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The Balance of Soft Power: The American and Chinese Quests to Win Hearts and Minds

Author: Maria Repnikova

Affiliation: Georgia State University, College of Arts & Sciences.
Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs
Date/Place: July/August 2022/ NewYork, USA
Type of Literature: Article
Word Count: 3509


Keywords: USA, China, Soft Power, Foreign Policy, Public Diplomacy
Maria Repnikova explores the concept of soft power by examining two distinct models: the
American and the Chinese conceptions of it. In her discussion, she delves into the balance
of soft power and the strategies each model uses to engage with the public. Repnikova
argues that both the United States and China have developed distinct interpretations of soft
power and unique modes of operation. While American soft power emphasizes the ideals
and values of democracy and liberalism, following an ideational paradigm, China’s soft
power adopts a practical paradigm to promote its cultural or commercial interests. While
this Chinese model of soft power has not been widely accepted in the West, it has
maintained a strong appeal to the “global south”. Interestingly, both American and Chinese
models of soft power have been viewed by the international community as
“complementary” rather than competitive.
Repnikova begins by providing a comparative historical analysis of the evolution and
development of American and Chinese soft power. In the case of the United States, Nye’s
paradigm of soft power focuses on intangible resources such as culture, ideology, and the
ability to shape international institutions. While soft power has been a part of American
foreign policy since the 1990s, it has experienced ups and downs depending on shifts in
However, during this period, the concept of soft power has gained greater visibility and
influence in American policy. On the other hand, China began to develop its model of soft
power in 2007, as officials began to address soft power in publications and speeches as a
way to cultivate cultural creativity and use it as a soft power tool. This has led to a surge of
literature on the topic by Chinese scholars and a significant expansion of Chinese public
diplomacy, including the establishment of media outlets and Confucius Institutes in nearly
162 countries worldwide.
Maria Repnikova compares the fundamental principles of both models of soft power as
they are seen as a point of competition between the two countries. The American
conceptualization of soft power is largely based on an ideological orientation that
emphasizes democratic values and ideals, positioning itself as a defender of democracy
and liberalism against authoritarian powers such as Russia and China. American soft power
and public diplomacy celebrate liberty, individualism, and diversity through showcasing
such models and examples around the world. Additionally, American soft power is heavily
influenced by the cultural export of the private sector, such as Hollywood movies and
commercial brands. In other words, the American model of soft power projection
combines the efforts of both the private and public sectors, a tradition that began during
the Cold War and has continued since the post-Cold War era through the deployment of
writers, artists, and musicians by the CIA and the State Department to promote certain
cultural content and publication. In contrast, the Chinese perception and strategy of soft
power emphasize pragmatism over values. China takes an economic-commercial
approach to project its soft power and culture, using its economic development,
increasing military power, technological advancement, and governing competence to
enhance its global image and position. Through its international media outlets, China
emphasizes these elements, along with material generosity, in an effort to build its image
and soft power in the world. For example, China generously supports development projects
in Central Asian countries in sectors such as public health and agriculture, and offers
educational programs and training opportunities to countries in the global south.
This examination of these two distinct models of soft power reveals that while the United
States uses its soft power capabilities in an ideational and value-based paradigm to
complement its hard power, China emphasizes its increasing hard power, whether
economic or military, to bolster its soft power. In education, the United States leverages the
prestige of its educational institutions as an elite destination, while China takes advantage
of the availability of state-funded scholarships and low-tuition education compared to
Western institutions to maintain its global image as a destination for students from the
global south. From a Western perspective, it is argued that China compensates for its lack
of ideational or ideological power through material incentives and the deployment of its
economic power to attract people and build its image. At this point, Repnikova argues that
although these economic incentives are not inherently soft power, they can sustain China’s
soft power by enhancing its image as a global power that supports competence,
pragmatism, and opportunity, particularly in places where these are scarce or unavailable.
Repnikova argues that although Chinese soft power has had limited influence in the United
States and other Western countries, it has gained more influence in the global south,
particularly in Africa and Latin America. The Chinese pragmatic economic approach to
soft power has had a positive impact on Africa in the economic and political spheres.
For example, China offers a large number of educational and training opportunities and
scholarships, compared to the limited number of highly competitive fellowships provided
by the US State Department. Additionally, Chinese soft power has high visibility in the
global south due to the increasing number of infrastructure projects, such as highways,
bridges, and railways. While these projects have been controversial due to concerns
about quality and safety, they have helped to maintain China’s image and position.
However, this visibility and appeal of Chinese soft power and influence in the global
south does not mean that the US-China competition in this region, and elsewhere, should
be seen as a “zero-sum game”. Instead, the American and Chinese models of soft
power are seen as complementary to each other and attractive to different publics in
various regions. Targeted elites seek to maintain connections and benefit from
opportunities offered by both China and the US.
Repnikova discusses the future challenges facing American and Chinese soft power. For
the American model of soft power, the main challenge is the gap between its
proclaimed democratic values and its inconsistency in its domestic practices, which
undermines its image as a defender of democracy and liberalism. Additionally, its
selective commitment to supporting democracy abroad breeds mistrust and concerns
about its intentions. Another challenge is that the US’s limited investments in human
capital hinder its promotion of soft power. On the other hand, China’s reliance on
material and practical incentives has led to quality issues with its image and perception,
as seen in public perception of Chinese vaccines and the limited influence of its state
media outlets. To address this challenge, China needs to shift its focus from quantity to
quality and allow more freedom in its media outlets. Additionally, its reliance on
economic incentives without ideational power may require it to offer more gifts, which
will be more difficult if its economy slows down. To sum up, while it is often portrayed that
the US and China are engaged in a soft power competition, it is more of a “soft power
coexistence.” Rather than focusing on which model is more attractive, the focus is on
what each can offer. Their success therefore depends not on outplaying or surpassing
each other, but on addressing their own internal weaknesses.
It is worth noting that the theory of soft power offers two different approaches: one that
focuses on intangible power, represented by ideational power, and another that relies
on incentives rather than punishment, represented by economic inducements. Both the
American and Chinese models adopt different models of soft power. However, the goal
is not to simply maintain soft power, but to use it to achieve specific objectives and
goals, whether through hard or soft power, as it is primarily a tool, not an end in itself. The
key is to use “smart power,” which involves choosing the right tool for the right situation
based on one’s own capabilities and goals. In this regard, China’s capabilities align with
its strategy due to the inferiority of its language and culture. It leverages its economic
development and technological advancement to build its own model of soft power. As
such, Chinese soft power should be seen as a potential that has maintained its status in
international politics.
By: Yomna Süleyman, CIGA Research Associate



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