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What is soft power? Hint: it’s not footing Sam Dastyari’s bills

Understanding how China operates on an international level means understanding how it exercises soft power. Shutterstock

Revelations that Labor senator Sam Dastyari benefited from the largesse of Chinese benefactors have prompted several Australian journalists to draw attention to the problematic prospect of Chinese influence in Australia.

Reports connecting the funding of political parties, think-tanks, research institutes and schools, and the embedding of party mouthpiece China Daily in the Fairfax press, or a speech by the US Ambassador at the Canberra Press Club warning of foreign attacks on free and independent press to Dastyari’s predicament, have sought to crowbar all these together into something called “soft power” or “soft diplomacy”.

While important stories, these are not examples of soft power.

Soft power is something different and the difference is important. Understanding it helps us analyse and evaluate China’s attempts at influence.

What is soft power?

Soft power is a termed coined by US political scientist Joseph Nye. The term is widely used in international relations and diplomacy to refer to the power of attraction and co-option.

It is based on reputation and desirability: things people admire or desire. Thus, it is a matter of audience perception and can vary accordingly.

It is opposed to hard power: the power of threat or coercion using military or economic assets. Using money, or the threat of withdrawing financial support, fits in here.

This doesn’t mean soft power is neutral or benign. In a world where wars between major powers have become too costly, soft power is one way countries attempt to gain influence and push foreign policy goals. Soft power serves national interests.

Nor is soft power always ethical: it can present bias and seek to manipulate sentiment.

Examples of soft power are popular fashion and pop culture, prestigious universities, admired cultural heritages and cuisines, desirable tourist destinations, standing as global citizens, and reputation for technological excellence and economic success.

Measuring soft power is notoriously tricky. But, indexes that attempt to do so usually identify leading soft power proponents as the UK, the US, Germany and France. Australia and Japan usually make the top ten. China performs poorly.

Two important characteristics of soft power explain why Dastyari’s case does not apply.

First, soft power is usually aimed at foreign audiences, not at elite individuals in positions of power and influence.

Second, soft power – according to Nye, and I agree – works best when it comes from societies (schools, industries, celebrities), not from governments (although some politicians can generate soft power through acts of statesmanship or popular appeal).

That said, government do attempt to generate or benefit from soft power. This is referred to as public diplomacy. But it works best when it is seen as coming from people and places rather than politicians.

What isn’t soft power?

Propaganda isn’t soft power, especially when it is awkwardly done by governments obviously trying to push a barrow. The China Daily’s robust defence of China’s interests are not very convincing, and audience perceptions that a government is trying to tell us what to think are not particularly attractive – so this fails the soft power test.

Developing relationships with important individuals is standard, traditional diplomatic practice from the days when things were decided by men in smoky rooms.

Gift exchanges are usually above board. They are common, even expected, and part of diplomatic ritual and protocol. But lines can be blurry and temptation of the dark side can be powerful.

The Dark Arts of diplomacy include the use of outright bribes and blackmail, which can go hand in hand. A variation of this is known as the “honey pot”, wherein an official is tempted into accepting a lavish, embarrassing gift or lured into a scandal, such as drugs, gambling, or sexual impropriety. (I’ve heard accounts of some recent, rather clumsy, attempts at the latter.) The threat of revelation is used as leverage.

How China does soft power

China’s exercise of soft power in Australia is evident in the promotion of its culture and history through Confucius Institutes and numerous festivals, tours, exhibitions and performances.

Subsidies, scholarships and other incentives for language study fall into this category. This is all par for the course, akin to the work of the British Council and the Goethe Institute.

More broadly, Chinese cinema, for example, promotes soft power. The Great Wall, a forthcoming film of esteemed director Zhang Yimou, fits this bill. Starring Matt Damon, Yimou has described it as “deeply rooted in Chinese culture” and aimed at a global audience. Yimou’s films, as well as being moving and engaging, typically carry a message promoting Chinese unity.

China’s economic performance demands attention, even grudging admiration, and has improved its soft power status. Despite China’s considerable investment in public diplomacy, it is unable to purchase admiration or support for its strategic goals.

Estimates put China’s budget for “external propaganda” at US$10 billion (compared with US$666 million by the US), yet various indexes and public opinion polls rate China’s soft power poorly.

China’s limited success as a soft power shows investments in public diplomacy programs are not guaranteed to result in soft power gains and that concerns about hard power projections can drown out appreciation of cultural assets. It suffers from its reputation for political authoritarianism internally and its gruff muscularity in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. This is referred to as China’s soft power deficit.

Two further points distinguish China’s soft power. First, the Chinese state plays a larger role in the propagation of soft power than is recommended by Nye’s model. This reflects a closer relationship between state and society; a characteristic of the Chinese political model.

It also helps explain why China’s soft power efforts seem a little “on the nose” to some international audiences. It feels contrived and controlled, one reason why China Central Television isn’t as effective as the BBC in promoting soft power.

Some have recommended loosening the reins, allowing the likes of charming, goofy Olympian swimmer Fu Yuanhui to shine as examples of a more personable, likeable China.

But this also misses the second point – that much of China’s public diplomacy is not aimed at making friends and winning influence. Instead, it is focused on defending national stability and aimed internally.

Chinese “negative” soft power

China’s “negative soft power” is aimed at securing support for the regime by positioning China in opposition to Japan, the US and the West in terms of its underlying values.

The China dream, understood as national wealth and power, opposes the American dream of personal freedom and happiness. The goal of soft power, in these circumstances, is to buttress national ideology.

This is coupled with the idea that to promote ideas and people that have global appeal is to promote a vision at odds with the Communist Party’s position as leaders and guarantors of the Chinese state.

The Global Times, notoriously defiant and provocative proponent of Chinese nationalism, can be understood in these terms. It aims to be widely read internationally, hence the provocation, but is not concerned with winning hearts and minds of global readers. It defines China as being both right and under attack: the message is “we need to stick together”.

Understanding this helps explain why so much of China’s promotional efforts seem to fall flat.

So, why does China continue to invest so much in its international efforts to curry favour? Perhaps it believes its efforts will eventual bear fruit. Perhaps its officials are stuck in old habits of charmless, bellicose propaganda. Or it may just be a smokescreen, clouding other efforts at influence.

Unable to rely on soft power, China – like others – quietly cultivates decision makers on matters of significance, like major investment and strategic relations. This “elite direct diplomacy” is what has embroiled Dastyari.

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