Interview: Maria Repnikova on Chinese Soft Power

China’s soft power initiatives are often derided by Western observers as ineffective or counterproductive. Over a hundred Confucius Institutes in the U.S. and Europe have been targeted as arms of the Chinese state and forced to shut down. Chinese global media publications such as China Daily appear so ignored that they find Western readers only via paid inserts into popular Western newspapers. Global public opinion surveys show that China has lost favor among the public in most developed countries, notably when compared to the U.S. With few formal allies, China is known more for economic coercion than natural appeal when attempting to persuade international actors to conform to its will. Despite China’s increasingly superpower-sized global economic influence, its soft power appears to lag behind.

However, Western scorn for China’s soft power efforts may overlook relative successes. These initiatives have achieved varying results in different regions, particularly in the developing world, where Confucius Institutes have surged in popularity and hundreds of thousands of international students have flocked to Chinese universities. Increasingly, China is experimenting with new strategies of localization and decentralization to attract greater audiences and disseminate a more relatable but still controlled image to the world. These regional differences and recent strategies have produced varying degrees of success, driven by different actors each with different motivations.

Maria Repnikova is a Professor at Georgia State University, and a close observer of Chinese media and soft power, particularly in Africa. She joined CDT to discuss her new book, “Chinese Soft Power,” which describes the various conceptions, instruments, and motivations of Chinese soft power, both on its own terms and in comparison to other states, to help readers better understand its contradictions and complexities.

This interview was edited for both length and clarity. An unabridged transcript will be published soon on China Digital Space, containing full responses and additional questions.

China Digital Times (CDT): Could you discuss the Chinese conception of soft power: its main features and differences with the Western conception of soft power?

Maria Repnikova (MR): Some of the ideas of Chinese soft power are similar to the conception by Joseph Nye⁠—in particular, the notion of wanting to improve one’s image, having a positive national image internationally, attracting global publics, and having a positive resonance to foreign policy and culture. But at the same time, there are some differences. 

First, there is a major difference in the motivations behind improving soft power. There is a global motivation, but there’s also a domestic one. In Joseph Nye’s conception, it’s mostly a global orientation, that we have to improve our image in order to basically have a more successful foreign policy, maintain the US prowess in the world, and so forth. But for China, it’s also about domestic cohesion. Maintaining domestic legitimacy and improving cultural confidence is very significant. By improving China’s image globally, one also creates, potentially, more respect for the Chinese Communist Party’s rule domestically. 

Also, in Nye’s understanding, hard and soft power are quite distinct, but in Chinese writings, scholars often question and critique this distinction. They say it’s a forced distinction, and that U.S. soft power is very much riding on its hard power, whether it’s military, commercial infrastructure, markets, and so forth, which reinforces U.S. cultural attraction. So that suggests that perhaps there’s more fluidity, that hard and soft power are more intertwined than separate. 

Thirdly, there’s this idea of so-called resources of soft power. I mentioned that hard and soft are fused, but if you look in more detail at the sources of soft power in China, the key argument is that it’s culture. This idea of culture is also very eclectic. It’s traditional culture, Chinese morality, but also some argue it’s technology, arts, and citizens’ behaviors. It’s almost like anything that can improve China’s image counts as its cultural soft power. So it’s a lot more inclusive of other elements. 

CDT: Why is it important to assess Chinese soft power on its own terms? 

MR: The current literature and the current thinking about Chinese soft power often tends to adopt Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power and measure China against it, and as a result, I think most conclusions come out as quite negative: China is basically failing, because it doesn’t have the attractive values that the United States originally does, or doesn’t have the strong cultural power when it comes to bottom-up culture, popular culture versus top-down, sale or export of culture. When you look at it this way, you end up with a pretty quick conclusion that it’s basically not working. 

