China continues its steady rise up the Soft Power 30 ranks, coming in at 25th. This impressive three-place jump is a reflection of China’s more committed approach to soft power in recent years. The opening of hundreds of “Confucius Institutes”, combined with extensive international branding initiatives, have only strengthened China’s cultural offering. And as China continues to post strong performances in innovation and R&D spending, its efforts have led to the increasing global influence of Chinese brands like Huawei and Alibaba. Politically, China is in a strong position to shoulder greater global responsibility as America turns inwards and distances itself from free trade and climate commitments. This was demonstrated by President Xi Jinping’s visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, and his pivot towards globalisation and environmental sustainability. However, gains made in its soft power standing are somewhat undermined by China’s hard-line approach to foreign policy and human rights, reflected in an overall poorer performance in our Government sub-index. Elaborate military parades, increased defence spending, and ongoing construction in the South China Sea have led to poor polling performances in other Asian countries. However, China’s overall improvement in the polling data, and its notably high scores in Africa, indicate there is opportunity for China to adopt a more favourable global position. With a more congruent approach to soft power, China is likely to continue to rise up the index, establishing itself as a global superpower.
China’s greatest soft power assets are in Culture. Strong performances across the arts, sports, and tourism metrics are testament to China’s rich and diverse cultural assets. These assets also benefit from improved global engagement. As China continues to make strides in innovation and technology, we are also likely to see the rise of a new leader in the global value chain.
Two steps forward and one step back – China’s political approach remains at odds with its soft power pursuits. China’s approach to human rights, which sits at odds with Western approaches and thus weighs on global public opinion of China. Likewise, because China is so large and has increased in economic and military strength so quickly, the slightest moves can make its neighbours nervous. Fears over a military build-ups and the South China Sea issue are risk areas for China’s soft power in the region.
China’s softer approach to foreign policy, such as its recent display of panda diplomacy with the German chancellor, is a step in the right direction. However, increasing demands for authenticity means that soft power efforts must extend beyond a good photo opportunity. Incremental reforms that open China up more would have huge symbolic value and would carry exponential benefits for China’s soft power. Increased efforts to build digital capabilities and engage in digital diplomacy would promote China’s positive global contributions more widely, and help shape a new role for the country on the global stage. But this would sit oddly next to the Great Firewall.