Zhang Boshu (张博树): What Kind of Soft Power Does China Need?

The Chinese government has recently emphasized its soft power efforts, as discussed in a recent People’s Daily editorial. Zhang Boshu, a political philosopher and constitutional scholar who recently wrote about his experiences inside the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, offered his own interpretation and analysis of Chinese soft power. Translated by CDT:

Zhang Boshu: What Kind of Soft Power Does China Need?

Date: January 31, 2010
Source: China Transition Thinktank [Zhongguo Zhuanxing Zhiku]
Author: Zhang Boshu

Why has the phrase “soft power” quietly become so popular in China

“Soft Power” originally was a concept proposed by Western scholars. In 1990, Harvard professor, Joseph Nye, wrote a number of articles discussing soft power. He defined this new concept as “a dynamic created by a nation whereby other nations seek to imitate that nation, become closer to that nation, and align its interests accordingly. This power often comes from the attraction of the culture and ideology, the rules of the international system, and/or systemic resources.” Later, he more simply paraphrased this concept as “the ability to get what you want by changing others’ behavior through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” [1]

Clearly, “soft power” is spoken of in relation to nations’ military and industrial “hard power.” After this concept spread to China, it aroused many different reactions within academia. Not long ago, Wuhan University hosted the “2009 Chinese Culture and Philosophy Forum: Scholarly Symposium on Building Chinese Culture’s Soft Power.” More than sixty scholars within the system, including some of my colleagues, participated in this “discussion.” It goes without saying that the standard comment from government-hired scholars was to quite naturally see theories such as those by Joseph Nye as evidence that “the West was hastening its strategy of pushing its cultural soft power.” “‘Cultural soft power’ is a phrase that originates from the West’s monopoly on expression,” some scholars said. “We should reflect on the premise underlying the term cultural soft power by examining the world background within which the concept was framed. The framework which modern societies have formed to [collect and examine] the world’s history is, nonetheless, a capitalist framework. Ideological problems within this framework have not faded. Reflecting on the thirty years of China’s reforms and opening up, we have many gaps in our research of cultural soft power; mainly, these gaps involve the fact we have not developed our own ideological voice.” [2]

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It should be pointed out that these opinions are certainly not just these experts’ personal “scholarly opinions” but reflect the practical political aims of those in office. Zhao Qizheng, Director of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and former Director of the State Council Information Office stated not long ago while participating in another “international symposium” on soft power that the goal of China in pushing soft power was to ameliorate China’s international image which has been “demonized” by the Western media. Because the Western media often portrays China as a non-democratic nation—a nation without the freedom of press or the freedom of religion—China’s rise has been seen by many as a threat. “This situation requires China to proactively establish a public diplomatic policy to improve the international image of China.” Zhao explained China’s aim in increasing its soft power: “China’s voice in the international community will become stronger and stronger, but we don’t want to be seen as another superpower. We just hope to be treated equally; we hope the international media does not see China or the Chinese people unfairly. I sincerely hope the international media’s reporting of China can be closer and closer to the actual reality of [what is happening in] China. Moreover, our mission is to explain China to the world.” [3]

From these words, we can see that Chinese officials’ views have been expressed quite clearly. They want to present to the world a China that conforms to “actual reality” and has not been “distorted.” In order to achieve the goal stated above, it is necessary to use “soft power.” Of course, because Director Zhao was speaking in the public arena of international discourse, his words were more polite and indirect. In contrast, the words of the scholars quoted above were much more direct, the scent of gunpowder much thicker. [The projects of] development, of increasing China’s soft power, were given the added mission of combating the “ideologies” of “Western monopoly on expression” and “capitalism”.

It is no wonder then that the word “soft power” has recently quietly become so popular in China. It was even added to the political report of the 17th Congress of the governing [Communist] Party. “Soft power” has already become seen as a part of “comprehensive national strength” and something that must “greatly be developed,” “greatly increased,” and brought into the “world mainstream” as quickly as possible. However, we should ask: is soft power up to the task of “introducing the real China” and combating “the Western monopoly on expression”?

***[text omitted]***

From the perspective of liberal constitutionalism, the continuous sixty years of one party rule by the Chinese Communist Party is a type of autocracy—an unreasonable system of government. It is extremely predictable that such a country would be criticized by democratic nations’ mass media. In saying that the international media “unfairly sees China and the Chinese people,” Mr. Zhao Qizheng is obviously intentionally trying to confuse public opinion. That is because criticizing the ruling Party is not equivalent to criticizing China; it is also not equivalent to criticizing the Chinese people. It has absolutely nothing to do with “hegemony.” I have personally been interviewed many times by the international media and feel that the vast majority of foreign journalists are friendly towards China. They have a serious attitude towards reporting; even when reporting on weaknesses within our society, they hope that China will improve quickly. On the contrary, it is actually our rulers who are accustomed to using a mindset of enmity; they see all critics as enemies with hidden intentions.

