China Ranks Last in Soft Power, Despite Spending Billions to Buy It

Billions spent on "stadium diplomacy" with little returns

“Soft power” has become a key aim of China’s government as it battles to win the hearts and minds of people around the world. But as a recent report shows, China is not only dead last among its international peers in soft power, it is also paying a lot for almost no return.

London-based political consultancy firm Portland Communications released a ranking of 30 countries that compares their soft power resources through six different categories: government, culture, education, global engagement, enterprise and digital. As part of the study, over 7,000 people in 20 countries were polled throughout the world.

soft power 30

Despite its good intentions, China ranked last, with the report saying much of the success China has been able to achieve has been undone by its policies on censorship, restrictions of personal rights and freedoms, and its foreign policy.

It’s not for lack of trying, though. China has set up thousands of Confucius Institutes, established the Xinhua news agency throughout the world, and held international events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. For China, the price of soft power is not cheap. According to Chinese foreign policy expert David Shambaugh, China spends around $10 billion annually on “external propaganda”.China spends around $10 billion annually on “external propaganda”. And when including economic policies and investments like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the “Belt and Road” initiative, this sum jumps to $1.41 trillion.

So with all the money being spent, why is China still so sorely lacking in soft power?

Shambaugh describes the inability of China to launch an international charm offensive: “While China’s economic prowess impresses much of the world, its repressive political system and mercantilist business practices tarnish its reputation.”

Portland Communications said China’s political system “has not kept pace with the nation’s economic dynamism”, to which public polls show a lack of trust in China to “do the right thing in global affairs”. These opinions are reflected in China ranking last in the “government” and “digital” categories.

And yet, China looks to improve its soft power in other ways. In a New Year’s speech last year, President Xi Jinping said China “needs to build its capacity in international communication, construct a communication system, better use new media and increase the creativity, appeal and credibility of China’s publicity” in order to strengthen its soft power.

A 2010 People’s Daily Online op-ed also looked at soft power, saying that it can be achieved by “preventing giant foreign media agencies from monopolizing the right of voice, enabling foreign people to hear the voice of China and popularizing actual and outstanding Chinese culture”.

That sounds like it will cost a lot of money. However, as pointed out by Portland Communications, one country is making huge advances in soft power this year, and they’re not spending a dime to achieve it. India wasn’t on the Soft Power 30 yet, but was praised by Portland Communications for its advancements in soft power that were mostly due to its new leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi was lauded for his use of digital tools as he has launched several initiatives on social media. In fact, Modi’s Facebook page is cited as having the most engagement out of any world leader.

It may seem strange for China to spend so much money on something just to get such little return. But the People’s Daily Online suggests, the reason why soft power is so expensive is because you have to pay for it:

China needs to take all kinds of measures to educate the world about China so they can love it.

Maybe the problem isn’t the amount being spent, but the message.

Charles Liu

The Nanfang's Senior Editor