“Soft Power”: Comparing America and China

The following is an account of an article by He Zengke, a scholar of politics,  director of the World Developmental Strategy Research Department at the Central Editorial and Translation Office (中央编译局世界发展战略研究部主任), and deputy director at the Beijing University Governmental Innovation Research Center (北京大学中国政府创新研究中心副主任) – see here for further details. It was published by ChinaReform (中国改革论坛网), on December 23 this year.

Voice, October/November 1989 (Voice of America magazine)

"Top: Chinese students listening to VOA broadcasts during the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square", "Voice", Oct/Nov 1989, p. 4 (VoA magazine)

He Zengke’s original footnotes are in [square brackets]; mine are in (round brackets). He Zengke’s footnotes are added at the end of every blockquote translation, or within my indirect account of his paragraphs respectively.

Main link: http://www.chinareform.org.cn/Explore/perspectives/201112/t20111223_130890.htm. Links within blockquotes added during translation.

Joseph Nye was the first to suggest the term “soft power” in the studies of international relations. Domestically, the general term currently is “ruǎn shílì”, but it should actually be translated “ruǎn quánlì”. It indicates the legitimacy or legality of the values, political strategies, institutional organization  initiated or pursued by a country, which earn it the other countries’ willingness to identify with these, and which constitute a country’s ability to win other countries’ support in international affairs, without issuing orders or forcing others. Nye suggests that soft power is a kind of assimilating power (co-optive power), in stark contrast to commanding others according to its own wishes, or issuing orders based on hard power, and is in fact a supple kind of international influence.[1] Nye believes that soft assimilating power and hard commanding power are equally important, in defending and promoting ones own country’s interests. The former kind of power obviously meets with less resistance, and comes at lower transaction costs.1) Nye then suggests that the resources which constitute a country’s soft power are the country’s cultural and ideological appeal, the number of its multi-national companies and their strength, and the degree to which it leads in shaping international bodies’ policies and resources, etc.[2]

美国学者约瑟夫·奈在国际关系研究中率先提出“Soft Power”的概念,国内目前通称“软实力”,其实应译为“软权力”。它是指一国所倡导或奉行的价值理念、政策战略、制度安排的正当性或合法性获得他国的 自愿认同而在国际事务中无须通过命令或强制等方式赢得他国支持与合作的能力。奈指出,软实力是一种同化性权力(co-optive power),它与命令他者按照自己的意志行动的硬权力或指令性权力形成了鲜明的对照,它实际上是一种柔性的国际影响力。[1]奈认为,软性的同化权力与 硬性的指挥权力同等重要,在捍卫和增进自身的国家利益方面,前者显然遇到的抵制更少,实现国家利益的代价更低。奈进而指出,构成一国软实力的权力资源包括 本国的文化和意识形态的吸引力、多国公司的数量和实力、自身主导的国际机制的规则和制度等资源。[2]

[1] Zheng Yongnian has thoroughly researched the limits and insufficiencies of these two methods of soft and hard power. Interested readers may refer to Zheng Yongnian and Zhang Chi, ‘Guoji Zhengzhi zhong de Ruan Liliang Yiji Dui Zhongguo Ruan Liliang de Guancha’, (‘Soft Power in International Politics and an Observation of China’s Soft Power’), chief editor Zai Yutang, Renmin Ribao Publishing House, 2009

[2] See also: Joseph Nye, translated by Men Hong, “Hard Power and Soft Power” (“硬权力与软权力”), Beijing University Publishing House, 2005 (北京大学出版社). This book’s fifth chapter (ruǎn quánlì) centrally reflects his idea of soft power.

Nye’s concept had many international repercussions, writes He, including China’s academia, among which the views of a certain Yu Xintian (俞新天) deserved particular attention.2).  Yu divided soft power into three components:

  • ideas, concepts, and principles;
  • national and international institutions;
  • strategies, policies, development patterns, national image, into which factors such as informational and inter-dependence could be included.

He goes on to say that the core of soft power is culture, and that what matters most are the ideas or concepts, thoughts, and principles the core cultural values, institutions, strategies, and institutions this core depended upon, and that the latter [three] therefore not only constituted power in terms of resources (“资源性实力”), but also operational [or procedural] power or strength (“操作性实力”). With a third footnote [3], He refers to an article by Yu Xintian: “ruǎn shílì jiànshè yǔ zhōngguó duìwài zhànlüè” (Soft Power and China’s Foreign Strategy), “guójì wèntí yánjiū” (International Studies), second issue 2008, pp 15 to 20.

