Academic debates about China’s “soft power” are controversial. Internationally renowned scientists such as Joseph Nye and David Shambaugh believe that many efforts of China’s central government aimed at accumulating cultural soft power had only a very limited return on its investments. But this may change now, thanks to the coverage of some influential non-Chinese media outlets.
Today, the Financial Times published an article titled “Beijing’s endgame: football with Chinese characteristics”. The article is mainly about the overdose of Chinese investments in English football clubs. It is argued that these investments are a response to President Xi Jinping’s football reforms, which are a means to boost China’s international influence.
But is this conclusion coherent? Are not the Chinese national team and the domestic league the key to increasing soft power? I’ve heard relatively little about German investors in foreign football clubs – even though the money is there. Nevertheless, football is a very important element of German soft power. The reason for this is obvious: the national team has been sustainably successful for decades and even more appreciated globally since the 2006 World Cup and the Klinsmann/Löw revolution.
In recent years, there has been an inflation of studies about Chinese soft power. Just because there are repeated scientific claims that China possesses (more or less) soft power, it does not mean that this is necessarily the case. From a scientific point of view, one major difficulty is already to quantify soft power. How exactly do you measure it?
What’s even more important (and not discussed in the FT article) is that the term “soft power” is interpreted differently by different scholars, especially in China. While the traditional understanding framed by Nye (1990) considers soft power mainly in the context of international relations, Chinese scholars and policy analysts also apply the concept to the context of domestic politics (Wang/Lu 2008: 445). That’s why we might miss the point in the soft power debates.
However, what I noticed recently is that the constant reporting of non-Chinese media – especially about Chinese football – has resulted in an increased awareness and interest in contemporary China’s popular culture.
What I mean by this is that the issue of Chinese soft power has shifted from a purely academic debate to a widely discussed topic in other fields like European football for example, which may have paradoxically led to China having actually more international influence and, consequently, more soft power.
Even now that you have spent your energy and time reading this text, it may be that I have influenced your perception of the capacity of Chinese soft power. Talking, writing, blogging about Chinese soft power may well turn out to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.