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Soft power superpower


Global trends in cultural engagement and influence


Author: Alistair MacDonald


As part of its international strategy, China has been investing enormous sums on soft power, rapidly expanding its global reach and influence.


China sees soft power as crucial to its peaceful rise and to building its vision for a new world order, creating and building a ‘community of common destiny’. It has been estimated that China spends about $US10 billion 3 annually on soft power initiatives; by comparison the US State Department budget for public diplomacy stood at $666 million in 2014 and, as a result of the Trump administration’s 30 per cent reduction to the State Department budget, is set to fall below $550 million in 2018.


Since 2004 China’s Ministry of Education has established over 500 government funded Confucius Institutes in 140 countries, many of which are based in universities with staff employed by the host university. This includes an increase of almost 200 Institutes in the past five years alone. These largely offer language classes, although there is often a broader cultural offer and an increasing focus on specialist areas of study, for example traditional Chinese medicine and sports therapy. China has also set up more than 1,000 Confucius Classrooms and school-based language hubs in foreign schools, providing them with teachers, materials and funding to help younger children learn Mandarin and experience Chinese culture. Students around the world are flocking to learn Mandarin, recognising it as the language of the future, something that should give pause to complacent anglophone societies that think they need no longer bother learning foreign languages.

In 2010 the Chinese government put on more than 100 Chinese New Year events in cities around the world. In 2017 it sponsored some 2,000 of them in 140 countries to mark the Year of the Chicken, with London’s event the largest worldwide. 4 Chinese culture is permeating around the world, driven by huge (largely private sector) investments in films and creative industries.


This outreach programme is having a real impact in perceptions of China around the world. The Pew Research Center has, for example, found that more than 50 per cent of those aged 18–29 in Nigeria and Ghana enjoy Chinese music, television and films. American and European cultural dominance may be giving way to a more pluralist world with people around the world enjoying a broader cultural diet than in the past.


International students have long been encouraged to study in China, with an increasing focus in recent years on Western students. The country is now a leading destination for overseas study, close on the heels of the UK. Just one example shows the scale of China’s investment: launched in 2012, the African Talents Program5 trained an estimated 30,000 African professionals in China between 2013 and 2015, with a further 18,000 African trainees benefiting from full scholarships to study at Chinese universities under the arrangement. China has studied what has worked for the US, UK and Germany and is not only targeting the leaders and opinion formers of tomorrow to build its global influence in the years ahead, but now also lixing its scholarships to mass education, e.g. for ASEAN nations, or more widely from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) nations. The ambition is clear, the BRI covers some 65 countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt that crosses the Eurasian continent from Luoyang to Hamburg and the Maritime Silk Road that stretches from Quanzhou to Rotterdam via the South Asia and MENA regions. The scale of China’s offer outrivals that of other schemes. The growing importance of China to other states can be seen in UK and US efforts to encourage more of their own citizens to study in the country through support for programmes like Generation UK and the US’s 100,000 Strong campaign (now 1 Million Strong). Xinhua, the government’s main news agency, opened nearly 40 new foreign bureaus between 2009 and 2011, bringing its total to 162. The number of Xinhua correspondents based overseas doubled during that time. In December 2016 the state broadcaster rebranded its international media service, calling it China Global Television Network. The investment in CGTN is specifically aimed to compete with global services such as the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. CGTN can be received by more than 85 million viewers in over 100 countries and regions. It includes six channels in five languages, including a 24-hour English language news service and a documentary channel. CGTN makes a distinctive offer in its global news coverage, notably a much greater and more nuanced focus on Africa than that offered by the BBC, CNN and other Asian satellite television news channels. Earlier this year China’s foreign language radio services were folded into the mix to create Voice of China. The new combined group will have close to 14,000 staff. Its potential is reflected in the reach of just one of its channels – Radio China International broadcasts in 65 languages, more than any other broadcaster. The emphasis on soft power projection was made explicitly in the announcement of the new arrangements: The main duties [of Voice of China] are to publicise the party’s theory, line, principles and policies… organise major propaganda reports, organise radio and television creation and production, produce and broadcast radio and television products, guide social hotspots, strengthen and improve public opinion supervision, promote multimedia integration development… and tell the story of China.