Cultural soft power is treated as a sub-concept (子概念) of cultural power in general here, winning over recipients at home and abroad by generating culture, by cultural exchanges, cultural education and communication, by guidance and operation of cultural ideals. The core of cultural soft power is based on core-values thoughts, concepts and principles, cultural products are its carriers, cultural exchange activities, cultural education and dissemination media. Cultural soft power is a kind of relational power, and a country earns influence on other countries by thoughts, knowledge, and values which are worshiped and generally acknowledged in those other countries.  The country’s own ideology, concepts and principles reflect and safeguard its own interests, and earn the international community’s general recognition and acceptance, thus influencing other countries’ conduct in international affairs, diminishes resistance or obstruction it may otherwise face, and therefore helps a country to achieve its strategic goals in its international relationships, and enhances its national interest. It is because of this direct relationship between a country’s strong or weak cultural soft power with a country’s international competitiveness and its ability to safeguard the realization of its own national interest and to achieve its strategic goals that the international community in general attaches great importance to create some good methods and practice in increasing the cultural soft power of their respective countries. This deserves to be conscientiously summarized.


He Zengke’s summary contains several – theoretical or practical – guidelines for building / exercising soft power:

  1. A [soft-power] buildup needs to be included into a country’s security strategy or its national development strategy, and should be coordinated, planned and implemented from a high national strategic level
  2. Culture needs to be seen as a value-adding asset in creative industries, combine all forces to develop a country’s cultural industries, strengthen the international competitiveness of its cultural industries, and its international influence
  3. Attention should be paid to ideological, conceptual and principled production and dissemination, support for the country’s humanities (人文) and sociological research (社会科学研究) and development of its relevant ideological think tanks (思想库), and the work to turn the country into an international producer and disseminator of new thoughts, concepts, and principles.
  4. Bringing a management [or administrational] concept into the reform of the cultural system, carrying out a strategy of decentralization, with members of governments, markets and societal forces making combined efforts to promote their country’s cultural development.
  5. Implementing a multi-culturalism3) policy, safeguarding cultural civil rights, seeking “unity in diversity” (多样性中的一致性), and strengthening the country’s internal cohesion.
  6. Actively and voluntarily engage in the development of selling cultural products abroad, in cultural exchange, and information transmission (信息传播), in modelling a good national image (塑造良好的国家形象), and in raising ones own country’s cultural influence within the international community.

America had developed soft power on a global scale since the 1990s, promoting democratic values, writes He, under his first guideline. This had become an essential road to make America and its values safer (成为维护美国价值观安全和使美国变得更安全的必由之路). The U.S. National Security Council, directly under the president, paid close attention to the exercise of soft power and the protection of America’s cultural values as a particular means to protect America’s national security. The “National Security Strategy Report” of September 20024) had emphasized the importance of spreading the American way of life and promoting democracy, in order to influence  countries which were of strategic importance to America. A footnote [5] refers to a book by Zhang Baoguo (张玉国), “National Interest and Culture Policies” (国家利益与文化政策), Guangdong People’s Publishing House, 2005, pp. 103 to 104. The “Homeland Security” agency determined four strategies: (1) Promoting and fostering cultural production to manifest the great freedoms and power which served the nation; (2) to guide and to recommend to the leaders and managers within the cultural spheres to join us in this field of combating terrorism, to use the broad influence and strength of cultural production to propagate to people at home and abroad that America is the greatest country on earth; and (4) to supervise, restrict, and at times when necessary, to close cultural organizations or companies who had contacts with terrorist organizations or which could harm to national security. Related footnotes [6] and [7] refer to the National Security Council’s website [the above link leads to the White House’s website – JR], as quoted by Zhang Baoguo, same book as footnote [5], page 106, and the “Homeland Security” website, also quoted there, pp. 106 to 107.

Those responsbile at the U.S. Information Agency (美国新闻署, in charge of stations such as VoA or Radio Free Asia (RFA) [The USIA is now defunct and its duties have been referred to the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the State Department – JR] are described as in charge of the strategic development of public diplomacy, thus safeguarding U.S. national security (实施美国对外文化战略开展公众外交以维护美国国家安全), and propagandize American cultural values and foreign policies, to influence public debate in other countries, thus maintaining the long-term interests of American policies. Gong Tieying (龚铁鹰), “A Systematic Analysis of Soft Power” (软权力的系统分析), Tianjin People’s Publishing House, 2008, pp. 157 to 165, is quoted here – He Zengke’s footnote [8].

America had been the first country that realized how culture and industries could be linked with each other, thus creating a leap to the position of an industrial superpower. After the 1990s, cultural production had become America’s most dynamic industry, with enormous economic benefits. [Statistics there, guideline 2 (“(二)将文化视为一种创造财富增加价值的创造性产业”) – JR.] He quotes from Li He (李河),  “Developed Countries’ Contemporary Cultural Policies at a Glance” (发达国家当代文化政策一瞥), China Net (中国网) as quoted by a website which apprently no longer provides the source – http://www.jllib.cn/lecture/ref/20040630.pdf; He Zengke’s footnote [15]. An excerpt of Li He Zengke‘s apparent paper or article can be found here. From his sources, He also reads diversity in terms of investors in  and funding of the cultural industry, encouraging migration by outstanding cultural workers into America, market mechanisms, fiscal tools such as tax exemptions and relief, and political and economic support for the position of cultural goods on the international markets – He Zengke’s footnote [16], Dong Weimin (董为民), “Foreign Cultural Products’ Current Status – Practice and Measures taken for their Development” (国外文化产业现状、发展措施与经验), Review of Economic Research (经济研究参考, published under the Ministry of Finance’s auspices), No. 10, 2004, pp. 19 – 20.

