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27 July 2015, Foreign Affairs

China’s Soft-Power Push: The Search for Respect

As China goes global it is making a concerted effort at improving its international image and boosting its soft power. But is this strategy translating into an improvement of its soft power quotient?

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As China’s global power grows, Beijing is learning that its image matters. For all its economic and military might, the country suffers from a severe shortage of soft power. According to global public opinion surveys, it enjoys a decidedly mixed international image. While China’s economic prowess impresses much of the world, its repressive political system and mercantilist business practices tarnish its reputation. And so, in an attempt to improve perceptions, Beijing has mounted a major public relations offensive in recent years, investing billions of dollars around the world in a variety of efforts.

Although Beijing’s publicity blitz began in 2007 under President Hu Jintao, it has intensified under President Xi Jinping. In October 2011, as Xi was preparing to take power, the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (ccp) devoted a whole plenary session to the issue of culture, with the final communiqué declaring that it was a national goal to “build our country into a socialist cultural superpower.” And in 2014, Xi announced, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s messages to the world.” Under Xi, China has bombarded the world with a welter of new initiatives: “the Chinese dream,” “the Asia-Pacific dream,” “the Silk Road Economic Belt,” “the Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road,” “a new type of major-country relations,” and many others. It is easy to dismiss such talk as “slogan diplomacy,” but Beijing nonetheless attaches great importance to it.


David Shambaugh is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of China Goes Global: The Partial Power (Oxford University Press, 2013), from which this essay is adapted.

This article appeared in the Foreign Affairs 2015 July/August edition. It is republished here with permission 

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