But when you assess it on its own terms, you delve into the motivations behind it, the differences in domestic and external motivations, which can lead to very different conclusions. If you look at it on its own terms, you also see more regional variety, that maybe in some regions it’s working better or more effectively than others. And then you also see that some of its potential challenges or contradictions emerged not necessarily from the fact that it’s just a failure by default, but because it’s implemented sometimes in a very conflicting way. For instance, motivations of implementers on the ground at the local level, ambassadors of Chinese soft power, may differ from those of the high ranking officials in Beijing. So when you look at it on its own terms, you find a lot more nuance, you find more richness, and you also may end up questioning this binary of success versus failure.

CDT: You also discuss the need for a comparative approach to Chinese soft power. Why is a comparative approach often overlooked, and why is it important?

MR: I think the comparative approach speaks to the larger study of China, because it’s often tempting to say China is unique, and in some ways it is really distinctive and challenging to compare to any other context. But that also leads to some essentializing of China and Chinese practices. Even though we perhaps can’t find a completely comparable case, we can still find some comparative avenues for research. For instance, soft power can be seen as a practice, so we can compare how it’s implemented across different cases and see what’s distinctive about China, and maybe what’s more generalizable or similar to other cases. In both the US and China, there are some similar practices, like cultural centers, education, fellowships, public diplomacy summits, media narratives, etc.

Another form of comparison could be more focused on cultural context: for instance, implementing soft power in a similar cultural context versus a divergent one, and seeing whether there is more potential for success. And of course, one could also potentially look at more authoritarian versus democratic contexts to see whether a political system makes a difference in how China is perceived. So there’s a lot of room for different comparative work, but I think all of the different comparisons can illuminate different aspects of how China is performing, whether it’s what China is actually envisioning, or how effective it is. And these comparisons are not impossible. One can actually do them, not necessarily through fieldwork, but also through looking at narratives, media analysis, official speeches, intent and motivations. 

CDT: Let’s jump into some of the instruments of Chinese soft power that you analyzed in your book, so that we can highlight the contradictions and complexity. One main instrument that you focus on is Confucius Institutes, drawing from your fieldwork in Ethiopia. Could you unpack your description of Confucius Institutes in Ethiopia as tools of “pragmatic enticement”?

MR: By pragmatic enticement I mean that Confucius Institutes in Ethiopia attract core participants through various practical benefits. 

For instance, educators end up being enticed by the idea of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms because they provide jobs for the graduates. They’re also at times enticed by this notion of creating more global connectivity for their universities. There is a sense that China provides a window into the global—global education flows and global education exposure. And it maybe has other benefits, including potential scholarships for students and staff, and maybe some resources for research and so forth. 

For students who end up signing up for Chinese language studies, it’s primarily the idea of getting a fellowship scholarship to study in China, but also getting a job, as the prime motivation. Most of them get employed as translators to Chinese state-owned enterprises or private companies. 

Then for teachers, for educators coming from China, there’s a sense of practical mission. For the most part, it’s about professional advancements and personal fulfillment. Professionally, advancing and practicing one’s English language skills, and teaching Chinese language to foreigners for the first time, can be very useful in deciding for young volunteers what trajectory they want to take on in their careers. It’s also in terms of just taking time off from China, because China is very fast paced, and society is extremely stressful. 

For all the participants, it’s less about the cultural encounter per se, but more so about “What can we gain from this? What’s the practical outcome?”

CDT: Another instrument you discuss is China’s global media. Could you elaborate on the ever-present tension between, on the one hand, China’s growing need to innovate in order to improve its media credibility and attract foreign audiences that might otherwise be repelled by what appears to be state propaganda, and on the other hand, China’s need to project a top-down, CCP-approved global image in order to maintain political authority?

MR: This is an interesting tension that underpins all of Chinese global media expansion. In some ways, it also mirrors the domestic tension between telling interesting, exciting stories that at times carry critical elements or some controversy, versus controlling the message. But internationally, perhaps it’s even more vibrant or visible because global publics have other access to information about China. They have other sources, they’re more discerning, and they often come with pre-existing prejudices that these stories are state propaganda. So in some ways, these outlets are going to have to prove themselves due to their pre-existing reputation.

