The recently finished Shanghai World Expo was China’s second coming out party, so-called, in three years. Like the Beijing Olympics before it, it went off without a hitch. Like the Olympics, it was widely declared a success. And it was. As an expo – a big, public event.
But some had grander hopes for the Expo – namely, that it would "showcase China’s soft power".
Prior to the Expo opening, Jin Canrong of Renmin University’s School of International Studies predicted: "The message will remain one of how China's rise is characterized by soft power". "The Expo is a very safe way for [the government] to show China's soft power", concurred Ding Xueling of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
As it happened, the events that swirled around the Expo’s closing weeks showcased something quite else: Why China doesn’t have much soft power and why the West, broadly defined, still has it in spades.
Harvard University’s Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power". He defines it as "the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction, rather than using the carrots and sticks of payment or coercion". For nations, according to Nye, soft power rests on culture, values and policies. It is therefore difficult to manufacture. This brings us to China’s problem.
East of the Huangpu River, at the main Expo site, the limits of China’s commitment to pursue a soft power strategy eventually became clear. In September the Japanese government detained a Chinese fishing captain and a heated row over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands flared up. Among its various responses, China revoked an invitation to 1,000 Japanese youths issued by Premier Wen Jiabao to visit the Expo. If the Expo was meant to "showcase China’s soft power", the cancelled invitation did the exact opposite. The young Japanese were finally re-invited after Japan released the Chinese fisherman.
Even more telling is that, as the Expo came to an end, the standout soft power play came not from China but from the Nobel Committee. It awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace to Liu Xiaobo, a jailed critic of China’s government. President Barack Obama reacted by urging China to release his fellow Nobel Laureate "as soon as possible". "Political reform [in China] has not kept pace", the president said. "The basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected".
This was a pure exercise in soft power. The Nobel Committee cannot coerce. It can only attract. It does so through its prestige and through the common recognition that it stands for certain principles.
What happened next? A media blackout punctuated by official criticism of Liu and the Nobel Committee. A celebratory dinner abruptly broken up, with Liu’s friends and comrades hauled off to the slammer. The newly minted Nobel Laureate’s wife was put under house arrest and her phone line was cut. Behavior like this throttles the development of Chinese soft power – values, culture and policies that can attract.
China’s leadership did not want the Nobel Committee’s criticism. In 2008, it did not want Kevin Rudd’s. Australia’s then prime minister addressed students at China’s top university, Peking. Speaking in excellent Chinese, Rudd presented himself as a zhengyou, which Rudd defined as a friend "who offers unflinching advice". Rudd raised the "significant human rights problem in Tibet" and urged China to do more on climate change.
Of course, no nation wants foreign criticism. But ignoring it is not always the best course. Jerome Cohen, another zhengyou and the doyen of Chinese law studies at New York University, puts it bluntly: "Until the party leaders are persuaded to [embrace] the rule of law, China will not have soft power".
Some will disagree that China lacks soft power. They might point to China’s increasing influence in emerging economies. And it’s true, governments and businesses in Africa, South America and all parts of Asia are trading with China in increasing volumes.
But how many of their elites would consider sending their kids to university in China ahead of the US or Europe? How many of their workers dream of migrating to China to start a new life? How many of their consumers watch Chinese TV shows and use iconic Chinese brands every day?
China has a long way to go before it develops soft power assets that can significantly augment its foreign policy. But the good news for China is that the biggest obstacles are not inherent but a matter of choice.
Internet and press freedom, the rights of government critics respected, further progress towards a government of laws not of men – there’s nothing to stop China’s leadership adding these achievements to the admirable progress already secured for its people, if it wanted to.
Doing so would encourage genuine admiration of more than China’s economic clout.
Stephan Minas holds an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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