Beijing has much to celebrate on the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, but it also faces a number of pressing challenges, of which the demonstrations in Hong Kong are only the most visible.
One of the conundrums facing Beijing with the Hong Kong protests is that it has the muscle to put them down, but doing so would exacerbate a soft-power deficit that is already a headache for the Communist Party.
China’s soft power problems stem, paradoxically, from its very success in the past few decades. Indeed, the nation’s rise to prominence has been one of the defining features of the Post Cold War period, reinforced by trade and diplomatic forays such as the Belt & Road Initiative.
IMF data since 2014 suggests that the Chinese economy is now larger than than that of the US in terms of purchasing power, which makes adjustments for goods being cheaper in China and other countries than in the US.
However, the consequences of strong growth have been more than economic. In terms of perceptions, many internationally believe the global balance of power has swung significantly.
This has fed into political posturing on China by US politicians such as Donald Trump, who has attacked China in a way that, however misguided, has gained domestic traction.
The change in some international perceptions of China is illustrated by Pew Global Research. In 2018, people in 10 of 24 nations surveyed; Sweden, the UK, Argentina, South Africa, Spain, Australia, Nigeria, Canada, Russia and Germany, said China was the world’s leading economic power.
In 2018, 52 per cent of Australians did so, an increase of 12 percentage points since 2008 alone. In the UK there was a rise from 29 percent to 40 percent over the same period. Many of the reasons for this stem from the aftermath of the 2008-09 financial crisis. While much of the developed world recovered, sometimes slowly, China enjoyed mostly strong growth.
Many in China understandably appreciate recognition of its growing might, but this international opinion shift is not without headaches for Beijing. As Trump’s sometimes misinformed rhetoric shows, it has exposed China to greater foreign scrutiny and tapped into angst about its rise.
“One of the conundrums facing Beijing with the Hong Kong protests is that it has the muscle to put them down, but doing so would exacerbate a soft-power deficit that is already a headache for the Communist Party”
What this underlines is that China’s growing prominence presents challenges for Beijing, where the strategy has long been a gradual, peaceful transition to power during which it will grow stronger while keeping a low profile.
The spotlight on China, especially since 2008, has exposed a soft-power deficit that is complicating its rise to power. Soft power, which depends the international attractiveness of a country’s foreign policy, political values and culture, is recognised by Beijing as a key political commodity, but one it has had limited success in cultivating.
As international perceptions of China have changed, its global favour-ability has weakened, as shown in Pew’s data for 2018, the latest year available. In about half the countries surveyed, there are more unfavourable than favourable views of China.
This is especially marked in Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific. Six of eight European countries (Hungary, Greece, Spain, Sweden, France, Germany, Poland, and Italy) held net unfavourable views of China compared with the other two, the Netherlands and the UK.
In Asia-Pacific, views of China oscillate wildly, with South Korea and Japan having net unfavourable views, while Indonesia and the Philippines are on the other side.
In North America, both the US and Canada hold net unfavourable views of China. Trump is well aware of this, and also that Republican voters favour China less than Democrats do.
Beijing must find better ways to tackle this soft-power deficit, including enhanced international public diplomacy to win more hearts and minds.
Examples could be using its growing capabilities in space travel for high-profile international cooperation. Surveys suggest that many around the world admire China’s strength in science and technology.
Beijing should also address foreign concern about its intentions as a rising power, intensify efforts to be seen as a responsible, peaceful global stakeholder, and match this rhetoric with actions.
Unless this is tackled, China’s soft-power deficit may grow bigger in the 2020s and beyond.