After an impressive jump from 28th to 25th last year, China slips two places to 27th in the 2018 Soft Power 30 index. The opening of hundreds of “Confucius Institutes” and extensive international branding initiatives have strengthened China’s cultural offering among global audiences. As it continues to post strong performances in innovation and R&D spending, Chinese brands such as Huawei, Xiaomi, and Alibaba are enjoying growing global recognition. However, China’s soft power pursuits are somewhat undermined by its hard-line approach to foreign policy and human rights. China fell by over ten places in the Government sub-index this year, the primary reason for its overall fall in the rankings, and received poorer polling scores. Last year, President Xi Jinping put China in a more favourable global position following his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and his pivot towards globalisation and environmental sustainability. However, Xi has been significantly quieter on this front in the last twelve months, with international attention concentrated on Xi’s decision to eliminate the two-term limit on the presidency. China has invested heavily in deepening bilateral ties around the world, promoting the “Golden Era” and driving its Belt and Road Initiative, but such initiatives may be met with scepticism if China continues to pursue aggressive military expansion. The rise of China as an economic powerhouse is very much fact, but what it means for its global reputation, and for the rest of the world remains to be seen. As international audiences grow increasingly interconnected and informed, China will need to demonstrate authenticity in its commitment to the tackling the world’s major challenges, if it wants to establish itself as a global soft power force.
China’s greatest soft power assets lie 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’s network of embassies and cultural missions continue to expand. As China makes strides in innovation and technology, we are also likely to see the rise of a new leader in the global value chain.
China’s political approach remains at odds with its soft power ambitions. China’s record in human rights and civil liberties reflects poorly among Western audiences and weighs on global public opinion of China. Closer to home in Asia, fears over military builds-ups in the South China Sea continue to weigh on China’s soft power in the region. Additionally, while China is certainly becoming an innovator in its own right, relatively low scores in competitiveness, ease of doing business, and rule of law diminish its attractiveness as a global business hub of choice – rather than necessity.
Increasing demands for authenticity means that soft power efforts must be congruent with political and economic pursuits. There are clear opportunities for China to shoulder greater global responsibility, particularly as America turns inwards and distances itself from free trade and climate commitments. Incremental reforms that open China up more would have huge symbolic value and would carry exponential benefits for China’s soft power. In addition, increased efforts in digital diplomacy would enable China to engage directly with global audiences, and carve out a more positive role in the world. However, this would sit oddly next to the Great Firewall and militarisation of the South China Sea.