How has the concept of soft power and public diplomacy been interpreted in the context of China? How is it distinct?
As China (and it’s 1.3 billion residents) has evolved into a world superpower, its soft power and public diplomacy has remained inherently tied to their level of power. While other countries rely on being culturally sophisticated, financially secure, or great for tourists, China seems to project only one thing: its rise into economic (and political) superpower status.
To more developed countries, such some European nations, Japan, and the U.S., China portrays itself as a collaborator in the “harmonious society” of states, and an equal among many in a multilateral world. Non-threatening, the new and bountiful China, it is assured, will benefit all and contribute positively to the development of the global economy and community.
China also hopes to leverage its soft power with sometimes overlooked or oppressed countries in Africa and South America. Here, the rise of China marks a shift away from “imperial” relationships, and demonstrates a new model to emulate: “Beijing Consensus”. As Lee points out, the PRC provides money to countries that others in the global community refuse to invest in, mostly due to human rights concerns. Countries want to get on the good side of the future(?) superpower, win early advantage as their designated importer of copper, soybean, or bauxite, and gain influence through their new ally. Many companies and countries are willing to take losses to maintain these ties, in the earnest belief that they will pay off in the end.
Although some other aspects of soft power are trickling through – growing numbers of students learning Chinese as a second language, interest in Pacific-centric international groups and organizations – they all stem from hitching onto China’s rise. Other countries are looking to China, not to emulate their culture, their politics, or their economic model that but to maximize their economic potential. Even the “Beijing Consensus” concept is from Western academics, not Chinese public diplomacy. Within the discourse of a necessarily powerful, but peaceful, China it seems that other factors – poor human rights, environmental degradation, mistreatment of minorities – have been ignored.
And this may be the point. China wants to maintain focus on the one, big net positive, which is its economic potential. This may be as much, if not more so, for domestic consumption than for the usual realm of public diplomacy. By shouting about its economic rise, China tries to drown out any opposition to other facets of soft power, and of its government practices. Whether this PD tactic can remain viable in the long run remains to be seen, and whether China will be able to rely on more than the world’s largest consumer base to ensure soft power in the future.