As the economic success story that is China continues to roll on, so too has the China Model debate, a seemingly endless discussion about the relative merits of Western-style democracy and so-called authoritarian capitalism. As China’s presence in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America strengthens, some have criticized U.S. efforts to spread democracy around the globe through the use of both hard and soft power. But is the West really in a global fight that pits democracy versus the “China Model” in a soft power struggle of political proselytizing? While the U.S. seems to be actively engaged in this conflict, evidence of China’s participation is difficult to identify.
Writing in the New York Times, Anand Giridharadas introduces this conflict between rival political theories:
A stunning idea has entered respectable American discourse of late: that China is not just an economic rival but also a political competitor, with a political system that, despite its own flaws, reveals grave flaws in American democracy and might be inspiring to wavering nations.
In the battle over these theories, there are two available tactics: hard power and soft power. The former includes military force, while the latter has been referred to as “leading by attraction.”1
In the past ten years, there are various examples of American utilization of both hard and soft power. On the military side, the U.S. has invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, the U.S. has attempted to project its soft power via the Voice of America, Arabic media outlets in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and scores of other diplomatic, charitable and educational programs around the world.
In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2009, Joe Nye explained both the sources of soft power and the goals of the U.S.:
It comes from three main sources: One is the culture of a country — in the case of America, that ranges from Harvard to Hollywood. Second, political values can be very attractive for other countries, from democracy to freedom of speech to opportunity. And the third one is the legitimacy of a country’s foreign policy — meaning that if your foreign policy is considered to be legitimate by other nations, you are more persuasive.
One of the stated objectives of both the Iraq War and the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan was the spread of democracy, often supported by reference to the Democratic Peace Theory. In other words, not only has the U.S. been willing to utilize soft power to spread its political message to other nations, but it also has taken the extra step of using military force to do so.
Critics have pointed out that this muscular approach has backfired on the U.S. to the benefit of countries like China that offer an alternative political structure. Giridharadas explains:
The trend toward reappraisal of China comes after hard years for democracy enthusiasts: Iraq and Afghanistan; Hamas’s election; the disappointment of many of Europe’s colored revolutions; persistent repression in Iran and Myanmar; an economic crisis that free societies were unable to prevent and unravel; growing sclerosis in the U.S. political system; and China’s extraordinary success, despite what Westerners have often regarded as a political system incompatible with success.
It certainly looks like the U.S. is in for a tough fight. It has gone to war over democracy and is now struggling against critics that are holding up the Chinese system as an alternative. But what are the Chinese doing? Are they willing political proselytizers, trying to win the hearts and minds of global citizens over to their way of thinking?
On the contrary, China’s use of soft power suggest goals grounded more in realist concerns over the supply of commodities, international trade, and the non-interference with what Beijing sees as domestic matters.
Many of the soft power tools used by China include financial assistance, such as the $40 million given to trading partner Algeria to construct an opera house, or the various infrastructure projects throughout Africa that China is funding for profit and goodwill.
Other uses of soft power by the Chinese include cultural exchanges, such as the successful Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms, programs that fund teaching of Chinese language and culture in foreign schools, the 2008 Olympics and Expo 2010 in Shanghai, and the use of broadcast media, such as China Radio International and China Central Television International.
Although some critics have interpreted this cultural outreach as a way for China to indoctrinate the West with Marxist ideology, the reality is that debates over the relative merits of political institutions are not allowed on State-run media and would never be inserted into the curricula of educational programs.
As Carnegie’s Joshua Kurlantzick explained in a 2006 policy brief, China’s soft power has had little to do with ideology in recent years:
Since the late 1990s . . . Beijing has better tied assistance to discrete policy goals, including promoting Chinese companies, cultivating political actors, and mitigating concerns about China’s economic rise.
However, this successful use of soft power has resulted in the so-called “Beijing Consensus” being held up as an alternative model to the Washington Consensus, particularly among Southeast Asian countries. Will this necessarily lead to the adoption of authoritarian style political structures?
Although it is possible that leaders of nascent authoritarian regimes will use China’s economic success as a justification for stricter political controls, widespread adoption of the “Beijing Consensus” model, which as formulated by Joshua Cooper Ramo in 2004 is an economic development (not political) model, is not evidence of a systematic push by China to encourage others to copy its political structure.
In the end, it may be that the U.S., an unabashed political proselytizer, is seeing ideological competition where none exists, and that China, undeniably an economic competitor to America, is not actively engaged in an international struggle over political theory but rather using its soft power to support traditional economic and strategic interests.
- The quote is from Joe Nye, the Harvard Professor who coined the term “soft power.” [↩]