How China's soft-power efforts compare with S. Korea, Japan
BEIJING • Since the early 2000s, China has vastly expanded its ability to promote its language and culture abroad compared with regional rivals, most evidently through its global network of state-affiliated Confucius Institutes.
There are today over 500 Confucius Institutes in 142 countries and regions, including one in Singapore, even though the programme began only in 2004.
South Korea's King Sejong Institutes, which serve a similar function, now number 171, spread across 54 countries. It marked its 10th anniversary this year.
Tokyo's analogue, the Japan Foundation, has 24 offices in 23 countries, despite being the oldest programme, running since 1972.
But Western critics, including the Harvard academic who coined the term "soft power", have long derided China's soft-power programmes for failing to deliver on their investments.
Until last year, China continued to be viewed unfavourably by most countries in perception polls, such as one on global attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Centre, and received consistently low marks in areas such as government respect for personal freedoms.
China was also ranked last in Soft Power 30, 2015, the first comprehensive report of the top 30 countries in the world in terms of soft power. It is compiled by the Portland Consulting Group and the University of Southern California Centre on Public Diplomacy.
"China has been making major efforts to increase its ability to influence others without force or coercion," said Professor Joseph Nye, the Harvard academic.
"But as long as the government fans the flames of nationalism and holds tight the reins of party control, China's soft power will remain limited."
But things are turning around. The latest Pew survey this year found that China and the United States are now competing to be the more favoured world power, in part because the US has lost much of its lustre under President Donald Trump.
The third edition of the global soft-power index this year saw China rise to 25th place, which the report called "the most incredible story in Asia".
Even then, these gains must be viewed in context: A diminished US still ranks third, Japan is sixth and South Korea is 21st.
"China has made significant investments in developing its soft power over recent years, (but) its efforts are perhaps undermined by its hard-line approach to foreign policy and human rights, an indication that soft-power efforts may require a certain level of congruency and consistency for it to be most effective," said the report.
Experts said Beijing needs to approach soft power from a different angle if it wants the sophistication and attractiveness of neighbours South Korea and Japan.
Mr Osamu Sayama, a visiting scholar with British think-tank Royal United Services Institute, noted that unlike most countries where soft power is generated organically, the Chinese Communist Party government plays an outsized role in this area.
Unless the party loosens control of the arts, China is unlikely to achieve something close to Hallyu, or love of Korean culture, despite the richness of Chinese heritage.
"The degree of censorship in China makes it harder to build a positive image of innovation and the arts," he wrote.
Lim Yan Liang