The Negative Soft Power of the China Dream – II

As Ming Wan writes in his commentary in The Asan Forum on the “China Dream,” Chinese leaders use New Year’s celebrations as an opportunity to sum up the achievements of the recent past and to chart new directions for the future. Here, I discuss such New Year’s activity to argue that soft power works in interesting and unexpected ways in China.

Joseph Nye famously defines soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” Soft power, thus, is framed as a positive attractive force that is useful for a state’s foreign policy. The concepts of “soft power” and the “China Dream” were linked by Chinese scholars even before the latter became Xi Jinping’s official slogan in 2012.1 Xi discussed them together most prominently when he declared, to “realize the China Dream,” the PRC needs to “enhance [its] national cultural soft power.” It should not be surprising that these two concepts are now commonly linked by scholars and officials in China, with both being invoked as a response to the “values crisis” provoked by rapid economic growth that has worried China’s public intellectuals over the past few years.

Analysis often focuses on whether soft power functions as a positive attractive force in Beijing’s foreign policy strategy. Actually, Chinese discussion of soft power does the opposite: soft power is negative rather than positive, and is employed as a tool in domestic policy more than in foreign policy. A newspaper commentary by China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, provides an interesting example of such negative soft power. To celebrate New Year’s Day in 2014, Liu published “China and Britain won the war together,” in London’s center-right newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. But rather than pursue the expected soft power strategy of celebrating the two countries’ shared victory in World War II, Liu starts his article in an odd way:

In the Harry Potter story, the dark wizard Voldemort dies only after the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed. If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul.

Rather than building friendship with Britons through an appeal to shared values and experiences, Liu seeks to build bonds through shared enmity. Later in the article Liu declares that international relations necessitate a choice between binary oppositions of “aggression and non-aggression, between good and evil and between light and dark.” Hence the UK and China must unite, Liu concludes, to promote good against the evil of Japan. Many thought that such name-calling was strange for a diplomat, and were not impressed by China’s demonizing of Japan. Yet, the high profile criticism of Japan in the UK was seen as very successful in Beijing; over the next month China’s ambassadors in the United States, Australia, and other countries used local media to engage in similar public diplomacy activities that targeted Japan. Liu’s appeal to demonic characters in popular children’s fiction may seem odd, but it is part of a larger negative soft power strategy in China. China’s national identity here is not simply a reflection of the positive values and experiences of “5000 years of civilization.” Rather, identity takes shape when contrasted against a series of “barbarians”: the West, the United States, and particularly, Japan. This latest cultural construction of China’s national identity as the “civilized self” against the “barbaric other” is the main achievement of Beijing’s patriotic education campaign that started as a response to the June 4th massacre in 1989.

Ambassador Liu’s depiction of Japan as Voldemort is hardly exceptional. China’s patriotic education campaign has made dehumanized images of Japanese as barbarians the stock-in-trade of the PRC’s mediascape. In 2012, for example, sixty percent of the films and television shows made at China’s premier Hengdian World Studios were about the Anti-Japanese War (1937-45), and around 700 million Japanese people were killed in all Chinese films that year. (To give a sense of proportionality, the total population of Japan was 127 million in 2012.) This is not a coincidence or an unintended consequence of China’s censorship regime that makes more contemporary topics off-limits for filmmakers. Especially since Xi Jinping came to power, painting Japan as a barbaric militarist state has become a key soft power objective. As military scholar Peng Guangqian explains, “All Confucius Institutes should shape world public opinion to revile Japanese militarism.”

Although Chinese soft power discourse generally works in domestic space to generate national identity and regime legitimacy, China’s negative soft power strategy is increasingly going global due to a combination of factors: especially China’s new wealth and confidence in the context of economic and political crises in Europe and the United States since 2008.

One of the most prominent aspects of China’s soft power policy is the spread of Confucius Institutes around the world since 2004. The Director-General of the Confucius Institute Headquarters (CIH), Vice-Minister < a class="link" href="" target="_blank">Xu Lin declares that Confucius Institutes are the “brightest brand of China’s soft power.” But as events at the European Association of Chinese Studies (EACS) biennial conference in 2014 showed, even China’s brightest brand employs negative soft power strategies. CIH was a co-sponsor of the conference, where Xu gave a keynote speech. According to a report by EACS President Roger Greatrex, Xu was upset by some of the paper topics, and dismayed by the prominent display in the conference materials of information about Taiwanese sponsors. Xu’s solution was to steal all of the programs and tear out pages that referred to CIH, Taiwan’s Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, and the Taiwan National Central Library. When Greatrex discovered this censorship, he ordered that copies of the excised pages be distributed to all conference participants. The EACS Report proclaimed, “Censorship of conference materials cannot and will never be tolerated by the EACS.”

Such censorship was seen as a setback for China’s soft power in many journalistic commentaries. But back in Beijing, Vice Minister Xu was cheered by the Global Times, which saw her page-tearing protest as a heroic patriotic action in the fight against Taiwanese independence. Once again, the main audience for soft power activities, even those of China’s brightest global brand, is not outside China, but inside the PRC. It works through the negative strategy of censoring academic materials, rather than the positive strategy of spreading Chinese civilization. Trouble in Europe does not matter as much as success in Beijing.

The “China Dream” likewise informs soft power discourse that is very popular within the PRC, but which gains little traction abroad. This makes sense as it promotes largely negative portrayals of foreign countries in order to mobilize China’s domestic audience. In this way, the “China Dream’s” negative soft power evokes a form of nationalism that is employed to safeguard the CCP’s regime legitimacy.2 While the PRC is strong in economic and military terms, its regime security as a “fragile superpower” is more tenuous. Hence soft power in China takes on more negative forms that are directed at a domestic audience.

According to Nye’s version of soft power, foreign audiences are crucial; if soft power products are not attractive to them, then the soft power strategy is unsuccessful. Certainly, we could follow the current academic trend to celebrate how China has adopted and adapted the soft power concept to suit its needs. But if the goal is to turn enemies into friends, then it is not working very well. Here the PRC is a “partial power” whose global influence is broad, but thin.

This is a major problem for the soft power of the “China Dream” as it goes global through the “Asia-Pacific Dream,” which Xi mooted at the APEC meeting of economic leaders in November 2014. This Asia-Pacific Dream, according to Xi, would not only serve the interests of the PRC, but would benefit all the people of the region. It involves reviving the continental Silk Road and developing a Maritime Silk Road (also known as “One Belt, One Road”), both of which assert the soft power of China’s historical role as a center of Eurasia. It also promises a set of hard power sweeteners—such as low-cost funding through Beijing’s new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Yet Asia-Pacific Dream is still more negative than positive because it is premised on excluding the U.S. from Asia’s security architecture in the twenty-first century. Once again, negative soft power trumps attractive soft power.


1. See Li Xiguang, Ruan shili yu Zhongguo meng (Beijing: Falu chubanshe, 2011).

2. See Kingsley Edney, “Building National Cohesion and Domestic Legitimacy: A Regime Security Approach to Soft Power in China,” Politics (forthcoming, 2015).