How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World
By Joshua Kurlantzik,
Melbourne University Press, 305pp
WHAT DOES CHINA THINK?
By Mark Leonard,
Fourth Estate, 164pp.
CHINA’S BRAVE NEW WORLD
and other tales for Global Times
By Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Indiana University Press, 210pp
Reviewed: 3 May 2008
When Kevin Rudd visited Washington late last year, he presented President George W Bush with a copy of American journalist Joshua Kurlantzik’s Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World. It was a cheeky choice, because the real message in this book is that the United States, under the Bush Administration, has performed dismally in its project to spread respect and influence for the democratic political values and liberal economic principles it espouses. Instead, China has gained substantial influence in the developing world specifically by down-playing the importance of democracy and free markets.
Kurlantzik opens the book by recounting the heckling Bush received in the Australian Senate on his 2003 visit, and contrasts that with the relatively polite reception given to Chinese President Hu Jintao only days later. I doubt Rudd expected Bush to read the whole book, but he may have hoped that the first few pages would annoy President Bush sufficiently to make him seek further briefing.
Kurlantzik has a background in conservative opinion (US News and World Report, The Economist, New Republic) so is well placed to get a hearing for his argument in Republican Washington circles. His evocations of “Charm Offensive” and “soft power” seem intended to get the juices running among those who see diminution of United States supremacy, in any field, as catastrophic.
But the title is somewhat misleading. The Chinese soft power initiatives that he explores rarely have anything to do with “charm”. They depict a hard-headed campaign for influence and respect, based on offering the elites of foreign regimes an alternative to dependence on the West – economic development without pesky democracy.
Joseph Nye defined “soft power” in 1990 as moral and cultural influence unrelated to military or economic power, but Kurlantzik prefers an expanded definition that takes in all but the blatant exercise of military force. China’s soft power is most evident in the realm of trade and investment with developing economies. It also gives support, in the United Nations and other international systems, for regimes that resist the pressures of “globalization” to adopt economic liberalization, political democracy, and institutional transparency. How charming is that?
Kurlantzik produces a lot of anecdotal evidence that the USA is no longer as “popular” as China in this place or that place around the world. The finding may surprise some Americans but it may not be due to any charm offensive by China. So long as Kurlantzik’s analysis is binary (US v. China in the popularity stakes) he risks misleading the reader as to the complexity of what is really going on. For example, in many references to countries in South-East Asia he never notes the endemic wariness toward successful and sometimes numerous ethnic Chinese minorities. He quotes China’s subsidisation of these minorities to renew cultural allegiance with China as if this is welcomed by the whole citizenry of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the rest. Sometimes he quotes an ethnic Chinese apparently without realizing it, as in the case of Thai politician Thaksin Shinawatra.
China’s economic and political successes in developing countries sometimes seems proportional to the distance from China itself. No African population lives in fear of a mass immigration of ethnic Chinese, but even so there have been anti-Chinese riots in places where Chinese construction companies have imported their own labour forces into environments of mass local unemployment.
Kurlantzik does not report these less-than-charming aspects of China’s soft power expansion. He also seems oblivious that all the soft power tactics applied by China in its own interest (investment, education, diplomatic support, arms supply to dictators etc) have long been used by the USA, European powers, Japan, and many other ambitious states (including Australia) as part of efforts to shape the world in a favoured direction.
Charm Offensive ends with a plea for the USA to revive its own soft power efforts in order to retain “leadership” of the world. In the end, this book really says more about America than it does about China. Will George Bush leave his copy on the oval office desk, on his way out?
In What does China Think? Mark Leonard covers far more useful ground, much more economically. “China” doesn’t think only one thing or one way, and this book presents a fascinating range of views about China’s future, as advocated by serious and recognized thinkers within China. Importantly these people, many of them with contemporary Western education, are working within the Peoples Republic’s system of academic institutions and official think-tanks, competing for support for their views from the ultimate authority in all things: the Chinese Communist Party.
The sixteen key individuals include free-market fundamentalists (“New Right”) as well as advocates of a return to state capitalism (“New Left”), and “Internationalists” who see China melding into a supra-national order of global institutions, as well as those who believe China must first aim to outdo the United States in military power (China’s “Neo-Comms”).
Leonard is Executive Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think-tank, and gathered much of his material as a visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. The book is tightly edited and highly readable for those with or without background in China studies.
In a few pages of What Does China Think? you can learn more about China’s soft power policies and programs than in the whole of Charm Offensive. Here, rather than being a popularity contest, it is put in the far more illuminating context of China’s strategic commitment to “Comprehensive National Power”. This is a systematic evaluation of all the factors contributing to every nation’s ability to shape events to its advantage, drawing on the ancient statecraft of Sun Zi: “It is only by looking at your opponent’s weaknesses that you can understand your own strengths”.
China’s history is more imperial than national, and China’s world view has always recognised the role of hegemony as well as sovereignty. These thinkers see the United States as the current world hegemon, and see their own objective as to reach at least equal status in the world, though with different views as to how this should be achieved.
Significantly, almost none of them believe that western-style democracy is a practical option for China. For a start, anyone who challenges the right of the Communist Party to monopolise power in perpetuity is immediately excluded from further discussion and condemned to a future as a disenfranchised dissident – perhaps lauded abroad, but written off in China.
Leonard describes several experiments, within China, in ways to add popular legitimacy to government decisions without actually giving the population the power to change the government. Under the heading of “Deliberative Dictatorship”, some of these experiments amount to little more than focus groups, and would look to Western eyes very like market research techniques to shape government messages so as to minimize dissent.
Others seem like attempts to give slightly more power to the national policy consultation framework. Oddly, Leonard makes no reference to the extensive national hierarchy of Peoples Consultative Congresses which has remained in existence since the days before the Communist Party cemented its own supremacy (and which acts something like Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit in regular session). Leonard concludes that nothing that challenges Party dominance has a chance of seeing the light of day. Chinese of most shades of opinion share a phobia for chaos and are horrified by the example of the USSR, which dumped the Communist Party, lost its outlying imperial territories, and lost half its nominal GDP. Tentative experiments with direct, bottom-up elections within the Communist Party itself may indicate the only practicable route toward greater democratization in China – democratization of the Communist Party.
There is some discussion of China’s galloping environmental degradation, but neither Leonard nor his selected Chinese thinkers ask how China’s authoritarian system of government would cope with the aftermath of major environmental catastrophe, potentially affecting the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions.
This book is highly recommended.
By contrast, China’s Brave New World and other Tales for Global Times is an irritating book. Wasserman is a prolific American academic who has edited six books on China, and he comes across as well informed, well connected and well intentioned. The problem is that this particular book is assembled from impressionistic newspaper columns, personal journal musings covering nearly twenty years, and other bits and pieces that should have remained in the realm of the ephemeral.
Only half the pieces are even nominally about China (there are excursions to Budapest, Chicago etc), and even then they are about “Wasserman meets China”. The reader feels trapped on a long train trip with a genial but garrulous companion who is full of marginally interesting observations on what passes the window, but never draws breath to let a word in edgewise.
Of the three books, read What Does China Think? first, and only then consider spending your time or money on the other two.
Richard Thwaites is a former Australian Bbroadcasting Corporation correspondent in China.