By Eleanor Albert, Council on Foreign Relations–


China is a powerful international actor as the most populous country, the second largest economy, and a significant investor in modernizing its military. With early signs that the United States will emphasize hard power under the Trump administration, China has positioned itself as a champion of globalization and economic integration, perhaps signaling a desire to take on a greater international leadership role. It is doing this by doubling down on soft power, a measure of a country’s international attractiveness and its ability to influence other countries and publics.

But what exactly are China’s means of exerting influence? In the last decade, the Chinese government has committed to boosting its appeal abroad. Beijing has been developing an international media network and establishing cultural study centers around the world. While debate abounds over whether promoting China’s traditions, values, language, and culture can win it more friends, vast funds are backing programs to enhance the country’s image. Despite its efforts, China has yet to see a significant return on its investment.
When did China start investing in soft power?

Chinese officials and academics expressed the importance of China’s culture in the 1990s and early 2000s, but soft power was explicitly referenced in national government policy for the first time at the Seventeenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao said, “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture.” This formulation, tying culture to the country’s place on the world’s stage, echoed other core principles from Chinese leadership, such as China’s “peaceful rise” and its vision of a “harmonious society.” These ideas intended to counter narratives from the West that China’s emergence was a threat to the existing international order.

Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, said in 2014, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world,” calling for a stronger national effort to link China’s popularity and likeability to its meteoric rise. Soft power, a term coined by Harvard University scholar Joseph S. Nye Jr. in 1990, is the means by which a country gets other countries to “want what it wants.” Nye emphasized that a country’s perceived legitimacy, attractiveness of ideology and culture, and societal norms play an important role in shaping international politics. Under Xi’s leadership, China has pushed the notions of the “Chinese Dream” and “China Model” without providing clear definitions.

The funds China steers toward its soft power campaign are hard to pinpoint due to the country’s limited transparency but experts place estimates in the billions of dollars. U.S. sinologist David Shambaugh of George Washington University says that China spends approximately $10 billion a year.

What are its soft power tools?

China is attempting to export its approach to development, which has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. The “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, described by leaders as a vehicle for soft power, calls for spurring regional connectivity. It seeks to bring together the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road through a vast network of railways, roads, pipelines, ports, and telecommunications infrastructure that will promote economic integration from China, through Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, to Europe. To finance a share of these international projects, China contributed $50 billion

[PDF] to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank upon its founding, half of the bank’s initial capital. Beijing also pledged $40 billion for its Silk Road Fund, $25 billion for the Maritime Silk Road, and another $41 billion to the New Development Bank (established by BRICS states: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).


Separately, Beijing has also implemented aid programs that do not conform to international development assistance standards: its aid typically focuses on South-South partners in the developing world; comes without conditionality; is predominantly bilateral; and includes not only grants and interest-free and concessional loans, but also other forms of official government funding. A number of training programs have supported public health, agriculture, and governance. Nevertheless, some of Beijing’s other hard power policy actions tend to overshadow goodwill built through its budding aid programs. Chinese aid programs, though growing, are a fraction of what large donors like the United States, European Union institutions, and Japan offer.

“We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.” —Chinese President Xi Jinping

Beijing’s leaders have also turned to more traditional tools of soft power: promoting Chinese language, educational exchanges, media expansion, and pop culture icons.

  • Confucius institutes: China opened the first Confucius Institute in 2004 in Seoul, South Korea. As of April 2017, there were five hundred institutes scattered in every region of the world. The centers, nonprofit organizations affiliated with China’s ministry of education, provide Mandarin language courses, cooking and calligraphy classes, and celebrations for Chinese national holidays. The institutes echo cultural associations like the United Kingdom’s British Councils, France’s Alliance Française, Germany’s Goethe Institute, and Spain’s Cervantes Institute. The Confucius Institute partners with universities, typically with a minimum of $100,000 in annual support for programming, while Confucius Classrooms are established with primary and secondary institutions.
  • Educational exchanges: China has become a top destination for international students. It ranks third among the world’s most popular study destinations, according to the Institute of International Education. The majority of international students pursue self-funded courses of study; however, the China Scholarship Council provides student financial aid to not only Chinese students going abroad, but also to foreigners coming to China. Nearly four hundred thousand international students from 202 countries studied in China in 2015. They came primarily from South Korea, the United States, Thailand, India, and Russia, based on statistics from the China Scholarship Council, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Education. Still, only a handful of the country’s esteemed schools are ranked among the world’s top one hundred higher educational institutions. These include Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Fudan University. The image of Chinese schools suffers from a combination of skepticism over educational quality and pedagogic methods that often emphasize rote memorization over independent thought development as well as concern over censorship by academics and university leadership of topics particularly relating to individual freedoms and democracy, and Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, to avoid crackdown from the party.
  • International media: Beijing has thrown its weight behind its foreign language news outlets to establish greater control over narratives about China. This allows Beijing to reach a broader audience for not only high-profile summits between Chinese leaders and their foreign counterparts but also for China’s more underreported activities around the world. The government’s primary news agency, Xinhua, has grown to more than 160 foreign bureaus and has plans to reach 200 by 2020. China Daily and the Global Times publish English language editions available worldwide. CCTV, the state television broadcasting news service, rebranded itself as China Global Television Network in December 2016 and broadcasts six channels, two in English and others in Arabic, French, Russian, and Spanish. China Radio International broadcasts 392 hours of programming a day in thirty-eight languages from twenty-seven overseas bureaus. The media firm runs a network of more than thirty radio stations in fourteen countries through front companies to mask its influence, according to a November 2015 Reuters investigation. Chinese diaspora communities, which total approximately fifty million people and are primarily in Southeast Asia, are just as much a target audience for China’s media expansion as foreigners.
  • Popular culture: Soft power also stems from a country’s society and its culture, including literature, art, film, music, scholars, and sports figures. Celebrities like film director Zhang Yimou, actor Jackie Chan, pianist Lang Lang, professional athletes Yao Ming and Li Na, ballet dancer Tan Yuanyuan, and pop singer Jane Zhang are unofficial cultural ambassadors.

