Thinking Hard about Soft Power: A Review and Critique of the Literature on China and Soft Power

Article excerpt

This article critically reviews the literature on China and softpower. Among other themes, it tackles the conceptualization and operationalization of softpower, measurement of the effectiveness of Chinese softpower, and the analysis of variables that intervene between China's soft-power tools, realized images, and policy influence results. KEYWORDS: Soft-power literature, foreign policy influence, measuring softpower.

CHINA'S EFFORTS AND SUCCESS IN MODERNIZING ECONOMICALLY AND militarily are widely known and long studied. Less well appreciated and investigated is China's quest to project softpower, which has taken the form of eye-catching mega-events such as the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, support for Confucius Institutes, and growing contributions to international peacekeeping.1 Some observers who are attentive to these relatively novel phenomena see dangerous challenges, particularly for the United States (Kurlantzick 2006). Others question the strength of China's softpower, its efficacy, and the degree to which it truly presents a threat to the standing of the United States or other countries (Whitney and Shambaugh 2008; Suzuki 2009; Ding 2010).

While more research needs to be done, analysts have been giving increased attention to China and softpower. Existing works have detailed the importance of softpower to Chinese decisionmakers; highlighted diverse factors restricting the ability of China to project softpower identified salient contextual factors; probed select aspects of Chinese softpower, such as the 2008 Olympics; and compared Beijing's softpower with Taipei's (Cho and Jeong 2008; Manzenreiter 2010; de Lisle 2010). While illuminating, the extant literature needs greater conceptual refinement, theoretical development, and empirical rigor. As discussed here, the term "softpower" is often used loosely. Also, students of Chinese softpower do not draw upon the literatures relating to perceptions, identity formation, or economic statecraft.2 Another limitation is that some studies rely solely on opinion polls, despite their shortcomings.

There are a number of reasons to study Chinese softpower. Clearly, it can enrich our understanding of power (its forms, the variables that mediate it, and its range of effectiveness)-a core social science concept. Such study also can enrich our understanding of the factors that shape attitudes, images, and identities- and, in turn, our appreciation of constructivism, which more than any other international relations theory emphasizes the malleability of ideational factors. Furthermore, some argue that in a world where information technologies are proliferating and force is becoming more costly or less efficacious, contemplating noncoercive power is increasingly important (Bially Mattern 2005; Ding and Saunders 2006; Ding 2010). Moreover, Chinese policymakers and scholars devote much attention to the subject. Finally, many countries are striving to bolster or redeem their softpower.

This article has a number of central arguments. First, it claims that softpower should be conceptualized in terms of a "form," a target, and a context. Second, the article contends that analysts need to aggregate their measures of softpower as well as measure softpower relative to other forms of power. Third, this study argues for greater sensitivity to the precise message that China is trying to deliver with its soft-power mechanisms. The article also asserts that specialists need to develop techniques to gauge the efficacy of softpower so as to do a better job identifying targets, assessing changes in views, and specifying policy connections. Finally, this article calls on students of Chinese softpower to think systematically about intervening variables, as described below.

The next section delves into the conceptualization and operationalization of softpower. The third section describes the tools that Beijing has employed to enhance Chinese softpower and specifies some of its targets. …