Further, the new white paper offers fresh commitments to support countries in their “development planning (规划)”, a phrase that echoes China’s own policy-making system of five-year plans. In the 14th Five-Year Plan, unveiled in March, China aims to “promote the global governance system to become more just and reasonable.” The active tone of both statements marks a departure from previous five-year plans and development white papers that emphasized the growth of Chinese economic investments – rather than planning or governance – in the developing world. This is one of the first times that China has stated in a policy document its ambitions for direct engagement with developing-country governments. This is both a mark of confidence in the success of its own model and a sign that its bilateral international diplomatic engagements are set to rise.
China has certainly spent decades committed to attracting the rest of the world, its leaders referring to the wielding of “soft power”. After Nye coined the term in a 1990 article in Foreign Policy, Chinese leaders and scholars quickly debated the concept and adopted it, expanding on it and applying it to China’s context and practices. In contrast Nye’s sense of soft power as a tool of international diplomacy, at the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2007, Hu Jintao, then the general secretary, linked the idea of “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” to China’s ability to deploy soft power. Instead of equating China’s influence abroad to its soft power, Hu viewed the Chinese government’s influence on its own people and the nation’s influence abroad as coming from the same source.
The main tool deployed under Hu’s – and now Xi Jinping’s – vision of domestic and global influence is cold, hard cash. According to George Washington University political scientist David Shambaugh, Beijing now spends about US$10 billion a year on state-sponsored image-building programs as part of the Communist Party’s goal essentially to brand market China. Similarly, the scale of the CCP’s Propaganda Department – Zhongxuanbu (中宣部), officially the Publicity Department of the Central Committee – has only grown under Xi. It has funded mostly public-diplomacy programs, which Nye acknowledges as “one aspect of soft power” and in line with China’s state-driven approach.
Another staple of China’s soft-power production is the vast state-run media network boasting numerous bureaux inside China and across the developing world. The well funded image-building strategies rely on the same narrative: China’s undisputedly impressive economic rise. during which hundreds of millions of Chinese people were lifted out of poverty. The messaging continues in the January 2021 white paper, which begins with the sentence: “China is the largest developing country in the world.” And yet paradoxically, China also presents itself in its 14th Five-Year Plan as the only major economy experiencing growth during the Covid-19 pandemic.
China has used this cash-rich image-production strategy rapidly to deploy cultural, educational, and people-to-people exchanges as part of its diplomacy toolbox. Like the United States, China has diversified opportunities for citizens in the developing world to connect with China. A glaring example is the numerous government-funded exchanges with African universities.
Since 2014, it is undeniable that China has been a more attractive destination and partner for nations, especially in commerce, education and tourism. A 2014 Global Attitudes survey conducted by the Pew Research Center was the first to indicate that developing nations’ populations held mostly positive reviews of China. Today, Mandarin-language teaching has been integrated into the public-school systems across Africa as well as Central and Southeast Asia.
The source of China’s soft power is indeed rooted in the economic vitality and promise China wields. African heads of government, for example, have warmly welcomed Beijing’s commitment to non-interference, with no political strings attached to their investment and development assistance. They consider this a more acceptable alternative to US conditioned aid and patronizing preaching.