Culture lies at core of Chinese soft power

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-02-09

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in Chinese institutions and practices within international academia, as more people around the world are learning the Chinese language and culture. This trend reflects increasing global attention to China’s soft power. Focusing on the concept of soft power, its conceptual reconstruction in China, and the nation’s efforts to enhance its soft power, CSST recently interviewed Barthélémy Courmont, a professor from the Catholic University in Lille, France, and a senior research fellow with the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

Nye’s soft power theory

The term “soft power” was coined by renowned American political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990. In his book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, Nye highlighted how the changes in the international system during the era of bipolarity accelerated and amplified the emergence of a new form of power, which he termed “soft power.” In the following decades, he continued to revise and improve his theory of soft power.

Courmont told CSST that Nye’s best and simplest definition of soft power is “the ability to change what other people want because of its attractiveness.” This stands in opposition to hard power, which is “the ability to change what others do.”

While refining the concept, particularly in terms of whether the economy can be considered as a tool for soft power, Nye categorized the sources of soft power into three main areas: culture, values, and domestic politics and foreign policy. In Courmont’s view, states that implement soft power strategies mainly seek to build a more attractive image, so as to potentially enhance their ability to influence others by leveraging their various assets.

Reconstruction of Nye’s concept

Courmont noted that following the introduction of the concept of soft power to China, various schools of thought emerged, leading to the “reconstruction” of Nye’s theory. One prominent school, the Cultural School, also known as the Shanghai School, quickly stood out in this area. “For the Cultural School, ancient history and traditional culture are the main elements of Chinese soft power,” Courmont said.

The Cultural Secondary School followed up the vision of the Shanghai School, but emphasizes the importance of cultural factors even more, considering that “soft power is culture,” Courmont observed. The School Culturally Critical advocates a more ethno-centered and culturally-centered approach to soft power strategy, with an emphasis on a nationalist discourse. Other scholars put current domestic politics and foreign policy strategies at the center of soft power, and are usually identified as the Political School.

“These different schools have had an influence on how China has redefined and reappropriated Nye’s concept,” Courmont commented.

Immense potential of Chinese culture

As scholarly research on soft power continues to advance, the Chinese government has increasingly recognized the value of soft power development, stressing the importance of enhancing the nation’s cultural soft power through the promotion of fine traditional Chinese culture.

Courmont said that in accordance with the Cultural School, or Shanghai School, China tends to associate culture to its soft power strategy, whereas culture is merely one component of soft power according to Nye’s works. This approach is justified by the cultural potential of China, as well as its emphasis on civilization and high culture, which may not be the primary characteristics in the case of other countries.

China primarily relies on its high culture, encompassing Chinese traditions, including the customs of all Chinese ethnic groups, the Chinese language and calligraphy, fine arts, heritage, and more broadly, everything related to Chinese history, Courmont explained.

China has used its high culture and civilization to distinguish itself from other countries, as evidenced by the establishment of Confucius Institutes, Courmont continued. Moreover, it has established a connection between soft power and the economy, a component that Nye originally categorized as a part of hard power. The country’s extensive and global investment strategy, embodied by the Belt and Road Initiative, clearly serves as a tool to enhance China’s image in developing countries, while yielding economic benefits, he added.

Editor:Yu Hui

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