In the final analysis, it is China’s current political system that is definitely outside the global tide of democratization. It is this environment that produces government-hired scholars who play up their [theories] which are at odds with logic.

So what is the substance of this “soft power with Chinese characteristics” that is being so strongly advocated by government officials and “scholars”? There are two clear main types [of soft power with Chinese characteristics]. One type is related to “persisting in the leadership of the Communist Party.” It aims at protecting the ideological “products” of the existing regime—whether it be the increasingly individualistic and commercialized literature, art, television, movie, and animation “products”, or whether it be the increasingly rigid media and education “products.” For example, beginning in 2004, the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party and the Ministry of Education jointly organized a massive program called “Researching and Building Upon Marxist Theories.” As part of this program, at universities and colleges the “public politics class” curriculum and the humanity majors’ core curriculum was required to be revamped so as to include the “the latest findings” [in the field of] “the sinification of Marxism” or “Marxism’s adaptation to China.” As far as propaganda directed outside [of China], this kind of thing was naturally at the very core, but it was packaged more carefully as being different from the “West” and as being a form of “democratic government” with “Chinese characteristics,” or as being “harmonious” or as being part of “a great nation’s rise”—the ultimate purpose was to establish “[China’s] own ideological voice.”

The other type [of soft power with Chinese characteristics] is “traditional culture” and its interpretations which are officially approved. Confucius is no longer criticized. This is obviously a good thing. However, reflecting on the rationality of traditional culture has at the same time been suppressed. That is because the current leaders are not especially concerned about the complicated historical relationship between modern China’s transformation and pre-modern China’s cultural heritage, and are more concerned with the role that can be played today by China’s ancient heritage and ancient historical figures acting as a sort of cultural symbol. [This cultural symbol] could be used to prove the legitimacy of a culture that is different from the “West” which it seems would then indirectly prove the legitimacy of a political structure that is different from the “West.” Along these lines, today in China one can see everywhere vigorous signs of “ancient worship”—not just in a cultural context but also in an ideological context. This same logic can explain why the government so strongly supports the construction of “Confucius Institutes” in many places overseas.

Nevertheless, the ultimate goal in all this effort is to whitewash the reality of existing one party rule; to provide a defense for a backward system. This is phony soft power; even though it appears in the name of a people’s nation and even though it appears in the form of the modern heir to a great culture.

The Stranglehold an Autocratic System Places on a People’s Creativity

So, in our country, is there a form of “soft power” that embodies modern humanity’s universal values while at the same time representing the future of the Chinese people? Yes. [This soft power lies within] us independent intellectuals who inherit the best cultural traditions of our people while at the same time grasping the essence of modern civilization. [It also lies within] the contributions of thought, knowledge, and action dedicated by the much greater number of ordinary citizens who courageously take responsibility for the future of the country. They are the true wealth of this people; they are the source of power for this people’s development.

Under the currently existing system, it is almost necessary that the autocrats put a stranglehold on the nation’s true “soft power” as described above. That is because the standard for the autocrats is the “Party” standard; the right or wrong for the autocrats is the “Party” right or wrong. Moreover, the most frightening thing about the Party is that it refuses to hear any voice of criticism, even if this criticism is full of the best of intentions. When our citizens put forward theories and opinions that differ from the ideology of the ruling Party, or criticize policies of the Party, or merely point out some negative aspects of society, and in so doing impair the “Party’s image” or “the nation’s image,” then repression comes swiftly and automatically.

It should be pointed out that this repression not only destroys our people’s true soft power and creativity, it even harms the government’s image and its painstakingly crafted “soft power.”

[As examples, the author discusses two incidents. The first was a conference held in Frankfurt at which very few Chinese scholars discussed China in their academic work. The author felt that this lack of serious research by Chinese scholars into China’s own problems was embarrassing. The second incident was the international book festival held in Frankfurt in which the Chinese government attempted to prevent books critical of China from appearing. Referring to the Frankfurt book festival, the author continues] What I want to say is, why would a government who is trying desperately to present the “image of a great nation” not allow its own citizens [to speak freely]. Isn’t he/she just writing a few poems, a few articles, expressing some discontent with the present situation, or writing some veiled criticism of the government? Isn’t it completely normal for the citizens of a great country to say a few words of criticism directed towards the government? How can [the government] be so trivial, so mean-spirited and still have the luxury of promoting its “soft power”?

