In the past 30 years, China has created an economic machine that has lifted more people out of poverty in a short space of time than any nation in history. It has built world-class factories, vast modern cities and a continental highway system. Now it wants to build something less tangible: soft power.

The sixth plenary session of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist party last month took many by surprise by focusing on cultural issues. The official communiqué called for building a “socialist core value system”. The China Daily suggested that the nation’s cultural industry was lacking since it produced only $174bn of cultural “value added”. It went on to highlight the urgent need for China to promote “its cultural sector to boost its soft power”.

Even the title of the plenary session’s resolution had the frigid air of a five-year plan: “Central Committee decision concerning the major issue of deepening cultural system reforms, promoting the great development and prosperity of socialist culture.” As Renée Zellweger might have said to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire: “You had me at Central Committee decision.”

What is the soft power that China seeks? Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who invented the term, defines it as “the ability to use attraction and persuasion to get what you want without force or payment”. Thus, he says, neither Canada nor Mexico seek Chinese protection against the nearby US. But China’s neighbours, for all Beijing’s “smile diplomacy”, still want a US presence in the Pacific.

That definition can be pushed further. The US is certainly not above using force. It has been at war with one country or another for much of the past century. But soft power has provided a narrative. Many people – though certainly not all – believe America acts out of decent intentions and is basically a benign power. That is quite a trick. China by contrast has had few wars in recent decades. Yet it is generally held in suspicion.

US soft power works on many levels. Although the principles on which the US is said to be founded are under constant strain, American ideals of freedom of speech, equality before the law and social mobility remain powerfully attractive. These are bolstered by its “cultural output” of movies, music, philosophical discourse and even political polemic.

By comparison, China has little to offer. To put the best gloss on it, China has a pragmatic model for digging people out of poverty and a guiding principle of non-interventionism. But it is unclear whether China’s success in economic lift-off – partly dependent on its massive labour pool – is exportable to other countries. The Beijing Consensus offers a combination of economic pragmatism and authoritarian government. But that is more likely to appeal to the world’s dictators than to its citizens.

Nor has China’s doctrine of non-interventionism done the soft-power trick. A search for China’s friendly neighbours will tell you as much. They are not to be found in Vietnam, Japan, India or Russia, all of which in their way fear China’s growing power. To find China’s diplomatic buddies one has to look to North Korea, Pakistan and Burma.

There is another, softer form of soft power, though its benefits are even less tangible. This is the ability of a culture to win friends and admirers in the way that, say, Italian food and fashion does. China does not lack cultural assets. Few would dispute its magnificent cultural accomplishments, whether in its Tang Dynasty poetry, its world-class cuisine or in its crop of brilliant filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou, who directed Raise the Red Lantern as well as the Olympic ceremony.

China is evidently keen to spread this kind of soft power too. It has set up hundreds of international Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese language and culture. State-run China Central Television is expanding rapidly, with plans to broadcast in English from Washington. The number of foreign students has risen eight-fold in the last decade to nearly 250,000, a reflection of China’s increasing economic and linguistic pull.

But there are important limits to China’s likely success. That is because soft power is based as much on dissent as on forging a common view of culture. For millions of people around the world the attraction of the US is not to be found in its official discourse, but in its ability to tolerate – even encourage – an alternative view, whether it be anti-war protesters or Tea Party radicals. Many of the best US films prod at American ideals.

The Communist party’s jealous monopoly on power and truth means China cannot match this cultural breadth. Naturally, it can produce dissenting art. Authoritarian states always do. But the harassment of Ai Weiwei, the dissident artist recently served with a huge tax bill, or of Liu Xiaobo, still in prison despite winning the Nobel Prize, shows the limits on expression. These are the people who could be carrying the flag of Chinese soft power. Instead, their treatment at the hands of the state reveals a much uglier side.

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