On the one hand, to attract global publics one has to convince the public that you are reputable to begin with. But also I think the public is looking for exciting, dynamic, lively, and oftentimes also controversial stories. If you look at it from the commercial point of view, it’s about getting clicks and views. Stories that are very balanced and very positive don’t tend to really attract the public as much. 

At the same time, there’s also increasing pressure on journalists who work for these outlets and who are telling the China story for global audiences. There’s just more censorship, more directives, a much more tense political climate for domestic journalists, so they face more pressure. So they’re sometimes not actually able to compete with global outlets that are based outside of China and often not constrained by the same censorship. So they end up telling a story that’s not necessarily competitive with the global story, or Western story, that’s being told about China. 

Also, there are not a lot of professional motivations to tell more creative stories, at least at outlets like Xinhua, because a lot of these stories are co-authored by, say, six authors, and even if you end up being the one who gets a lot of clicks, you still have six authors that are sharing it with you. So there’s not a lot of enterprise to say, “You should go ahead and do something different.” And those jobs can be very comfortable. They pay quite well. They give benefits to journalists, and they don’t want to give that up to take risks on telling more critical or more exciting stories. 

CDT: You describe the localization or decentralization of China’s global media push as an attempt to maintain equilibrium in that tension. Some examples that you mentioned in your book are the use of local journalists to write stories, content-sharing agreements between media organizations, and Chinese acquisitions of foreign media outlets. How “successful” do you think these strategies will be, going forward?

MR: It’s always hard to predict success with some of these initiatives, but there are some trends. For example, hiring local journalists is a relatively promising strategy because it allows for local voices to tell that story. We see this in the West. CGTN has offices in Washington and London. They hire mostly western correspondents. That means, potentially, the story is a little bit more convincing, more lively. Maybe some angles will be covered that otherwise aren’t visible through Chinese storytellers. This is something that still needs more empirical study to determine to what extent it actually shifts perceptions. We know that the storytelling is changing, but are people engaging with the Chinese media differently as a result of that?

Direct acquisitions or having stakes in local outputs is seen as potentially effective because it’s invisible. One creates a stake in an outlet and can potentially, quietly, push for certain narratives or constrain others. It’s a little bit too new to say how effective it is, but it seems like it’s potentially a persuasive, interesting avenue for Chinese expansion. 

The somewhat less effective avenue has been inserting Chinese media [content] into newspapers and other local papers. I think that’s been effective for diasporic media outlets where they already may be interested in Chinese news content, but much less effective for Western news outlets. Also in Ethiopia, I found that they did do inserts for a while, but nobody really read them. It doesn’t really have much of a value in terms of shaping public opinion. Maybe it’s effective for domestic consideration. So it depends how one calculates or conceives of effects.

CDT: Another instrument of soft power that you focus on is education. Could you describe the political and economic motivations for China’s role as an education hub for international students?

MR: There are several motivations. For the political one, it goes back to the Mao period of inviting these foreign students and treating them really well. In China, oftentimes foreign students get better benefits or treatment on campus, they get better dorms, or they’re taken care of almost as “foreign guests.” And that creates a certain perception of respect, partnership, friendship, and benevolence towards China. When they go back to their home countries, some end up writing very positive stories about China, or working with China in some capacity, or maybe they’ll become government officials and influence China policy. So there is some hope, at least at some level, that this is part of soft power: building up China’s image and localizing persuasion. 

Economically, we see a neoliberal restructuring of Chinese universities, whereby they’re less dependent on or less driven by government funding. Just like other institutions, many universities in China have been cut off from government subsidies and they have to survive on their own. Foreign students bring in a lot of income. Many of these students are self-funded. Actually, the majority of students from developing countries are not necessarily coming on government scholarships. Also, there’s some strategic recruitment of students and researchers who are supposed to help with China’s developmental agenda, like “Made in China 2025.” They’re scientists or engineers or other strategic talents, representatives that would help in some ways to collaborate on an agenda. 

