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Chinese Leadership:  From ‘Soft Power’ to ‘Sharp Power’

Chinese Leadership: From ‘Soft Power’ to ‘Sharp Power’

China’s increasing role in shaping the geopolitical and geoeconomic space of the 21st century has become an important factor. Its complex national power is growing rapidly, the geography of national interests is expanding, and international influence is increasing. Now the interests of the People's Republic of China lie not only in the internal economic development but also extend to almost all regions of the world. Moreover, the foreign policy of this eastern country is reaching a new level. China tends to change its foreign policy of self-identification in the direction of positioning itself as a global state. The Chinese leadership is stepping up its role in shaping the international agenda and creating new mechanisms, like sharp power, and institutions for global governance.

Chinese ‘soft power’

The term ‘soft power’ was first used by Joseph Nye in 1990 in his book Bound to Lead. As per his opinion ‘soft power’ is the ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment” and as we can see the usage of ‘soft power’ was one of the contributors to China’s success. It brought the country closer to the status of great power. China spends $10 billion annually on the promotion of its ‘soft power’. One of its main tasks at the international level is to create an attractive image of the country. The second task is the desire to force other countries to accept the cultural values of the state and its ideology. One cannot but acknowledge the success of this policy and the growing role of China as a global player on the world stage. It is becoming an increasingly modern, capitalist state, which is integrated into international institutions. Due to rapid economic growth, modern China has more and more resources to address its geopolitical and economic interests, which extend far beyond the Asia-Pacific region. China declares itself as a leader in many areas, including space.

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It should be noted that at the state level, the Chinese interpretation of ‘soft power’ was first presented on October 15, 2007, in the political report of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Hu Jintao at the XVII National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). In his report, he specified the tasks for building the ‘soft power’ of the state within the framework of creating socialism with Chinese characteristics in four areas:

1) creation of a system of core socialist values, strengthening of the attracting and cementing forces of socialist ideology;

2) formation of a harmonious culture, education of civilized customs;

3) to spread the national culture worldwide, build a common spiritual hearth of the Chinese nation;

4) to promote innovation in culture, strengthen the vitality of cultural development.

The real aims of Confucius Institutes and Classes

It was the Confucius Institutes and Classes that became one of the main tools for promoting China's interests and values. The Confucius Institute is an educational and scientific institution created within a free foreign economic partner. In addition to the development of the curriculum, the Confucius Institute is also involved in the development and promotion of the Chinese soft power policy. Their role in this area is conditioned by the fact that students are provided with the opportunity to not only learn the Chinese language but also become acquainted with the culture, history, and modernity at Confucius Institutes. The first Confucius Institute began its functioning in South Korea in 2004. They operate at foreign Centers for the Study of the People's Republic of China. There are small ‘Confucius Classes’ if it is not possible to establish full-fledged institutions.

One of the Confucius Classes in Europe. Source: China Daily.

If we talk about the total number of Confucius Institutes around the world, then, according to the data which is contained on the official website of Hanban, their total number is 541. Most of them are located in Europe - 187, 138 in America, 135 in Asia, 61 in Africa, and the rest are operating in Oceania - 20.

“Confucius Institutes are aimed not so much at promoting Chinese culture, but at strengthening the country's political influence in the world. They are often accused of interfering in the academic rules of partner universities, monitoring other Chinese citizens, and even espionage”, as Oksana Kolosovska said. For example, according to the research made by the National Association of Scholars, as of May 2020, 81 Confucius Institutes were registered in the United States, which fully operate on the premises of American universities and colleges. Also, 42 of Confucius Institutes are already closed, and some of them are in the process of closing because the American universities see a threat to their national security and academic freedom. For example, the University of Oregon, San Diego State University, New Mexico State University, etc are among them.

As for the European continent, Sweden became the first European country to close the Confucius Institutes and Classes. Among the reasons that prompted this was:

- Swedes consider them a tool for ‘brainwashing’;

- deterioration of relations between the states;

- security issues;

- violations of human rights and freedoms in China, such as the arrest of Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai for selling books which criticize Chinese ruler Xi Jinping;

- takeovers of Swedish companies by Chinese ones.

Besides, China has recently invested and continues to invest billions of dollars in various projects to improve its positive image abroad. The global economic project ‘One Belt-One Road’ (revival of the ancient Silk Road along with sea routes) also has a ‘soft’ dimension. By the way, during the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Beijing in August 2019, it was agreed that China would invest $ 280 billion in the development of Iran's oil, gas and petrochemical sectors.

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In particular, these numerous investments have been made in the development of foreign-language media (foreign broadcasting), search for international partners and their involvement, the launch of academic mobility programs for students, and more active cultural activities. Although, these efforts have paid dividends only in certain parts of the world, namely among countries needing major infrastructure investment. Thus, China's ‘soft power’ remains awkward, and the question arises as to whether this kind of force is inherent in China's foreign policy, or is it only a cover for something else.

