China’s Soft Power Strategy: Five Minutes with Robert Daly

Following an event hosted by the Georgetown Collaborative Diplomacy Initiative, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Brookings Institute’s Robert Daly to discuss China’s soft power strategies.

GJIA: Could you explain China’s soft power priorities and how effective they’ve been so far?

RD: When China speaks of soft power, the gold standard is the United States. China would like to have what we have, which is readier sympathy and interest, along with readier acceptance of our policies and self-concepts around the world. China is getting wealthy, but it’s also finding that it cannot simply buy friends. Most countries in the world have China as their major trading partner, but there hasn’t been a corresponding uptick in impressions of China. No country looks to China for social, cultural, and political models, and even though they trade with China, many nations find its political system abhorrent. They do not accept China in accordance with China’s self concept... China is tired of being “the bad guy” and is unwilling to change or adapt to meet what is accepted as the standards of modernity. It is caught in a struggle in which it has very few tools, other than simple pocket book diplomacy.

GJIA: What about America’s soft power diplomacy goals in respect to China?

RD: We don’t target soft diplomacy; it’s not a scalpel to wield. It’s more a chemical that goes into the atmosphere. It only adds to the mix.

GJIA: Is that the key difference between American and Chinese soft power?

RD: Yes. America’s soft power comes organically and directly from the culture itself – not from the government. The government is incapable of creating culture in America; we don’t have a ministry of culture or propaganda, we don’t speak–as China does–of “cultural industry” or “cultural production” or “cultural security,” although we are beginning to worry about something akin to cultural security. And yet, when you go to China today, there’s no question about what the direction of influence has been: it is overwhelmingly influence from the United States through soft power channels. It comes from universities, local governments, American professional associations, standards and practices, and the arts.

This “model” has been extremely effective: the Chinese are wearing blue jeans; we aren’t wearing zhongshanzhuang (中山装, a traditional Chinese tunic). They are listening to rock; we aren’t listening to Kun opera. The flow of influence has been almost entirely in one direction. Now does that mean they're getting more like us, or that they want to be like us politically? Not necessarily, that’s a naive view. But it creates a reservoir of interest and empathy, such that if Chinese crude propagandists want to say that America is simply a racist, sexist, coarse culture–whatever the insult might be–the Chinese people know too much to swallow that whole. That’s the power of soft power.

GJIA: Could you speak to the two different frameworks that you mentioned in the talk? Whereas China thinks that it can solve its soft power issues from a technical perspective, the United States stresses the need for freedom and the insurance of creativity. If the U.S. framework is more successful, will China switch to the U.S. model?

RD: China cannot believe that. It believes in dingcengsheji (顶层设计), which is top level design. Especially in Xi Jinping’s China, it’s all about control. He cannot counter significant, bottom-up cultural influence, even within China. The belief that culture can be top-down and based on authority is central to his governance. If he lets it go, the communist party, as it’s constructed, cannot continue to have the kind of authority it currently has . And so he’s faced with a true dilemma. China will not be developing soft power anytime soon, and under Xi Jinping, probably none at all. Every once in a while, you’ll get a tremendously gifted Chinese artist who figures out a way to both play by Xi’s rules and to be interesting, ironic, and brilliant in a way that is internationally recognized. China’s population is so big, and there’s so much energy, that you’re going to find outliers like that, and that’s great. But mainstream Chinese contemporary culture has no purchase outside of China itself, and has an often-scant purchase, even within China.

GJIA: Let’s transition to the worries we have here at home, especially in the movie industry. Earlier, you spoke about Chinese companies buying up screens and production studios. Is that a possible treat? And if so, how should the United States deal with it?

RD: Well, is there a threat? The purchasing of screens is less important, and–this isn’t my analogy–but the screens are the cup, and the movies are what go in the cup. The screens have to operate on market principles. However, when China buys a large production company, like Legendary, the production company will now never make a film the Chinese government could possibly object to. Therefore, you’ve taken one player out of production; you are limiting its creative freedom, and you are thereby harming American culture.

