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The Limits of Chinese Soft Power

CAMBRIDGE – China has been making major efforts to increase its ability to influence other countries without force or coercion. In 2007, then-President Hu Jintao told the Communist Party that the country needed to increase its soft power; President Xi Jinping repeated the same message last year. They know that, for a country like China, whose growing economic and military power risks scaring its neighbors into forming counter-balancing coalitions, a smart strategy must include efforts to appear less frightening. But their soft-power ambitions still face major obstacles.

To be sure, China’s efforts have had some impact. As China enrolls countries as members of its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and doles out billions of dollars of aid during state visits abroad, some observers worry that, when it comes to soft power, China could actually be taking the lead over countries like the United States. The American sinologist David Shambaugh, for example, estimates that the country spends roughly $10 billion a year in “external propaganda.” By comparison, the US spent only $666 million on public diplomacy last year.

Yet the billions of dollars China is spending on its charm offensive have had only a limited return. Polls in North America, Europe, India, and Japan show that opinions about China’s influence are predominantly negative. The country is viewed more positively in Latin America and Africa, where it has no territorial disputes and human-rights concerns are not always high on the public agenda. But even in many countries in those regions, Chinese practices like importing labor for infrastructure projects are unpopular.

Combining hard and soft power into a smart strategy, it turns out, is not easy. A country derives its soft power primarily from three resources: its culture (in places that find it appealing), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority). China has emphasized its cultural and economic strengths, but it has paid less attention to the political aspects that can undermine its efforts.