Soft power has been an integral part of China’s national rejuvenation since the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2007. In his keynote address, Hu Jintao stated that "Culture has become a more and more important source of national cohesion and creativity and a factor of growing significance in the competition in overall national strength." Since that time, China’s visibility in the US has exploded. From Anchorage to Miami, there are now 462 Confucius Institutes and Classrooms across the country (more than 40% of the world total). Lunar New Year celebrations are now commonplace, China Daily can be picked up at any street corner, and every town seems to have a Sichuan-style restaurant. Even paragons of American culture are becoming Sinocized: The Waldorf-Astoria hotel was purchased by Anbang Insurance Group, Alibaba became the darling of Wall Street with its record-breaking IPO, and Hollywood hits like Transformers are set, filmed, and marketed in the Middle Kingdom.
That said, this obsession with flashy outputs—rather than outcomes—camouflages the deeper suspicions that Americans have towards China, underscoring the weakness of the PRC’s soft power strategy. According to the most recent Pew Global Survey, only 37% of Americans view China favorably. Many of the outputs that China calls successes are viewed warily by the average American due to a fundamental difference in values. For example, China Daily and CCTV America are seen as government mouthpieces, Confucius Institutes have stoked debate about academic freedom, Chinese foreign direct investment by state-owned enterprises or politically-connected firms raise eyebrows about strategic intentions, and greater Chinese involvement in producing movies has led to fears of censorship. Moreover, regular news stories about human rights abuses, cyberattacks, the Great Firewall, and territorial disputes further mar China’s image in the minds of many Americans.
These fears are not entirely unfounded. For its part, China can improve its standing among the American people by making three changes to its soft power strategy. First, it must encourage greater transparency about government ties to businesses, media outlets, and cultural organizations in the US while also assuring the American public that it has no ulterior intentions. Second, since personal relationships are critical for forging cross-cultural collaboration and mutual understanding, China must increase its already-laudable commitment to two-way exchange programs by increasing funds for Americans and Chinese to visit each other’s countries. Finally, the most difficult but profound change is to give artists, musicians, and writers more room to create and innovate. In practice, this means ensuring the freedom of expression, even if it runs against the Party line. Works that are open and honest, as opposed to blatantly propagandistic, resonate well with American audiences (look no further than the art of Ai Weiwei or Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy). Only by affirming these shared values, China can build more trust, increase its standing in the US, and fully realize its goal to form a “new type of great power relationship.”