The American Interest

Hard Truths About China’s 'Soft Power'

Is China’s brand of coercive “soft power” a contradiction in terms? A new edited volume helps cut through the morass.

Former Visiting Fellow

When opening Soft Power With Chinese Characteristics, a timely new volume that arrives amid a flood of COVID-19-fueled disinformation, it is important to notice the irony embedded in the title. The phrase “with Chinese characteristics” is used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) whenever it borrows a Western idea or practice to utilize for its own purposes. For example, in the early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping was introducing market forces into China’s dead-in-the-water planned economy, the new system was not described as “capitalism”—that term would have conceded far too much ground to the enemies of socialism. Rather it was dubbed “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

This touch of Newspeak did not bother Deng’s free-market champions in the West; they knew what Deng meant, and many a capitalist smiled knowingly at his motto: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; if it catches mice, it’s a good cat.” But the phrase “with Chinese characteristics” is no longer so benign. For Deng, it was a way to camouflage the fact that he was moving the Chinese economy in the direction of capitalism. For today’s Communist rulers, by contrast, it is a way to camouflage policies that are profoundly anti-democratic.

As explained by media scholar Zhan Zhang, one of 20 academic contributors to this volume, the Chinese meanings of “Western political language” (words like “democracy,” “freedom,” “equality,” “justice,” and the “rule of law”) “differ significantly from the meanings as understood in the West.” For example, “the basic European respect for individual rights and freedom is not on the individual level in the Chinese value system, but instead on the social level. This means that freedom is not about one’s individual freedom, but is rather a collective freedom for the group and society.”

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