Soft Power: The Scramble for Popularity

China’s newest and most effective weapons are called Meng Meng (梦梦) and Jiao Qing (交情).

They weight between 70-100 kilograms, are kept very safely in an space of almost 5000 square meters, yearly maintenance costs devour 920.000 Euro per year and they are – Panda Bears.

Meng Meng and Jiao Qing are the new big seller at the Berlin Zoo in Germany and their initiation included a number of diplomatic acts: meaning an official reception with Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Xi Jinping at the new Zoo habitat, a big ceremonial act when they arrived at the Berlin airport and even a countdown on the Berlin Zoo webpage – to create as much of panda-hysteria as possible. Although the whole celebration seems like a marginal note in world politics it’s also an indicator for a much bigger change: China’s new power.

Source: FT

Soft power is the new game changer

Power does in this regard not imply military power. It rather refers to a conceptual power, that was introduced by the American academic Joseph Nye in 1990: soft power. Nye argued that hard power alone was not enough to wield influence in the world. It had to come from “the soft power of attraction”, too. Thus, the image of a country and therefore the global perception of its policies and actions is crucial for success in world politics.

From this perspective, Meng Meng and Jiao Qing can be viewed as “image-weapons”. With drawing thousands of visitors to the Berlin Zoo every day the two Pandas simultaneously project a positive image of their homeland China. Hence, the term “panda-diplomacy” stands in a row with several other terms to increase China’s worldwide popularity including: the “Chinese dream”  – Xi Jinping himself described the dream as “economic prosperity, national renewal and people’s well-being”  – or the “China model”, referring to the combination of the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule and a buzzing (liberal) economy.

It’s not about the money

 Already in 2007, Chinas then president Hu Jintao convinced the Party Congress of the merits of the soft power approach. Under Xi Jinping, the CP continued the effort and spends now around $10bn a year on soft power related policies including self-promotional ads on the New York time square. One of its most visible assets are the so called Confucius Institutes. Since 2004, these institutions teach in over 140 countries around the world students the Chinese language and culture. In addition, they host Chinese related festivals like Chinese New Year or the Mid-Autumn festival. Moreover, huge infrastructural investments in the context of the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR, 一带一路, more on the initiative can be accessed A here) or on the African continent aim to complete the image of a caring, trustful and reliable China.

However, despite billions of dollars, a recent poll indicates a decline in China’s popularity. According to a global poll by the BBC World Service positive ratings of China dropped from 43 to 41 percent and negative ratings have gone up from 40 to 42 percent. So, what is China’s popularity problem? Following Nye’s definition, China’s soft power is not centering enough on Chinese people who advocate China itself.

The main driver of soft power is civil society – from universities and foundations to pop culture. One example is the US with its idea of the American dream. Yet, this had a rather bottom up narrative advocated by society itself and coined by the popular term “from rags to riches”. China tries a similar narrative with its popular notion of the “Chinese dream”. Notwithstanding, the Chinese dream is orchestrated from the top, from Mr. Xi himself. In sum: if China wants to improve its image, China’s citizens need to do the job – not the money, not the party.

A once in a “statetime” chance

The CP is fully aware, that the authoritarian political system infringes its own public policy. As a solution, they try to give their citizens abroad a stronger voice. How? China established around 160 foreign bureaus from its national news agency Xinhua. Besides reporting news, they are also responsible for producing exchange programs between China and the host country.

For instance, the German TV-show nihao Deutschland (Hello Germany) portrays Chinese people who live in Germany and Germans who have an interest in China. By broadcasting it via local TV-channels during prime time the target audience are mostly normal German citizens. Hence, China manufactures a positive image of itself via stories narrated by its own citizens or foreigners who are in favor of China – soft power at its purest. An assessment of this development can be seen positive and negative. Cons: one could view this as a direct propaganda channel for the CP; Pro: China will shape the 21st century indefinitely so why not learn a bit about its culture and its ambitions?

With the US decline as a world power – symbolized by its recent draw back from the Paris Agreement – China has a once in a “statetime” chance to be the next global power after the US. When the 19th Party Congress ended in October, Mr. Xi made clear that he will do everything to fulfill the mission to make China a global power.

Moreover, he underlined his role as a leader of that mission since at the Congress no possible successor was appointed. With its soft power approach China attempts to beat the US in global popularity. And with giving its citizens a stronger voice they are clearly following Mr. Nye’s soft power theory. If they will succeed is unclear yet they have one major advantage in contrast to the US: China has Pandas – the US has the opposite: Trump.

Michael Lehmann

Michael Lehmann

Michael Swen Lehmann was born in Germany and lived in Vietnam and Austria. After he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Popular Music and Media Science, he decided to pursue a stronger international focus. In order to do so, he enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies Master at the Universities of Vienna and Leipzig. Since Micha already wrote his Bachelor thesis on blogger-movements in Vietnam, he decided to center his research on non-state actors in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Additional fields of interests comprise conflict transformation and the democratization process in Myanmar. Micha already worked as a Journalist for the German news agency Deutsche-Presse Agentur (dpa) and the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW).
Michael Lehmann

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