‘Sharp’ influence

In January 2018, Joseph S. Nye Jr. published an article How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power, in which he described a new type of force used by China – ‘sharp power’. He called this power ‘sharp’ because it tries to ‘pierce, penetrate, or perforate’ the information and political environment of countries which are within its interests. As he stated in his article, ‘sharp power, the deceptive use of information for hostile purposes, is a type of hard power’. The scholar supported the view that China's ‘soft power’ could pose a threat to the developed Western democracies and that the term ‘sharp power’ should, therefore, be used more actively instead. The main difference between the forces is in the values and methods. China is an authoritarian state that uses intimidation, sabotage, and pressure to justify its regime abroad.

The Government of the People's Republic of China uses various tools to ensure the effectiveness and productivity of the ‘sharp power’, such as:

- promotion of culture, language, and religion, for example, with the help of Confucius Institutes and Classes. In 2019, Human Rights Watch stated that ‘Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration’;

- the attractiveness of investments for other countries. A striking example is an African continent, where, according to a survey conducted by the NGO Afrobarometer in 2014/2015: ‘Almost two-thirds (63%) of Africans say China's influence is “somewhat” or “very” positive, while only 15% see it as somewhat/ very negative. Favorable views are most common in Mali (92%), Niger (84%), and Liberia (81%)’.

- media manipulation. The PRC government uses the media to create a positive image not only within the country but also abroad, using censorship. China spends billions of dollars each year to increase its media presence. ‘China Daily has paid American newspapers 19 million dollars for advertising and printing in the last 4 years alone’. Also, a clear example of an attempt at manipulation is the statement of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in 2016 about “China's commitment to training 500 Latin American journalists in the next five years”.

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The United States Congressman Beyer underlined that the growing vulnerability of democracies to sharp power tactics made possible by technological advancements and the rise of social media. He noted the unprecedented prevalence of subversion, intimidation, and internal meddling by autocratic governments. “Technology gives these governments the ability to cost-effectively reach into cell phones, reach into living rooms around the world and sow fear, doubt, division, undermine alliances, [and] spread fake news”, – Beyer pointed out.

Indeed, the modern development of technology has many not only positive but also negative aspects. On the one hand, the same globalization unites at one time disparate nations, countries, but on the other - there is the question of protecting the interests of national minorities and national cultural heritage and language in the new conditions to oppose the cultural expansion of other countries. Therefore, along with the positive factors of the impact of new information technologies on all spheres of public life, it is also necessary to take into account the negative consequences of their impact on society as a whole (social aspects of media and telecommunications) and individual consciousness (individual ecological consciousness).

The cover image of ‘The Economist’ issue about the Chinese ‘sharp power’. Source: The Economist.


Thus, we can say that China's ‘sharp power’ can question the existence of the modern world system and lead to its drastic change, which is unfavorable not only for the United States but also for other countries, because economic power is not the basis for the existence of a successful democracy. This instability, in the first place, threatens the geopolitical interests of the United States and may lead to the beginning of the ‘domino effect’ and the complete decline of the system under which states exist nowadays. ‘Sharp power’ is quite effective because institutes in democratic institutions are open to the outside world and thus vulnerable to foreign ones.

Also, the current crisis in US-China relations reaffirms the utopian nature of the “G2” idea, put forward by some American political scientists to solve global problems.

Political experts must tackle the problem, which consists of repulsion of the external influence, and at the same time, preserve fundamental democratic values. Simply saying “no” to Beijing will not yield satisfactory results in today's interdependent world. Therefore, we suggest paying attention to the following recommendations:

1. Analytical centers and universities need to design research and education programs more carefully to ensure that they have enough highly qualified staff to address the issues posed by new challenges and relations between states.

2. Weaken the CPC's board of relations with think tanks focusing on Asia.

3. Strengthen measures of identifying, monitoring, and protecting society from misinformation/propaganda.

4. Identify and punish individuals/entities who knowingly disseminate authoritarian misinformation.

5. Strengthen cooperation between law enforcement authorities and intelligence agencies.

6. Start cooperation with foreign partners who have experience in solving such kind of issues.

7. Work with Chinese communities, both as a guaranteed goal and to benefit from their knowledge.

8. Through diplomatic channels, foreign governments should oppose intimidation and harassment. The Chinese are vulnerable to negative feedback, and in any case, such reports will damage China's image, contributing to the ‘loss of a friendly face’.

Written by Serhii Nasadiuk, Vasyl’ Stus Donetsk National University (Ukraine), Degree in International Relations