Despite a tumultuous year, China holds its ranking at 27th in the 2019 Soft Power 30 index, a testament to the strength and resilience of its soft power assets. The emerging global power has been facing geopolitical (and reputational) challenges on multiple front over the past year. The US-China trade war; blacklisting of Huawei by the US; escalating criticism of the treatment of Uighurs in the Xinjiang province; continued tensions on the South China Sea; and most recently the pro-democracy, anti-Beijing demonstrations in Hong Kong have all put pressure on global perceptions of China. The result of that pressure has been a fall in China’s performance in the international polling, sliding three spots. For all the bad publicity, a slide of only three spots in the polling is noteworthy. Chinese resilience has proven itself again but must not be taken for granted in an increasingly interconnected and informed world. Not many can dispute the rise of China as an economic powerhouse, but its role as an influential power that has positive impact on today’s global challenges remains to be seen. China’s growing soft power strengths in culture, education, and enterprise, will continue to be tempered by negative global perceptions of China’s foreign policy and human rights issues. Until China can find a better balance between these conflicting forces on its soft power, the top 20 looks out of reach.
China is a cultural juggernaut, and this year it moves up one place to rank 8th in the Culture sub-index. This comes as no surprise with China’s rich culture; it has the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world and the second highest number of Olympic medals from the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. China also continues to perform well in the art and tourism metrics. Beyond culture, China also performed relatively well in the Education and Enterprise sub-indices, although its ranking in Education dropped by four places this year.
Unsurprisingly, China’s weaknesses in the Government sub-index stems from low scores in areas of individual freedoms and liberties. China also struggles to perform in the Digital sub-index, due to the lack of an official online presence on Facebook, and overall low number of internet users and secure internet servers. These areas highlight the distance between the soft power appeal of openness, transparency, and freedom and the China’s closed model of government.
The formidable strength of Chinese culture must not be taken for granted. With popular culture like the drama series Yanxi Palace gaining popularity around the world, and the spread of Chinese food, art, and music beyond the world’s many Chinatowns, China should leverage on its strong cultural assets to improve its overall soft power. However, while culture is a highly visible and effective touch point, international perceptions are heavily influenced by a country’s approach to global affairs. How China will use its rising global power status is still an open question. Until global audiences see China as an unequivocal force for good in the world, China will struggle to generate the soft power one might expect of such an important and great nation.