Chinese athletic performances are a projection of such power as well. Hosting the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing put the country on display. China took home seventy-one medals at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro compared to thirty-two in the 1984 Los Angeles games.

In addition, Chinese firms have set their sights on Hollywood’s film industry. Dalian Wanda, one of the world’s largest media companies, has closed a series of deals with U.S. film studios and cinema chains, including a partnership with Sony Pictures and the acquisition of Legendary Entertainment, the production house behind hits like “Godzilla,” “Jurassic World,” and “Interstellar.” Shanghai Film Group and Huahua Media agreed to inject Paramount Pictures with $1 billion and to finance a combined 25 percent of the studio’s productions. U.S. studios look to China for much-needed investment and an entry into China’s desirable movie market. Meanwhile, Chinese firms are seizing on the opportunity to have a more direct hand in shaping China’s external image. Though China’s film industry may be internationalizing, Chinese films still have limited distribution and box office success in external markets, raising questions about the broad appeal of such cultural products.

Is its soft power effective?

Soft power by nature is difficult to measure. In the case of the ambitious OBOR initiative, China’s neighbors and partners have so far responded by taking a cautious approach [PDF]. Many business and government leaders view OBOR as an economic opportunity to stimulate growth across Asia and beyond; the continent’s infrastructure needs are expected to exceed $1.5 trillion a year to sustain development through 2030, according to a 2017 Asian Development Bank report. Economic wellbeing is a powerful incentive for countries desperate for development, but Chinese financing and construction does not translate directly into Beijing’s ability to exert influence and shape the preferences of recipient countries. For example, local communities in South and Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka have expressed resentment toward a growing Chinese presence; even in Pakistan where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been broadly endorsed, some lawmakers fear that such projects may jeopardize national interests. In spite of the risks, regional actors are often induced by short-term economic benefits needed to fuel growth, though they remain guarded about bending to Beijing’s strategic preferences.

China’s soft power campaign is limited by the dissonance between the image that China aspires to project and the country’s actions.

While there are few quantifiable metrics to gauge influence, experts often refer to public opinion polls that assess global perceptions of China. By these benchmarks, China’s efforts seem to have had little effect in boosting its favorability around the world.


In Africa, opinion poll respondents typically hold more favorable views of China than in other parts of the world, according to surveys conducted by Pew Research Center and Afrobarometer [PDF], a Pan-African research network. Countries like Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, and Niger have some of the highest views of China’s influence, often ranging above 75 percent. In Latin and South American nations, the majority of respondents often view China favorably, but the margins are less substantial. For example, Chile and Peru held positive views with 66 percent and 60 percent of respondents seeing China favorably in 2015, while Argentine and Mexican respondents stood at 53 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

Countries that have held highly positive views of China over time include Pakistan and Russia. Other neighbors hold more varied perceptions. On average, 64 percent of Indonesian respondents viewed China favorably between 2005 and 2015. Over the same period, opinions of China in Japan dropped significantly. In western democratic countries like Germany and the United States, a clear trend has emerged: despite the government’s efforts, favorable opinions of China have steadily declined since 2011.

Beijing’s state-led soft power efforts may still well be young, but the initial evidence suggests that China’s spending seems to have been relatively ineffective or other factors are preventing Beijing’s initiatives from breeding success.

“China will find it hard to win friends and influence nations so long as it muzzles its best advocates.” —The Economist

What are the limitations of China’s soft power?

China’s soaring economy has elevated the country as a model to be emulated, but there are multiple strains that threaten to undermine its image. Environmental pollution and degradation, food safety issues, overcapacity of state-owned enterprises, and Xi’s exhaustive anticorruption campaign are likely to dissuade others from following China’s example.

Moreover, experts say, China’s soft power campaign is limited by the dissonance between the image that China aspires to project and the country’s actions.  Rising nationalism, assertiveness vis-à-vis territorial disputes, crackdowns on nongovernmental organizations, censorship of domestic and international media, limits to the entry of foreign ideals, and political repression constrain China’s soft power. “If China’s narratives don’t address the country’s shortcomings, it becomes very hard to sell the idea of China as a purveyor of attractive values,” says CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy. Chinese culture and ideas have the potential to appeal worldwide, but only when there is “honesty in the depiction,” Economy adds.

Ultimately, China’s tightening authoritarian political system is the biggest obstacle to the positive image the country and government yearn for. “So long as [China’s] political system denies, rather than enables, free human development, its propaganda efforts will face an uphill battle,” wrote David Shambaugh in Foreign Affairs in 2015. Without the free exchange of ideas and the ability of Chinese citizens to engage in open debate, the gap between the government’s portrayal and China’s reality will likely grow. “China will find it hard to win friends and influence nations so long as it muzzles its best advocates,” writes the Economist.

Additional Resources

Experts Elizabeth C. Economy, Joseph S. Nye Jr., and David Shambaugh weigh in on China’s soft power strategy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ ChinaPower project.

The Economist explores China’s soft power tools in this March 2017 article.

Aynne Kokas examines the U.S. film industry’s collaboration with Chinese investors in her 2017 book, Hollywood Made in China.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei criticized China’s censorship system in this May 2017 New York Times op-ed.

Osamu Sayama argues [PDF] China’s approach to soft power attempts to balance nationalism, legitimacy, and international influence in a 2016 paper for the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

Michael D. Swaine analyzes Chinese views and commentary on China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative in this 2015 article [PDF] for the China Leadership Monitor.