China and Soft Power in the Modern Age

Eli Pearl
Foreign Policy

The two most powerful self-described communist regimes in history are the USSR of Russia and the CCP of China. Both regimes were inspired by the principles of Marxist-Leninism. Both have been known for their totalitarianism and strong militaries. And both have had spheres of influence that rival Western powers such as the United States. While on the surface the USSR and the CCP seem to be wildly similar, Xi Jinping has been able to succeed at something that Mikhail Gorbachev only dreamed of: Global soft power.

To understand what soft power is, one must first understand what hard power is. Hard power is when a state can use its military, sanctions, or coercive politics to impact another state’s actions and decision-making. We’re talking coercion and leverage. The United States military bases around the globe are an example of hard power. The existence of bases in places like South Korea actively discourages North Korean aggression against South Korea, as if North Korea attacked a joint U.S.-South Korea military installation, both South Korea and the United States, with their nuclear arsenal and bevy of allies, would retaliate. But this also means that the United States has a certain type of leverage over South Korea, as the U.S. can threaten the removal of their troops, weapons, intelligence, and whatnot from the South Korean bases if South Korea doesn’t act in the United State’s interests.

China also exercises hard power. The squelching of the Hong Kong protests showed that local enemies of the CCP can and will be decimated. 

Whereas hard power is built around coercion, the name of the game for soft power is persuasion. Components of soft power include a country’s culture and political influence. France may be more inclined to be allied with the United States over North Korea because both France and the U.S. share a commitment to democracy and human rights. While both countries do not always (and frankly more often than not) live up to their ideals of human rights, they see themselves as similar to the other country due to their same core values. France and North Korea have wildly different core values, which means that France is much less likely to be persuaded to do something by North Korea. 

Culture is an important part of soft power, but it’s not the key ingredient. China has improved its soft power in Africa, and last time I checked, there weren’t many communist states in the African continent. The reason that China was able to overcome the perceived cultural barriers in Africa? Money. China has invested a wild amount of money in Africa, developing apartment buildings and roads, and helping improve infrastructure. 

These actions in Africa will very likely pay off for China in the coming decades. According to the IMF, Africa is the second fastest growing region in the world, and in the coming years, it can be expected that some African countries will become major players in the world, with regards to foreign policy and the world economy. These African countries will likely remember that it was China that gave them their loans and built them roads, rather than a Western power like the United States or Germany. This means that if Beijing comes calling with a request, the African country in question will be more likely to grant that request, as their dealings with the CCP in the past have been good to them. Simply put, China can persuade a country to ally itself economically, because the country already has economic ties with China.

And Chinese soft power doesn’t stop at Africa. Unlike the Russians of old, who used corruption and military action as the only ways to leverage another state, the Chinese have learned the power of persuasion in Europe, as well. China has been buying up ports all over the world, but especially in Europe. In 2010, this led the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Co. (COSCO) to start buying up stakes in a port in Greece known as Piraeus. At the time, the Greek government was still reeling from its debt crisis, which had plunged the country into a recession that it would not get out of until 2017. The Greek government was happy that any country wanted to invest in Greece and viewed Piraeus as a middling port. COSCO fully acquired the port in 2016, and it is now the fastest-growing port in the world, according to Seatrade Maritime News.

China’s investment in Greece at a time of stress in that country drastically increased China’s soft power. It appears that Greece and China are growing closer, as a Chinese Naval fleet just made a diplomatic stop in Piraeus. China’s sway within the Greek government was also visible when Greece blocked an EU statement at the UN in 2017 criticizing China’s crackdown on activities and human rights lawyers, citing “unconstructive criticism of China.” 

The ramifications for CCP’s increased soft power globally are concerning for any that consider themselves as supporters of human rights. As China continues to increase its economic ties in Europe and Africa, it becomes more likely that European powers will stay silent on China’s blatant violations of human rights, like the cracking down on activists, along with their treatment of the Uyghur people of the Xinjiang region. States in the CCP’s ever-increasing sphere of influence may be inclined to agree to what the regime instructs them to do, as those states’ economic interests are paramount; even over human rights. 

World economic hegemony is shifting towards China due to the deft usage of soft power, which will put many countries in a tough position: Do they prioritize freedom of speech and expression or money? Tragically, I believe that many already know the answer that countries will make.

Eli Pearl

Eli Pearl is a high school junior from California who's journalistic focuses are modern politics, history, foreign policy, the intersections between sports and politics, and food culture. In his spare time he enjoys film-making and improv.