Countries which followed the American example in supporting the cultural industries indirectly had the state act as a facilitator – be it by tax exempts as mentioned by He above, or by special funding, combined with market mechanisms and commercial operations -, thus maintaining the sustainability and creative vitality of cultural development.

Referring back to his guideline 5 – unity in diversity -, He points to the introduction of multi-culturalism as introduced in America, Europe, Canada, Britain and Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, and this pattern’s relevance for China as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country, in equal development of cultures and educational policies – He’s footnote [30], Wang Jian (王鉴), “Contemporary Western Countries’ Understandings of Multi-Culturalized Culture and Education” (当代西方国家对多元文化教育的几种认识), Foreign Education Research (外国教育研究), No. 2, 1994, p. 6.

Citing America as an example for public diplomacy once again, He writes that

America takes public diplomacy seriously, makes great efforts for cultural education and exchange, applies different strategies when exporting values, depending on the respective recipients, uses cultural carriers for the export of cultural values, and all these are methods to learn from[38].

[38] Li Bailing, “Practice and Measures taken by America to Increase its Cultural Soft Power”, Research Sub-Report, 2009


[38] 李百玲:《美国提高文化软实力的措施和经验》,研究分报告,2009年。

He Zengke’s article doesn’t only seem relevant as a source of how a Chinese – semi-official or official – academic compares China’s (cultural) soft power and policies to raise the country’s “soft power” vis-à-vis America. His review also includes a number of other countries and their soft-power approaches – France and Germany among them. But that should be material for another (much shorter) blogpost.


My Footnotes (translation)

1) I chose “transaction costs” as a translation here, a term which would usually be used in economics. A more plain translation would be “price”, i. e. “at a lower price” in this context.

2) Yu Xintian is a professor at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (SIIS).

3) Multi-culturalism may or may not be the best possible translation. In Germany at least, and arguably in other European countries, too, it is now frequently criticized as cultural relativism or as what is seen as a rather inappropriate approach to conflicts explained with gaps between different ethnic populations. If you are aware of a different translation for 多元化, please advise. Not surprisingly, He points out that multi-culturalism and assimilation [as a doctrine – 同化主义] coexist in America, as only within the mainstream, participation and the acquisition of knowledge, attitudes and skills would be possible.

4) The May 2010 National Security Report actually appears to be pretty much into American values, too – if not far beyond the 2002 report. Last year’s concept (“Our moral leadership is grounded principally in the power of our example—not through an effort to impose our system on other peoples”) may, however, come across as quite different from the Bush administration’s.


» We invented the Katyhusha, Oct 30, 2009

Related Tags: public diplomacy »; propaganda »


4 Responses to ““Soft Power”: Comparing America and China”

  1. Nothing like a break. Good forensic work JR. However, this is an instance of reverse engineering which is pretty well doomed to failure.

    #4 the stategy of decentralising the admin of the concept. In reality, market forces will only produce more Supergirl/Dating Show trash, while societal forces will produce an opening for cultural ‘bad element’ stuff.

    #5 should go down a storm in Tibet and Xinjiang.

    Multiculturalism also involves language usage. How about the recent edict to ban Cantonese from official media in Guangdong.

    Like a lot of other windy official statements, this is just a lot of concepts dancing across the page. Talk about a disconnect with the realities of perception from an overseas vantage point.

    O/T. Somewhere I found a statement describing you as a cold war warrior. Comment?


  2. However, this is an instance of reverse engineering which is pretty well doomed to failure.
    I agree. The factors of soft power come naturally – the state may play the role of a facilitator once those factors are there. I believe that He Zengke either wrote along the central committee’s “cultural decision”, or that the “decision” took input from He’s, and similar, scientific departments.

    #4 Not necessarily. After all, He wants to start a concept of decentralization with members of governments, markets and societal forces making combined efforts. That’s exactly what has happened in the Chinese economy all the time (entertainment industry included) – and we know the people among these stakeholders who have the last word, don’t we? I’m almost sure that Mao Zedong was all for decentralization, too, somewhere, sometime.

    #5 Ha! You forgot the assimilation aspect, which comes along with multi-culturalism. Guess which of the concepts will have the last word.
    Same with Cantonese on television. Those poor Guangdongers will never acquire the skills of the mainstream Chinese further north unless they start watching Mandarin programs only.

    O/T Cold warrior – that statement was from me. But maybe someone else said it, too. If I’m a cold warrior, I guess that could be a good thing. Without at least a few cold warriors, there would be no diversity.



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