Now I’ve had some blowbacks to some of my writings that argue that “American pop culture is mostly crap anyway, who cares?” The answer to that is that crap counts. I don’t know what the ratio is of bad films to good films, or bad novels to good ones. But let’s say that it’s one-hundred to one in each case. You need to have a culture that encourages all kinds of cultural production, including the coarse and bad, in order to have the conditions that will produce the masterpieces and the worthwhile. When you take a player out of free cultural production, you’re harming the culture. If you think that culture matters at all, you have to object to that. I think that if you look back, for example at popular film, it was a very important part of the American cultural response to World War II.

The way that we process and make sense of our experiences is through cultural artifacts, not just through the masterpieces, but through the bad works too. This was true during the Cold War. Think of Dr. Strangelove. Look at the filmmaking and the literary legacy of the Vietnam War, which spurred a tremendous amount of introspection and cultural creativity. This is also true of the Gulf Wars.

The greatest geostrategic, and in some ways ideological, question that America will face over the next, let’s say 50 years, is going to be the challenge of China’s rise. If we are not free to process that challenge, to interpret and understand it in the ways that we are accustomed, including through film, our ability to respond to China culturally will be hobbled.

Some people think that culture is just about the latest Star Wars movie, that “culture” and “soft power” sound like a lot of airy-fairy garbage, and some only want to count capabilities and aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. But I take the cultural side seriously. I would say that most of our political challenges are actually rooted in culture, and not the other way around. Our interests derive from our values, which stem from culture.

So, if we are taking American production studios out of play, and are taking our major studios out of play because they won’t make films that the Chinese Communist party will object to, we hamper our ability as a culture, as a people, and as a country to process the challenge from China. That will have consequences. Can I quantify or predict them? No, of course not. But if you take culture seriously, you’ve got to take China’s rise seriously.

GJIA: Is the China threat unique in some sense?

RD: It is unprecedented because we’ve never had a country of major concern that was also a major market. Soviet Russia wasn’t a major market. Nazi Germany wasn’t a major market. Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam wasn’t a major market. Saddam’s Iraq, the Ayatollah’s Iran–these are not major box office markets. China is something new. It is the country of greatest concern over the long run–while also being home to the world’s biggest consumer class. This is unprecedented, and therefore yes, it is a threat to our creative freedom. But the answer is not more American government regulation. Congress is no more qualified to regulate film than is the Chinese Communist Party. But Congress is legitimately asking this question. It has to come from American critics and American writers. It has to be self-regulated by free American writers and cultural critics. So they’ve got to be alerted to the problem. This is part of what we’re trying to do with the Kissinger Institute.

GJIA: What do you see as the future of soft power diplomacy?

RD: Soft power diplomacy and cultural diplomacy is part of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy means government-directed outreach through various kinds of products and channels, some of which are cultural, and not to foreign governments, but to foreign publics. This is why the American Government brought the Alvin Ailey dance group to Beijing, for example.

American public diplomacy in China isn’t that important anymore, because our cultural influence has been marketed and commercialized. The Chinese pay for the things they want – and they want a lot and pay a lot for it. What matters, therefore, is broad engagement. Programs like Alison Friedman’s Ping Pong Productions are key. Keeping the channels of engagement open is critical because soft power is not wielded as a tool of diplomacy in the way that economics or the military are.

The dynamics through which soft power influences or works are catalytic. You can catalyze change, but you can’t direct it, so you catalyze change simply by keeping American examples, American institutions, media, corporate, artistic and American culture present to the Chinese people: fashion, food, songs, ways of thinking. And that is done through a broad policy of engagement. Soft power doesn’t make the Chinese more like us, and that is not the goal of soft power diplomacy or even of our cultural interaction. We shouldn’t want the Chinese to be more like us. We should want the Chinese to be fully themselves, and we must recognize that they cannot be fully themselves until they are freely themselves. And when that happens, they’ll have more cultural influence in the United States.

Robert Daly was named as the second director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center in August, 2013. He came to the Wilson Center from the Maryland China Initiative at the University of Maryland. Prior to that, he was American Director of the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing. Robert Daly began work in U.S.-China relations as a diplomat, serving as Cultural Exchanges Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in the late 80s and early 90s.