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What’s More Limited? Chinese Influence or the Concept of Soft Power

July 14, 2015

I’m writing a chapter for a forthcoming Handbook of Soft Power so I’m kind of grumpy about the whole thing again. In this frame of mind in the last week I’ve spotted a couple of pieces about the limits of Chinese soft power, notably one by Joe Nye that have caused further irritation.   Nye correctly points to China’s tendency to bully its neighbours and the limits imposed by its political system both in the negative attitudes towards it abroad and the reluctance to unleash its civil society to spread its influence abroad or the negative attitudes to some investments in Africa. I don’t actually disagree with these observations but I do think that he’s tending to reduce Chinese influence to a matter of sentiment and missing out the importance of its economic expansion this underestimation is a direct effect of how soft power is conceptualized.

The starting point for the chapter I’m writing is the argument that when we talk about ‘soft power’ we mix up two things: ‘soft power’ as a theoretical language and the thing that it’s supposed to describe. What is that thing? For the moment let’s call it ‘non-coercive national influence’ (NCNI), hence ‘soft power’ is one language that can be used to describe how countries have an effect on other actors but it is not the only one.   In the chapter I’m using the history of French and German concepts of external cultural action as alternative languages for thinking about NCNI. If you step outside ‘soft power’ as conceptual framework and look both at the history of practice and at alternative ways of thinking about NCNI the peculiarities of the soft power framework come into focus

In French or German practice there has always been a close relationship between economic and cultural factors in their national influence. Nye has always seen the ‘economic’ as part of hard, coercive power this isn’t entirely wrong as in the case of Merkel and Tsipras but this isn’t the whole story. From a historical perspective the cultivation of economic relations and the construction of cultural and educational relations and image building go together. Teaching the language or offering scholarships facilitates economic relations. Offering a scholarship or building a factory is about providing opportunity. Constructing an economic presence may lead to opportunities for coercion but it also constructs opportunity. Non-coercive Influence isn’t just about attitudes. The expansion of China’s presence in the world is offering opportunities to all kinds of people and regardless of their attitudes to China’s politics they are taking them up. In taking up those opportunities their attitudes may or may not be influenced but the creation of relationships with actors in China is likely to create other effects; valued relationships, understandings, further opportunities.

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