China's Troubled Soft Power in Europe


© Kreeder13 / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Chinese intellectuals started debating soft power soon after Joseph Nye, a prominent American political scientist, introduced the term in the book Bound To Lead: The Changing Nature Of American Power (Nye, 1990). Since the mid-2000s, several books covering China’s soft power –or its global “Charm Offensive” (Kurlantzick, 2007)– have been published, along with dozens of academic papers, and hundreds of articles and analyses in newspapers and magazines.


Soft power is commonly understood as “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion” (Ikenberry, 2004). This form of power is said to depend on a country’s culture, political values, and foreign policy. The countries that are most often recognized because of their soft power are the US, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and India, to name a few. Due to the intangibility of most soft power resources, this kind of power is hard to measure and assess, but this has not stopped some organizations from trying. A prominent example is the Soft Power 30 (Portland, n.d.), a global ranking that has been published yearly since 2015.


A country’s culture can be assessed according to its appeal to foreign audiences. Its political values, instead, can be evaluated depending on how many countries share them, or aspire to them. Foreign policy is an even broader category, but it contributes to a country’s soft power when it is perceived as benign, collaborative, and contributing to a “better” world. Overall, a country’s soft power should reflect its image and reputation abroad, at least in part. A country that is a global leader in the creative industries, one that manages to promote “universal” values, one that is known to actively contribute to the resolution of global problems, or even one that boasts a combination of all of these attractive features, is expected to be well-regarded.


Surely, there can be many intervening factors affecting the opinion of a foreign country, such as historical animosity, depending on the context. Hollywood movies, for instance, can equally represent American achievements and ideals to some audiences, as much as an overly-nationalistic or even imperialistic attitude to others. The EU’s promotion of certain norms abroad might be seen as a laudable mission to some, or as a manifestation of an overbearing and patronizing attitude to others. Comparably, China’s Belt and Road Initiative may be seen as a much-welcome enterprise to many developing countries in need of infrastructure and investments, while to some others is a worrying example of “debt trap” diplomacy (Green, 2019).


Aware of the diverse opinions among European countries, how is Chinese soft power performing in the continent? Are some resources more successful in penetrating the hearts and minds of European citizens? Can we observe some reputational trends, whether positive or negative? And if so, what are the factors and events that might have affected them? This article only offers a few hints of such a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, but that is nonetheless worthy of investigation.


To begin with, in the cultural realm, an oft-used metric is the presence and diffusion of cultural centers such as the British Council, the Alliance Française, or the Goethe-Institut, to name a few. China’s counterpart is the Confucius Institute, created in 2004, which has already more than 500 branches scattered all around the world, 187 of which are in Europe (European Parliament, 2020). Although the sheer number might not reflect the impact and effectiveness of these centers in improving the image of the country, the rapid diffusion can already denote the interest or willingness to collaborate, as most of these institutes are hosted by local university campuses. That said, several centers have been closed (mainly in Western countries) (Jakhar, 2019) due to concerns about undermining academic freedom, but in several developing countries it seems that the supply is still unable to satisfy the demand.


Beyond the work of Confucius Institutes, focused on language and traditional Chinese culture, the appeal of China’s popular culture still cannot compete with neighboring behemoths such as South Korea and Japan, nor with the romanticized charm of many European countries. The reasons might be plentiful and debatable, but some observers have already wondered “why China is so uncool” (Gao, 2017).


When considering shared values, a major obstacle is the gap between democratic values and the ones promoted by the authoritarian party system in China, along with the surrounding matters, such as concerns over human rights. However, although there are divergent views on several issues, there are as many problems for which a shared vision could be found, such as environmental ones, to fight climate change. In the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that the many divergences, paired with marked cultural differences, will all be solved. Yet if exchanges and collaboration between Europe and China –whether educational, scientific, or of economic nature– persist, while avoiding drastic decisions like the US banning Chinese nationals (Smith, 2020), some common ground might be found.


Said exchanges relate to the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative, representing a central pillar of Beijing’s foreign policy. As a connectivity master plan, in principle, it can foster interaction and collaboration at multiple levels, such as people-to-people, digital, technical, financial, and more. Although the ongoing pandemic has severely affected some of these channels, new ones might have been created, such as the so-called “Health Silk Road” (Lancaster, Rubin, and Rapp-Hooper, 2020). Moreover, the infrastructural needs of developing countries in the Global South are unlikely to match the ones of most European countries, as much as the benefits in trade. However, in spite of these considerations, the advantages of increased connectivity between Europe and Asia have already been recognized officially (European Commission, 2018). How these multiple channels of exchange should be developed, instead, is yet to be agreed.


The proliferation of Confucius Institutes, paired with the growing interest among European citizens in learning about and interacting with this rising power is expected to continue, but not without caution. The quest to find shared values could constitute one of the most tortuous, and requires great efforts from both parties. The responsibility for the advancement of the Belt and Road and how this is perceived abroad, on the other hand, falls mainly to China. Assuring transparency and a genuine pursuit of win-win collaboration would go to great lengths in convincing more countries –both its leaders and citizens– that everyone would benefit from the initiative, even if in relative terms. The timely completion of flagship projects (e.g. major railways, ports) in Europe and beyond, combined with the appreciation of the benefitting country and its people, may result in curbing some skepticism, especially if widely reported by international media. Articles debunking debt-trap accusations are already circulating (Jones and Hameiri, 2020), and some steps to provide more transparency have already been taken during the 2nd Belt and Road Forum in 2019, but China can probably do even more to earn greater trust.


With all that said, if one observes how the views of China have been evolving in recent times, it is hard to believe that the country’s soft power is having any considerable success across the European continent, at least among advanced economies. The PEW Research Center recently reported that “unfavorable views of China [have reached] historic highs in many countries” (Silver, Devlin, and Huang, 2020) –and other independent surveys seem to confirm these negative views (Turcsányi, 2020)– although the (mis)management of the pandemic has also negatively affected the opinion of the US. Following the election of President Biden, these views might change once again.


As several scholars and observers, including myself (Carminati, 2020), have argued, China’s soft power cannot be understood the same way as it was conceived by Nye, which might be biased towards the US and liberal democracies, nor can it be evaluated solely from a narrow cultural perspective. This approach would provide a limited outlook of the country’s attractive power, as it often relies on its economic power, albeit in non-coercive ways, such as through scholarships and development aid. Developing countries might be more inclined to be charmed by this mix of economic and soft strategies than wealthier ones, but that does not mean that the former group will bend to China’s will, nor that Beijing is only moved by “malicious intent.”


To conclude, the sheer interest that China arouses as a major growing power is substantial, but it is unlikely that this attention is predominantly driven by fear, even in the West. The underlying reasons are more likely to be a combination of economic opportunities and a genuine desire to understand such a polarizing but still fascinating global actor, one that is poised to acquire increasing relevance and influence no matter what. Ultimately, it is better to know than to shield from the unknown.



Daniele Carminati is a PhD candidate in Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong and also a commissioning editor at E-International Relations.


The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.


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