By Jia Yu
On the 50th anniversary of China’s diplomatic relations with France, President Xi Jinping described contemporary China as a “peaceful, amiable, civilised lion” that has finally awoken. Thus having risen from the “century of humiliation,” a 19-20th century period of national weakness and indignity, the China of today runs the world’s second largest economy. However, it struggles to seek international acknowledgement. Effectively, Xi’s inviting and optimistic adjectives reflect China’s hope to acquire “soft power,” a term introduced by political scholar Joseph Nye to explain how countries may achieve their political objectives by wielding positive cultural and ideological influence. In fact, former Chinese president Hu Jintao already consolidated this goal at the 17th National Congress in 2007. Since then, China has invested around $10 billion dollars per year in numerous projects with the goal of reshaping its global image and expanding influence.
With the multifaceted effort to develop Chinese influence, no project can rival the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in scope of investment and political complexity. Inspired by the land and maritime Silk Roads of antiquity, BRI seeks to foster economic integration between China and nations spanning Asia, Africa, and Europe. In many of these partnerships, China extends low-interest loans to countries to help them develop local infrastructure, agriculture, and other areas. As many of these construction projects involve Chinese contractors, BRI also further highlights the country’s technological advancements, with the hope of gaining wider acknowledgement for Chinese methods.
While the Belt and Road Initiative appeals to a highly visible, interconnected global economy, the exportation of culture and history constitutes a more subtle effort to enhance the country’s image abroad. Since the establishment of the Confucius Institute in 2004, more than 500 centers have operated abroad, providing instructions on topics from language to cooking. Indeed, the evocation of Confucious’s image is highly effective. Although a humble official and philosopher of his period two millennia ago, Confucious’s teachings continue to influence Chinese and to varying degrees, other far Eastern societies, a historical precedence resembling China’s modern strive for soft power.
Beyond the government’s prominent initiatives, tech businesses have also contributed to developing China’s soft power. As mobile phones and the internet have become increasingly accessible in different regions of Africa, Chinese tech companies are garnering more users. A Chinese browser, Opera, provides news services that attract more than 21 million viewers for the news service, predominantly from Kenya and Nigeria. Equally successful is VSKIT, a short video editing app owned by Bytedance, which also boasts around 10 users from the continent.
It is still unknown whether China’s campaign for soft power will result in any pronounced impacts on the country’s international reputation. However, certain fundamental obstacles needs to be addressed. With broad government support for initiatives such as BRI and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the achieved efficiency comes at a cost. While countries pursue their individual development agendas, it is difficult to decipher whether their Chinese partnership is a necessary decision to secure funds or a genuine admiration for Chinese approaches. Furthermore, while the effort to diffuse Chinese language and culture is commendable, it should not be used as an exchange token for admiration. To believe overwise is similar to making the assumption that a person’s craving for Chinese cuisine reflects their positive view of the country, other than a simple preference of individual palate. On a similar note, the Chinese panda is more appreciated as an adorable animal rather than a true cultural ambassador. Overall, for any country, building and maintaining a positive image requires great patience and the inevitable intersection with international power dynamics.