CDT: I’m curious about how all this is experienced by those in the Global South, and Africa in particular. In what ways do Chinese soft power initiatives in Africa empower or disempower locals, and how might that compare to the effects of Western soft power initiatives in the region?

MR: From what I’ve seen, I think there’s several overlapping themes. One thing is exposure to new information and inspiration. From what I gathered from journalists and officials I spoke to, their experience in Chinese training programs wasn’t so much deeply knowledge-enhancing in terms of capacity-buildingfor example, how to be a better journalist or how to deal with digital transitions of the media. The “how-to” was absent, or maybe submerged under the storytelling about China. A lot of the program materials are just literally about what China has accomplished. They take a particular media outlet, and they’ve done this incredible digitalization transition, and now they’re earning a lot of money, and they’re attracting public opinion, and they have all this advertising revenue. A lot of it is really showing off China’s success and immersing people in that success. 

I got a sense that this is about inspiration towards self-determination, the “we can do it ourselves,” or “we can be successful,” or “China has done so much in 30-40 years. We can also accomplish a lot if we are as hardworking or diligent or committed to this accomplishment.” There’s also just this immersion, feeling the speed of how much China is accomplishing. It’s in this mindset that anything is possible. But I don’t think it necessarily translates into very specific tools. 

From what I gathered, a lot of these participants themselves do a sort of co-performance of soft power exercises. They come in and they will say very positive things about China to their hosts and to local media. But at the same time, when you privately speak to them, they say, “Obviously, this is a public diplomacy exercise. I’m here in that capacity representing my country.” So they wouldn’t say anything critical because it’s not meant to be expressed in that space. But then in a private space, they said, “Well, actually, it would have been nice to learn a bit more.” So participants go on a tour and make the most of it, but they don’t treat this as a particularly knowledge-enhancing trip.

There’s also this element of symbolic co-optation. They’re performing publicly, but privately they may not necessarily have the same opinion. So they have very critical reflections, but some people end up writing very positive articles about China when they go back and publish stories. These opinions or views can coexist within these individual participants very easily.

There’s also a sense of brain drain when it comes to journalists and students at Confucius Institutes. The graduates end up working for Chinese companies. Many are translators. As translators, they actually represent the interest of Chinese capital, back in Ethiopia. Most of them don’t become educators or government officials, because that pays a lot less. So in this sense, they are co-opted by money itself. 

But is it necessarily a weakness? Well, if you ask individuals, they’ll say no. They’re actually very happy to be in this position, because they make more money, and they see themselves as empowering maybe their spouse, their families, and some local community members as well. But if you look at it from the big-picture point of view, the education still is primarily in the hands of Chinese Confucius Institutes. The officials who end up negotiating with China are less knowledgeable about China and maybe less trained, or they don’t speak the language. But the ones who are well trained and sophisticated in their knowledge end up being translators, brokers, or negotiators for Chinese companies. So in the big picture, if you look at this in the long term, perhaps there is some weakness there. But from the individual perspective, I think they probably see this as empowering. 

There is discursive co-optation through the media lens, too. Ethiopian media, for instance, doesn’t publish many investigative or critical stories about China in Ethiopia, in part because it’s being disciplined by some of these Chinese interests. Also, some of these journalists that come back from training programs write more positive stories, too. So there’s co-discursive solidarity between Chinese and Ethiopian narratives when it comes to China-Ethiopia relations. Does this co-optation necessarily mean something negative? Not necessarily, but it does mean that perhaps there’s less pushback, and less direct public questioning of what China is doing.

CDT: That’s fascinating. And it’s interesting to see that tension between the individual level versus the broader country or societal level when it comes to empowerment. 

