick argues, "China [starting in 2001] was suddenly engaging with the world, wooing friends with a subtle, softer approach, and using its popularity to make gains" (p. ix). China wanted to "rebrand." Until that time, "China either paid no attention to public diplomacy or, when it did, made clumsy attempts that bordered on pure propaganda" (p. 61). Soon, however, China moved rapidly toward a "more nuanced public relations, even changing the name of the Party's Propaganda Department to the Publicity Department" (p. 62). "In a short period of time," he explains, "China appears to have created a systematic, coherent soft power strategy, and a set of soft power tools to implement that strategy" (p. xi). Charm Offensive conveys a sense of emergency, even panic. "[F]ew had anticipated this more nuanced and effective Chinese diplomacy" (p. ix). Thus, there was an urgent need to "consider how China's softer forms of influence might change countries' views of China" (p. x). China's soft power strategy, he predicts, will "transform international relations" and thus transform the world (p. xi). "In the worst-case scenario," Kurlantzick concludes, "China eventually will use soft power to push countries to choose between closer ties with Washington and closer ties to Beijing" (p. xii). "In a short period of time, Beijing has proven that it can shift its foreign policy quickly and woo the world, often focusing on countries America has alienated," he argues. "China has drastically changed its image in many parts of the world from dangerous to benign" (p. 226), and has done so by upgrading its public diplomacy, increasing cultural exchanges, hosting overseas scholars, expanding the international reach of its media, projecting a desirable image of the Chinese state, and cultivating public opinion in other nations.
Is Chinese soft power really transforming the world? This question is difficult. It all depends on what one means by "China," what one means by "soft power," and what one means by "transforming." Unfortunately, Kurlantzick has turned a genuinely interesting and extremely complicated question into a one-dimensional [End Page 440] and essentializing inquiry that features unified state-level elites transmitting soft power messages to ordinary people at home and abroad. If the messages are clumsy and unsophisticated, they will not take root. If they are soft, nuanced, and nicely packaged, they will take root. Ordinary people, in this paradigmatic scheme, are passive objects who have little or no agency of their own. Kurlantzick seems unable to imagine a Chinese...