When American political scientist Joseph Nye says China’s soft power is limited, he isn’t kidding.
China ranked dead last on a 30-country index of soft power released last week by Portland Communications.
The index assessed countries on six measures of reputation and influence — government, culture, education, global engagement, enterprise, and digital — after polling more than 7,000 people in 20 countries covering each region of the world.
Nye, the Harvard professor who pioneered the theory of soft power 25 years ago to explain how modern states can use positive attraction and persuasion to achieve global influence, described the Portland index as “the clearest picture to date of global soft power”.
Britain — a country with a four times smaller economy, 20 times less populous and 40 times smaller in area than China — was ranked the mightiest country on Earth in terms of soft power, closely followed by Germany and the United States.
China’s underwhelming global clout is unexpected, as it has spent hundreds of billions of US dollars improving the communication capabilities of its media outlets like CCTV, organizing mega events such as the 2008 Olympic Games and 2010 Shanghai Expo, funding Confucius Institutes, hosting summits attended by dozens of world leaders (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, for instance), and sponsoring forums on regional security and prosperity (for example, the Boao Forum).
An important justification for such lavish spending is that these activities can contribute to China’s soft power, The Diplomat said.
David Shambaugh, regarded inside and outside China as an authority on the country’s foreign policy, estimated in a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine that China’s annual budget for “external propaganda” runs in the neighborhood of US$10 billion.
“By contrast, the US Department of State spent US$666 million on public diplomacy in fiscal year 2014,” he said.
China is also backing up its soft-power charm offensive with serious money — at last count, US$1.41 trillion.
This includes commitments of US$50 billion for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, US$41 billion for the New Development Bank, US$40 billion for the Silk Road Economic Belt, and US$25 billion for the Maritime Silk Road.
Shambaugh explained China’s severe shortage of soft power: “While China’s economic prowess impresses much of the world, its repressive political system and mercantilist business practices tarnish its reputation.”
Portland Communications described China as a global game-changer held back by a political system that “has not kept pace with the nation’s economic dynamism”.
China has a wealth of soft-power assets when it comes to culture, history, cuisine, as well as sparks of innovation, it said (the country ranked ninth on the culture metric).
But the lack of democracy, free press and access to information many people around the world take for granted weighs heavily on perceptions of China, as the index rankings indicate.
China unsurprisingly scored lowest on “government”, defined by Portland in the Western terms of commitment to freedom, human rights and democracy, and the quality of political institutions.
It also scored rock bottom on the “digital” metric, defined as a country’s digital infrastructure and its capabilities in digital diplomacy.
The bottom line is that public polling results show a lack of trust in China to “do the right thing in global affairs”, Portland said.
For those keeping track, the US ranked best for education, culture and digital but was held back by negative perceptions of its foreign policy.
The Portland Index, by the way, isn’t the first to show that China’s influence is lackluster.
A 2014 BBC poll showed that since 2005, positive views about China’s influence had declined by 14 percent and that practically half (49 percent) of the respondents viewed China negatively.
A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project indicated China’s soft-power deficit is apparent even in Africa and Latin America, regions where one would think the country’s appeal would be directly proportional to its huge investments.
Clearly, nobody’s impressed.
Ray Kwong is a China commentator. He writes on China for Forbes. He is also a China business development strategist and marketing consultant.