Of course, we understand why some of those holding office are so afraid of citizens’ criticism. This phobia comes from the ruling Party’s deep anxiety about the legality of its position which anxiety arose after the June Fourth [Tiananmen Square] Incident. This anxiety and apprehension has been accumulating continuously for the last twenty years. It is fortunate that market principles have finally spurred economic growth and this growth has been quite rapid; the central government has money in its hands. Of course this would be the opportune time for China to initiate political reforms, for China to shake off the shackles of totalitarianism, if only those holding office in China had enough courage and wisdom to undertake this historic responsibility. Regrettably, they so far have not shown this kind of courage or wisdom; on the contrary, they have scaled up the life support systems of the traditional system in an attempt to prolong its life. This is the basic background against which the government strenuously “promotes its soft power”. Moreover, if you look at the root of the issue, it is that those holding office lack self confidence. Blocking “Charter ’08,” suppressing the Open Constitution Initiative and other non-governmental organizations, screening the internet, [causing] the recent fiasco at the Frankfurt Book Fair—these are all are manifestations of a lack of self confidence. However, it would be one thing to just lack self confidence; it is another thing entirely to assume a dignified and magnanimous pose and go about everywhere glibly promoting [China’s] “peaceful rise” and “soft power.” Isn’t it a bit absurd and senseless?

The systemic prerequisites for [using the phrases] “promote soft power” and “China’s rise”

As an independent scholar “within the system” that criticizes the current system, I do not endorse the set phrases “promote soft power” or “China’s rise.” On the contrary, everything independent intellectuals do is to enable our nation and our fellow people to truly rise up, to feel proud and confident among the community of nations, to enjoy with the citizens of other nations the latest achievements of human civilization. I believe, that those friends in other grassroots opposition factions harbor the same conviction. And this shows that we must continue to fight for freedom of speech in China, that we must continue to fight for the protection of each Chinese citizens’ basic rights. That is because the true foundation of this country’s “soft power” lies in the respect, realization, and protection of the basic political, economic, and cultural rights of countless ordinary Chinese citizens.

Why do we do our utmost in all kinds of occasions to emphasize constitutional governance reforms?

That is because only through constitutional governance reforms can we analyze the current system of Party autocracy, only then can we truly dissolve the bands that hold down China’s creation of intellectual products, and [overcome] the systemic restrains on the creation of cultural products. [Only then can we] establish systemic norms and systemic structures that are in accord with the principles of modern civilization, and within this new systemic framework build up the new culture and civilization of the future China. [Within this new systemic framework we can] reevaluate the rationality of traditional culture and transform our innovation. In the end, these will all make up important parts of the future Chinese system’s and Chinese culture’s “soft power.” It is only then that a democratic Chinese system and culture can truly “enter the world mainstream.” [China] will no longer have to painstakingly “explain” itself, but can entirely rely on its own natural charm to influence and even “attract” regions across the globe. [In so doing, China will] become a rare flower in the globalizing garden of human civilization.

The autocrats and their hired scholars speak of resisting “the West” and combating “the West’s monopoly on expression,” but what they are actually doing is resisting humankind and combating humankind’s universal values; in so doing they have grown accustomed to misappropriating the word, “the people’s nation.” Constitutional liberals have never underestimated the complexity of the modern world. I personally have many times in the past published articles that have pointed out the limitations of the sovereign nation framework and have called for building a new view of human civilization. [5] However, we must clearly differentiate between mankind’s universal values and the nation’s interest, these two different metrics. At the same time we should see that this world is experiencing profound changes; humankind’s universal principles have broad application, even to the point where they can replace the principles of sovereign nations, although this still needs some time.

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I believe that the only “soft power” that truly has moral authority is one that embodies humankind’s shared values while at the same time embodying a new Chinese culture that bears the distinctive hallmarks of the people. Let us work to build and promote this kind of “soft power.”


[1] See, Peking University Soft Power Research Group, Chinese Practice and Soft Power, (March 5, 2009, People’s Daily Online Theoretical Focus), Part One, “The Concept of Soft Power” for Joseph Nye’s various formulations of the term “soft power”.

[2] See, relevant passages in, Li Xiaoxiao and Jiang Xirun, Building Cultural Soft Power: Interdisciplinary Examination of Strategies and Evidence, (June 30, 2009, China Academy of Social Sciences Review).

[3] See, Sunny Lee’s article, “China Greets Soft Power, Creates a New Image: Report on Qinghua University’s International Symposium on Soft Power”, Korean Times, downloaded September 17, 2009 from the website of Tsinghua International Center for Communication Studies.

[5] See, Zhang Boshu, “World Governance and Democracy: Reconstructing the Strategic Values of the Chinese People’s Nation” from Deconstruction and Construction, pp 277-288.

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