Why Is Chinese Soft Power Such a Hard Sell?

Why Is Chinese Soft Power Such a Hard Sell?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Jeremy Goldkorn:

Chairman Mao Zedong said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, and he knew a thing or two about power, both hard and soft. If you have enough guns, you have respect. Money is the same: if you have enough cash, you can buy guns, and respect.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are examples of the limits of such respect. Both countries are rich and in some ways very powerful, but people in other countries with no cultural connections don't look at Israel, or Saudi Arabia and think: “Gee, I want to live like that and watch their movies!”

(AFP/Getty Images)
Open for business since 1905, the Daguanlou movie theater in Beijing.

But we, the rest of us, everyone who is not American, we all want to watch American movies. I am from South Africa, and I’ll confidently represent the entire Third World and the rest of the First World assure you that it’s true. We don’t want to watch Israeli or Saudi or Chinese movies, nor buy Chinese sneakers. Nor, with the exception of a few eccentrics such as myself, do we want to live in Chinese cities. The Saudis and Israelis do not seem to care about this, but China does, hence the endless hand-wringing about soft power.

The essence of Joseph Nye’s articulation of of soft power is the power to attract, to co-opt and to seduce. China now has enough cash to open , , TV stations, and schools, open art zones, buy and islands, but China has not made itself an attractive place to live or work or dream.

Until Chinese political leaders would rather their daughters went to Peking University over Harvard, until Chinese people would rather buy Mengniu infant milk formula over the equivalent brand from New Zealand, until Beijing and Shanghai become as pleasant to live in as New York and L.A., China will find its soft power ambitions thwarted.

As the ancient American saying has it, you can put , but it’s still a pig—doesn't matter how much you spend on the lipstick.

Jeremy Goldkorn is the Founder and Director of Danwei, a research firm that tracks Chinese media and Internet. Danwei has been publishing a popular website about Chinese media since 2003. After...
Donald Clarke is a professor at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., where he specializes in modern Chinese law, focusing particularly on corporate governance, Chinese ...
Susan Jakes is Editor of ChinaFile and Senior Fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. From 2000-2007 she reported on China for Time magazine, first as a reporter and editor based in...
David Shambaugh is professor of Political Science and International Affairs and director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. He is also nonresident Senior Fellow in the...
Bill Bishop is an American who lives in Beijing. He is the writer of the blogs Sinocism, where he collects links to news and interest pieces on China, and Digicha, where he writes about Chinese...
Jonathan Landreth reported from Beijing from 2004 to 2012, with a focus on the media and entertainment industries' effect on the world’s perceptions of China. He was the founding Asia Editor of The...





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