Soft power and hard power in China

What is the relation of soft power and hard power in China and/or East Asian countries?

Give examples:

The terms “soft power” and “hard power” are used to describe the way that a country relates to other countries in the world. They derive from the work of Nye and others who have analysed how power always exists in a particular context in which different entities stand in some relationship with one another.

Power can be seen as  legitimate, and it can aid stability but it can also act as a catalyst for conflict and instability. International relations are full of examples of  both kinds of power. Traditionally China has been viewed as a country that prefers to use “hard power”, in other words military or economic actions to ensure that its interests are followed in the region and even further afield. Certainly it is true that many internal Chinese affairs have been resolved using elements of “hard power” tactics, such as the suppression of dissent by armed forces and a governmental hard line on any moves towards independence and separation from China in regions around its periphery. “Soft power” means the application of non-forceful tactics such as strategically planned foreign aid, cultural activities, diplomatic missions and various forms of joint working on international projects. The evidence of the last few decades since the end of the Mao era is that China has distanced itself from military conflict and has effected a number of foreign policy changes without any use of force. Despite China’s colossal size, its growing economy and its increasing success in world markets, there has been surprisingly little actual friction, even its own immediate surrounding area.

The work of Sheng Ding helps to clarify China’s own view of where it stands on the hard power/soft power spectrum :

  • “Everybody agrees that China is playing an increasingly more important role in global affairs, but the consensus on the approach and nature of the state’s ascendancy has yet to be reached in the academic policy worlds.” (Ding, 2010, p. 256) [this uncertainty shows that observers see no clear choice for soft of hard power tactics in modern China]
  • “For more than two millennia, the idea of soft power had been constantly advocated and comprehensively utilized by ancient Chinese Rulers.” (Ding, 2010, p. 262) [this suggests that the Cultural Revolution was an extreme era, and that in fact China is culturally much more comfortable with soft power, avoiding face to face conflict, and finding smarter solutions which win over a potential enemy before any fighting breaks out]
  • “China’s development of soft power is critical for realizing the dream of becoming a great power, especially since China’s hard power resources lag far behind those of the status quo power- The United States. (Ding, 2010, p. 264) [this suggests that it soft power is the best and most logical strategy for China, given the competition that already exists in the world]
  • “China must provide reassurance and pursue cooperation in its foreign relations so that no major opposition arises against its ascendancy. (Ding, 2010, p. 266) [this points out that China has still got some catching up to do, and while it is in this development phase, soft power is the best way to protect emerging social and economic reforms and ensure a continuing rise to ascendancy]

Evidence for China’s use of soft power in recent years can be seen in its handling of the Olympic Games of 2008. The impressive staging of the games, signified in a way the emergence of  China out of its self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. Wang (2005) argues that in recent years China has been pursuing a risk averse foreign policy which follows a “three p strategy : preservation, prosperity and power/prestige.”  Hesitation over the words power and prestige illustrates exactly the dilemma that China has in determining what kind of leading position it wants to take in the world, now that it has decided to become more fully involved. Pure power, based on strength of numbers, the economy and military escapades gives the Chinese government something to be proud of, and shows a kind of brutal strength, which may be in the interests of current leading figures in the communist party. The people at large, however, are perhaps even more attracted by the notion of prestige. This is something that the Olympic Games gave to the Chinese people in great measure, and it shows a gulf between what is good for the country as a whole, and what is good for the stability of the ruling single party.

China is facing no serious external threats, and this promotes a situation where soft power can flourish

  • “Beijing appears to be betting its future on its effort within the current political and economic system” (Wang, 2005, p. 672) [this implies working with capitalist forces instead of resisting them or withdrawing from the international markets]
  • “China needs Wesern capital, technology and market to pursue its dream of being an equal to the West” (Wang, 2005, p. 672) [This shows that China is taking steps to reform its internal systems so that they align more closely to world democracies]

The situation with Taiwan and Nepal is one which will not lend itself to soft power solutions, since China refuses to negociate at all on territorial issues. State led modernization under the Communist party seems to be also a given, and China can at times react badly to external criticism, and to demands for sudden policy change. Recent examples of a rather unhelpful and “hard power” reaction to international events have been the decision to try and block the internet company GOOGLE from operating  freely, and undue secrecy over food contamination or illness outbreak scenarios which could have major implications for neighboring countries. China has also been slow to work together with international banks to help deal with world financial crises and this is an example of an inward looking self-protection attitude rather than an opening up to more collaboration for mutual benefit. The international context in which China is working is subject to sudden and at times extreme change, as we see for example with terrorist attacks like 9/11, great natural disasters, or  shortages in particular commodities. The fact that China holds reserves of rare minerals is an example of a kind of economic power that is at its disposal. This could be used in a “hard power” fashion to manage the markets and make profits for investment, but it could also be used to build strong trading alliances across the globe.

Chinese culture is well respected across the globe, at least its ancient culture, and this has encouraged a renaissance in interest in such things as philosophy, literature, tourism and even such cultural exports as Chinese medicine. Chinese political ideology is less well tolerated and this is something which might get in the way of the exercise of soft power. Increased travel for Chinese nationals, and the opening of China to foreign nationals, especially at the level of students, has been a major step forward in the country’s development and it has helped to build trust. These government policies are an example of a far reaching soft power strategy. It seems likely that China will continue its strategy of operating with mainly soft power strategies so long as it maintains its peaceful rise and is not thwarted in its developmental goals. In the face of a real threat to the ruling party, however, there is every chance that a reversion to hard power tactics will swiftly follow.


Ding, Sheng. “Analyzing Rising Power from the Perspective of Soft Power: a new look at China’s rise to the status quo power.” Journal of Contemporary China 19 (64), (2010), pp. 255-272.

Wang, Fei-Ling. “Preservation, Prosperity and Power: what motivates China’s foreign policy? Journal of Contemporary China 14 (45), pp. 669-694.

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