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Russia and China Can’t Get Anyone to Like Them

Beijing and Moscow are failing to produce soft power. But do they really want it?

By , vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jingping
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jingping
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jingping attend a ceremony in Shanghai on May 20, 2014. Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

China, Russia, and other countries ruled by repressive regimes have dramatically scaled up their investment in instruments commonly associated with soft power. Despite the vast resources these authoritarian trendsetters have poured into media, education, technology, and entertainment, public opinion surveys suggest that they are largely failing to generate soft power: the ability to get people to view a country positively and obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion. Scholarly research and journalistic investigation is struggling to explain this disconnect.

Recently released survey data from the Pew Research Center illustrates the conundrum. As the leadership in Beijing rolls out the red carpet in advance of the 20th Party Congress, it shows in China’s case that negative views predominate, some at “historic highs,” across a diverse set of foreign publics assessed. Among citizens of Sweden and Canada, 83 percent and 74 percent, respectively, view China unfavorably, as do 86 percent of Australians and 80 percent of South Koreans. Analyst Joshua Kurlantzick has recently spotlighted the broader trend: “In the past four years, China’s global image … has deteriorated extensively … and has occurred not only among leading democracies such as the United States and Japan, with whom China already had prickly relations, but also among developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.”

The seeming contradiction between authoritarians’ growing investment in international influence and persistently negative views of these powers abroad is evident in recent research, like the European Think Tank Network on China’s 2021 report “China’s Soft Power in Europe: Falling on Hard Times.” The report examined 17 countries in which China’s soft power was largely assessed to be failing, with title after title repeating the same theme: “China’s Soft Power in the Czech Republic: Almost a Fiasco,” “China’s Dwindling Soft Power in Sweden,” “Limited Appeal: China’s Soft Power in the United Kingdom,” and so on.

China, Russia, and other countries ruled by repressive regimes have dramatically scaled up their investment in instruments commonly associated with soft power. Despite the vast resources these authoritarian trendsetters have poured into media, education, technology, and entertainment, public opinion surveys suggest that they are largely failing to generate soft power: the ability to get people to view a country positively and obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion. Scholarly research and journalistic investigation is struggling to explain this disconnect.

Recently released survey data from the Pew Research Center illustrates the conundrum. As the leadership in Beijing rolls out the red carpet in advance of the 20th Party Congress, it shows in China’s case that negative views predominate, some at “historic highs,” across a diverse set of foreign publics assessed. Among citizens of Sweden and Canada, 83 percent and 74 percent, respectively, view China unfavorably, as do 86 percent of Australians and 80 percent of South Koreans. Analyst Joshua Kurlantzick has recently spotlighted the broader trend: “In the past four years, China’s global image … has deteriorated extensively … and has occurred not only among leading democracies such as the United States and Japan, with whom China already had prickly relations, but also among developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.”

The seeming contradiction between authoritarians’ growing investment in international influence and persistently negative views of these powers abroad is evident in recent research, like the European Think Tank Network on China’s 2021 report “China’s Soft Power in Europe: Falling on Hard Times.” The report examined 17 countries in which China’s soft power was largely assessed to be failing, with title after title repeating the same theme: “China’s Soft Power in the Czech Republic: Almost a Fiasco,” “China’s Dwindling Soft Power in Sweden,” “Limited Appeal: China’s Soft Power in the United Kingdom,” and so on.

The conundrum is not entirely new. In a 2017 article entitled “China is Spending Billions to Make the World Love It,” The Economist detailed the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to “sell itself as a brand” and “attract people from other countries.” The article described how the Chinese state’s outreach spanned multiple fronts: educational initiatives in the form of Confucius Institutes, global state media expansion, especially of foreign language media, and rapid scaling up of commerce and development programs, exemplified by the Belt and Road Initiative. The authors reached the familiar conclusion that these wide-ranging investments have “not brought China anything like the love it would like.” Joseph Nye, who developed the soft power concept, has likewise observed that Beijing’s billions of dollars spent “on its charm offensive have had only a limited return.”