MR: Yeah, because I think it’s easy to judge and say, “Oh, this is just disempowering.” But it would also be condescending as someone coming in from outside and saying, “Well, you’re being disempowered.” But if the individuals themselves see it as empowering, that has to be taken into account. This is not a clear-cut picture from the individual perspective. 

CDT: Let’s move on to another instrument of soft power that you discuss, which is public diplomacy. How does China’s public diplomacy target both foreign and domestic audiences? How are public diplomacy spectacles “captured” by each of these audiences? 

MR: The audience with diplomatic spectacles is both domestic and international. It was really fascinating to see this at the China-Africa trade fair in Hunan before the pandemic. The majority of visitors were actually local residents from Changsha. They were very excited to see this. It was entertainment for the weekend. There’s this curiosity about the world and hunger for seeing China as a center of global interactions. And some of it is also showcasing how much China has accomplished. So there was a dual-audience perspective playing out in the spectacles. 

When it comes to being captured by different audiences, that’s also something that takes place when it comes to major events in particular. During the last Olympics, different actors, like Western journalists, activists, or NGOs, captured the Olympics for their own agendas. For instance, journalists wanted to cover the “real” China story, which means a story of injustices and all kinds of different human costs that were involved in hosting the Olympic Games, and showcase how the Olympics symbolize inequality, bad governance, and so forth. In this upcoming Olympics, we’ll see similar, maybe differently-phrased, narratives around Xinjiang. 

So there is this idea that these events are so widely mediatized that they present a really interesting channel for pushing one’s interests and exposing some aspects of China. China is in everybody’s view and is more vulnerable, because it’s creating a spectacle, so everybody’s invited to participate and they’re participating in their own ways. I think domestically, too, there is some contestation of the spectacles, maybe not as radical or as critical, but still there are a lot of critiques and some protests around people being relocated in order to build the Olympic villages and set up the Games. 

There’s also the idea of cultural belonging and national identity. What does it mean to be Chinese? Some artists redefined that and created very different artworks in parallel to the Shanghai Expo to showcase more complex ways of being a Chinese citizen. They show different facets of identity that are not represented through state propaganda. So that’s what I meant by being captured, that those events are both potentially very persuasive and effective for public image making. But they also open up all kinds of channels for contestation from different groups, including domestic groups. 

CDT: Are there any important questions that I forgot to ask in this interview that you’d like to address?

MR: You addressed a lot of important ones! But I guess there are two questions that I think are often asked in this conversation about China. One is whether soft power is even a useful concept. Is it even useful to talk about it, because it’s such a broad, vague, fluffy thing? So is it even worthwhile to even use that term? I see a lot of frustration in the academy, but also just in the public discourse, because everybody seems to be deploying it for their own purposes. The other one is what is often misunderstood about soft power, and what are some of the biggest misunderstandings?

CDT: Finally, what scholars and other sources do you recommend our readers consult to learn more about China’s soft power and to hear perspectives from the Global South on this topic?

MR: Sure. Emeka Umejei is one. He writes about media relations between China and Africa and he brings in a lot of perspectives from African journalists who work for Chinese media. [CDT published an interview with Dr. Umejei in November 2021.] I also really like the work by Danny Morales, who’s written a lot about Chinese media as well. He often co-authors with Herman Wassermann. And Pablo Morales works on Chinese media in Latin America, which is also a fascinating angle. When it comes to training and education, Lina Benabdallah’s recent book on training programs, knowledge production, and network formation is very interesting. She comes at it from the international relations and political theory perspective. 

There’s also a lot of space for still examining this much more empirically and examining other channels, whether it’s Confucius Institutes or non-state soft power initiatives, like Chinese companies on the ground or Chinese communities. How do they end up contributing to but also damaging the Chinese image? These shape the Chinese image in a different way. Those spaces are fascinating, and I hope some U.S. readers will engage in them. 


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