这种雄心是昭然若揭的,一带一路倡议覆盖了丝绸之路经济带上的约65个国家,横跨了整个欧亚大陆,从洛阳一路到汉堡,外加海上丝绸之路,从泉州经由南亚和中东北非地区一路延伸到鹿特丹。中国开出的价码,其规模打败了其他的方案和计划。从英国和美国鼓励国民去该国求学的努力(通过一些诸如“英国未来计划” 和美国的“十万人强”运动(如今达到了百万人)的计划)中,可以发现中国之于其他国家不断增长的重要性。该国政府的主要新闻社新华社,在2009至2011年间新开设了将近40家海外分社,将其总数增加到了162家。驻海外的新华社记者人数在此期间翻了一倍。2016年12月,该国的国家广播电视台对其国际媒体服务作了更名,改为了中国环球电视网(即中国国际电视台CGTN)。对CGTN的投资,是专门为与诸如BBC、CNN和半岛电视台等全球服务展开竞争。

China’s investment and, in recent years, more differentiated approach to soft power, is changing opinions. According to Pew research data, the number of nations in which the US holds higher rates of favourability over China has halved from 2014–17, from 25 to 12. In the past the US had a 12 percentage point lead over China in terms of a global median, but in 2017 that lead has shrunk to just two points. In Africa for example, 72 per cent of Nigerians view China favourably and although in other countries across the continent views vary, China is generally perceived as a trusted partner and role model. 8 There is growing respect for the Chinese economic miracle and for Chinese advances in science and technology. In Latin America and much of the Middle East again China is viewed positively. China is now Brazil’s biggest trade partner and is by far the biggest trade partner for the whole African continent. Good will and trust is not only opening up opportunities for Chinese business, it is translating directly into influence. China is today making very effective use of soft power to build its international influence – especially in places that have recently been neglected by the West.


France’s networks and global presence are perhaps the closest to the UK’s in reach and depth.


As new nations have arisen from former colonial holdings, cultural organisations and connections have replaced hard power institutions. There is a strong emphasis on the promotion of a shared francophone cultural identity. Through their global networks the French seek to promote the integrity of French culture and to take a position of leadership across the francophone world.


The meteoric rise of Emmanuel Macron has further enhanced France’s influence. The tone of the rhetoric coming out of Paris and the President’s evident internationalism and commitment to the ‘European project’ has won him admirers around the world. The Macron Presidency is heavy in symbols and grand gestures but it is underpinned by a real shift in policy towards international engagement. The new President sees diplomacy and soft power as integral to realizing his ambitious agenda. There is renewed interest in the instruments of soft power too as can be seen in the President’s speech in Ambassador’s Week 2017 which set out the new orthodoxy of French soft power and influence with a particular emphasis on La Francophonie and the role of higher education in building relations with future world leaders.


France is the most popular country in the world for international tourists with 89 million arrivals in 2017. 12 Tourists flock to Paris for the culture, cuisine, shopping and the romance of the City of Light. The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Europe’s top tourist destination, Disneyland, are all part of the draw. Gastronomic diplomacy is also part of the mix with Michelin starred chefs in high demand. French culture is essential to France’s international attractiveness. The opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the latest example of French cultural diplomacy and reflects a new trend in nation branding. The big French institutions are following the example of luxury brands LVMH and Kering in exporting themselves to the high growth regions of Asia and the Gulf. The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be followed by the Shanghai Pompidou Centre.



Cultural diplomacy is formally the responsibility of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs which operates the Institut Français, the cultural equivalent of the Alliance Française. The Institut has an extensive global network of cultural centres around the world. The French government has entrusted the Institut with promoting French culture abroad through artistic exchanges in the performing arts, visual arts, architecture, French literature, film, technology and ideas. The Institut organises cultural seasons, festivals and cultural collaborations.


As with other European cultural institutions, the emphasis is very much on bilateral cultural exchange whether it is the France–Korea Year, the Paris–New York Tandem or 2018’s France–Israel Year. 2017’s France–Colombia Year typifies the bilateral approach – the first six months saw the French Season in Colombia, followed by the Colombian Season in France in the second half of the year. Much like the British Council, the Institut co-ordinates the French pavilions at major events such as the Venice Biennales for the visual arts and architecture and the São Paulo International Architecture Biennial. The Institut Français is also involved in identifying and promoting art scenes and offers opportunities for developing constructive relationships between professional communities in France and abroad.


Created in 2010, Campus France has some similarities to Germany’s DAAD and EducationUSA. It operates 255 offices and branches in 124 countries and promotes study in France to prospective students. 13 Unlike the DAAD it does not offer scholarships or grants to students, its role is focused on promotion and facilitation, for example through academic fairs and support for visa applications. The French MFA does offer international scholarships for students like the Eiffel Excellence Scholarships for master’s and PhD students and the Excellence-Major Scholarships. Much like similar British and American schemes the focus is on the policymakers and leaders of the future, ‘the brightest and best’.

France has long been a smart power, globally engaged, influential and known for a distinct approach to international relations. President Macron’s ambitions, if realised, could successfully position France as a key leader of global opinion.