Academic journal article Asian Perspective

How Soft Is "Soft Power"? Unstable Dichotomies at Expo 2010

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

How Soft Is "Soft Power"? Unstable Dichotomies at Expo 2010

Article excerpt

Examining three key symbols and three key practices at Expo 2010, this article argues that if we read these symbols and practices with sensitivity to their plural messages, the traditional binaries of hard and softpower become unworkable. Expo's symbols contain possible messages of the harmony, benevolence, and legitimacy of China's rise, but one can simultaneously read them to express violent harmonization, coercion, and illegitimacy. There are implications here for policymakers and researchers. KEYWORDS: China, Expo 2010, softpower, symbols of attraction and coercion.

IN RECENT YEARS, NUMEROUS ACADEMIC TEXTS HAVE MADE REFERENCE to one or more Chinese mega-events as tools of softpower. Most prominently cited are the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Expo 2010 Shanghai China. These mega-events have become symbols of a changing Chinese outlook and are commonly understood as an important aspect of Chinese "image management" (Xu 2006; Brownell 2008; Price and Dayan 2008). The success of this image management has been questioned (Manzenreiter 2010). Less common, however, are discussions about mega-events as soft-power tools in the first place. The introduction by Blanchard and Lu to this special issue argues that "analysts should not define softpower in terms of tools." I take this proposition seriously as I examine Expo 2010 Shanghai China (henceforth "Expo 2010"). I show how the Expo could indeed be read as a tool of Chinese softpower but that this reading represents only one side of the proverbial coin. I ask, with reference to Expo 2010: How softis "softpower"?

In answering this question I focus on Blanchard and Lu's argument that China needs "greater sensitivity to the precise message [it] is trying to deliver with its soft-power mechanisms." I argue that if we read Expo 2010 with reference to its "precise message," clearly China is trying to deliver more than one. Because the meaning of words is determined only in relation to other words ("soft," for example, in relation to "hard"), meaning is eternally deferred. Any "text" can thus be read in different ways-not that a text can be given any meaning, but that no text has a sole predetermined meaning. Responsibility for the production of meaning falls with both "writer" and "reader" (Derrida 2000, 29). Thus mixed messages should not be thought of as a failure of Chinese softpower but rather as a structural matter.

I first give a brief introduction to softpower. I outline how previous critical scholarship has problematized the basis of Joseph Nye's "softpower" in the dichotomization of "attraction" and "coercion." This argument is most prominently made by Janice Bially Mattern (2005), and I position this article as a friendly critique of her view of the soft-power concept. I subsequently introduce Expo 2010 and examine the message of three of its key symbols: its emblem, slogan, and mascot. I suggest that we can read several messages in each, and that they are enmeshed in a representational politics simultaneously conveying attraction and coercion. I thereafter elaborate on the suggestion that attraction and coercion cannot be conceived as independent or opposed concepts at Expo 2010. I explore how these terms intertwine in three practices at the Expo site: military force and economic payments, geopolitical power and dependency, and citizenship regimes. I conclude with a comment on the implications of my findings for policymakers and researchers concerned with Chinese softpower.

Reading Expo 2010 as "SoftPower"

Most analysts of softpower adopt Nye's attraction/coercion conceptualization (Hunter 2009; Suzuki 2009; Heng 2010). It is similarly popular to discuss China's mega-events with explicit reference to Nye (Cull 2008). To Nye, the "basic concept of power is the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want. There are three major ways to do that: one is to threaten them with sticks; the second is to pay them with carrots; the third is to attract them or co-opt them, so that they want what you want" (Carnegie Council 2004). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.