ALY SONG / REUTERS A student takes a picture of his friends in front of the Chinese flag during a graduation ceremony at Fudan University in Shanghai, June 2006.

China’s Soft-Power Push

The Search for Respect

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.

A People's Liberation Army officer looks at his mobile phone as he speaks with two Hui'an maiden tourist guides in Hui'an county, December 8, 2013.

A People's Liberation Army officer looks at his mobile phone as he speaks with two Hui'an maiden tourist guides in Hui'an county, December 8, 2013.

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.

China is fleshing out these rhetorical salvos in proposed institutions, such as the New Development Bank (a project organized by China together with Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. All of these would supplement a host of regional bodies that China has already created in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and central and eastern Europe. Through these institutions, China is meticulously constructing an alternative architecture to the postwar Western order.

In China, “propaganda” And it is backing up its soft-power ventures with serious money: $50 billion for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, $41 billion for the New Development Bank, $40 billion for the Silk Road Economic Belt, and $25 billion for the Maritime Silk Road. Beijing has also pledged to invest $1.25 trillion worldwide by 2025. This scale of investment is unprecedented: even during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union did not spend anywhere near as much as China is spending today. Together, these recent pledges by Beijing add up to $1.41 trillion; in contrast, the Marshall Plan cost the equivalent of $103 billion in today’s dollars.

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