China Embraces Soft Power for Image

China is increasingly interested in "soft power" approach to improving its international image. China's elite Tsinghua University hosted an international conference on soft power this week.
/ Korea Times Photo by Sunny Lee

By Sunny Lee
Korea Times Correspondent

BEIJING ? Harvard professor Joseph Nye may seriously want to consider moving to Tsinghua University here.

The wealthiest university in China, which also often beats its rival, Peking University, in national academic rankings, will pay him better, give him a spacious office and treat him well with authentic Chinese cuisine.

Most of all, he will be held in higher esteem here because the Chinese are now more pious believers of Nye's preaching of "soft power" than his compatriots.

In fact, this week the alma mater of President Hu Jintao held an international conference on soft power and nation branding, as part of the country's 60th anniversary celebrations with a string of high-level guests ? academics, government officials and media experts from countries such as the United States, South Korea, Australia, and Pakistan ? to help brainstorm on China's charm offensive strategy.

Soft power is defined as the "ability to obtain what you want through co-option and attraction." What China wants to gain through the exercise of soft power is a better international image, which, it feels, has been unduly "demonized" by the Western media.

In a world where image and good looks are increasingly important in the eyes of others, China is aware that it is no exception.

China has long been criticized by the Western media as an undemocratic country - lacking freedom of the press and religion. Its rise is increasingly perceived by some as a threat. Chinese industrial development, for example, is seen as stealing opportunities abroad.

"This situation prompts the necessity of launching China's initiative to institute public diplomacy to promote the correct image of China abroad," said Zhao Qizheng, the former minister in charge of the State Council Information Office, the government's voice.

In a sense, China's effort to reclaim its image by relying on soft power is like going back to its old teachings to seek wisdom.

Although Nye has been invariably credited with the coinage of the term, the very idea itself, however, had long been advocated by various political thinkers, with an old document indicating that its probable origin is in China.

In his 1975 book, "Power, Influence and Authority: an Essay in Political Linguistics," political philosopher David Bell used the term "influence strategy" to mean soft power, while he used "power strategy" to mean hard power, which relies on coercion. In the book, he argued that "one advantage of an influence strategy is that it may result in less hostility or resentment than a power strategy."

Bell then went on to credit the ancient Chinese sage, Mencius (372 BCE-289 BCE), for what he called making exactly the same point. The Chinese philosopher wrote:

"When people are subdued by force

They do not submit in heart.

They submit because their strength

Is not adequate to resist

But when they are subdued by virtue

They are pleased in their inner hearts

And they submit sincerely."

Now, some two millennia later, the descendants of Mencius are ready to take up the teaching of their ancient philosopher again and use the charm offensive to boost the nation's image.

China's victim consciousness of being misrepresented by the Western media was so great that Tsinghua's journalism school dean Li Xiguang proposed building a set of soft power-promoting social infrastructures in China that include home-grown media outlets with global reach, non-governmental organizations, and think tanks to break the complex network engineered by the West, which aims to restrain China.

Miles Young, the global CEO of the Ogilvy Group, a multinational public relations firm, observed that China is serious about its soft-power crusade. "There is a noticeable and significantly great awareness and appreciation for the impact and importance of soft power at all levels of the Chinese government," he said.

China's passionate love affair with soft power also received the blessing of President Hu.

During the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2007, Hu called for enhancing the "soft power" of Chinese culture. In a keynote speech, he said, "Culture has become a factor of growing significance in the competition in overall national strength."

While China was groping with the possibility that soft power can deliver it from the deep dark valley of the West-contrived misconception at Tsinghua, there appeared a voice cautioning China against it. And that was South Korean professor Chung Ki-yul, who teaches at Hanshin University. "Think again on soft power," he said.

Chung argued that Nye's dwelling on soft power was motivated by his analysis of why America lost its war in Vietnam.

Nye, Chung concluded, realized that although America's military far outstripped that of Vietnam, it failed to earn the hearts and minds of the locals there.

"It's clear that the American idea of soft power is not a simple academic term, but a military concept for America to continue its global dominance. The American goal of global hegemony has not changed, but it is still there. But my Chinese colleagues seem to accept it without questioning its real background," he warned.

According to Nye, "soft power is becoming more important in relations among the postindustrial societies in an information age where democratic peace prevails; hard power is often more important in industrializing and preindustrial parts of the world."

Given Nye's view, China's embracing of soft power is on one hand an indication of its growing economic prowess, but on the other hand, can be also seen as an expression of China's intention to explore democratic ideas, formerly exclusive to the "West."

Zhao cleared up the debate by explaining to the audience that China has a moderate ambition with its soft power experiment. "China's voice will increase in the world. But we don't have the intention to be regarded as a big and powerful country. What we hope is to get equal treatment in the world. We hope the international media doesn't have to harbor grievances on China and Chinese people.

"I hope the two pictures of what the international media report about China and what China really is, could come closer to each other. And our goal is to explain China to the world," Zhao said.