So what are the possible explanations for the autocrats’ largely unimpressive return on their investment for foreign influence? Several factors contribute to this contradiction.

First, the dynamics of soft power—which arise principally from a country’s culture, its political values, and its policies—are misaligned with the incentives of systems based on pervasive state control and repression. As Nye emphasizes, much soft power “arises from societal forces outside of government control,” such as individuals, civil society, and the private sector. Accordingly, “China could generate more soft power if it would relax some of its tight party control over civil society.” But the leadership in Beijing—as well as those in Moscow, Riyadh, and Havana—put the preservation of state control above all else.

When these regimes pursue outward-facing engagement, the state’s firm hand does not magically disappear. For instance, targets of CCP influence activities are often under the mistaken impression that media, academic, and friendship organizations operate independently from the party, but “most, if not all, of the Chinese entities that engage with their peers abroad unequivocally serve national party goals—either by following official or unofficial guidelines, or by avoiding taking positions that might violate [CCP] guidelines or jeopardize the regime’s goals,” as my colleague Jessica Ludwig and I have written.

In principle, the Chinese or Russia leaderships could boost their soft power by relaxing their grip on civil society and easing systematic repression on independent media and opposition figures. In practice, there is little evidence to suggest they are inclined to do so. In China’s case, David Bandurski 10 years ago shrewdly identified the dilemma of why the authorities have little soft power to show for their massive outward-facing media investments, writing how the Chinese leadership “is determined to control the ‘voice’ of China—as though it were not the product of the full complexity of China’s culture and ideas, but rather a megaphone to shout over the heads of international audiences.”

Another factor is that the metrics commonly used to identify soft power at work are ill-suited to the task of assessing the nature of China and Russia’s foreign influence. Public opinion surveys, which have served as the go-to measure for soft power success, may be able to reveal a given country’s favorability among certain audiences. They are not, however, an appropriate instrument for measuring the extent to which a foreign power is coopting local elites, inducing forms of political censorship, or is engaging in strategic corruption that can compromise the integrity of local institutions.

This is critical as evidence mounts to indicate that today’s authoritarian regimes are exerting real outward-facing effects but not those expected in a soft power context. For instance, Elizabeth Economy observes that the Chinese authorities are training officials from developing countries “on how to censor the internet, control civil society, and build a robust single-party state.”

In Australia, John Fitzgerald writing in the Journal of Democracy describes how Beijing’s “integrated networks” of influence have sought “the exercise of direct control over Chinese-language media (print, radio, and online), indirect management of local community groups, influence on university executives, attempts to shape the foreign-policy positions of mainstream political parties, and the establishment of formal united front agencies across Australia.” Martin Hala, assessing the situation in the Czech Republic, cites the CCP’s approach to “making friends” in high places as a way of using “cooptation and corruption to capture foreign elites not only so that they will do China’s bidding but also to gain access to (and, ultimately, power through manipulation of) foreign institutions.”

These examples are not exhaustive but instead represent a pattern. In the absence of metrics better suited to assessing the effects and outcomes produced in these cases—for instance, political censorship and strategic corruption—we end up in an analytical cul-de-sac, with troubling policy implications. Counterintuitively, perhaps, the Pew Research Center findings cited earlier in this article show that while foreign publics now view China more negatively than they once did, they also widely believe that Beijing’s influence has grown stronger in recent years. This suggests it is not necessarily the case that if China’s public image is faltering, as understood through opinion surveys, its influence is waning. Rather, Beijing is projecting influence outside of the soft power context.

Open societies will be vulnerable so long as they maintain a blind spot about the compromising and corrosive aspects of authoritarians’ outward-facing influence. Rather than devoting so much energy to figuring out why the likes of China and Russia are so inept at exerting soft power, scholars and journalists instead need to extend their field of vision to the increasingly evident, yet still poorly understood, authoritarian strategies that prioritize corrosion and control over attraction and persuasion.

This article is drawn from “Rising to the Sharp Power Challenge,” which appears in the October 2022 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Christopher Walker is vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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