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Who's Afraid of China?: The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power

Who's Afraid of China?: The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power

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by Michael Barr

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What role does China play in the Western imagination? The rise of China as an alternative model to Western liberalism has created a fear that developing countries will stray from Western standards of democracy, transparency, and human rights. However, such fears often say as much about those who hold them as they do about China itself. Who's Afraid of China?


What role does China play in the Western imagination? The rise of China as an alternative model to Western liberalism has created a fear that developing countries will stray from Western standards of democracy, transparency, and human rights. However, such fears often say as much about those who hold them as they do about China itself. Who's Afraid of China? holds a mirror to Sino-Western relations in order to better understand how the West's own past, hopes, and fears shape the way it thinks about and engages with China. Focusing on three key areas -- models of development, soft power, and ethnocentrism -- this provocative new book argues that the rise of China touches a nerve in the Western psyche and presents a fundamental challenge to ideas about modernity, history, and international relations.

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Zed Books
Publication date:
Asian Arguments Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

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Who's Afraid of China?

The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power

By Michael Barr

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Michael Barr
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78032-466-1


Blinded by the Beijing Consensus

In the 1980s, as Western countries feared the rise of the Japanese miracle, China slowly embraced a market economy. Journals such as Foreign Affairs, intrigued at the changes in 'Red China', declared that the Chinese people held 'fervent desire for progress, blended with an acute awareness of the limits on future possibilities'. By the 1990s, as Japan's bubble burst, some in the West began expressing concern about the 'China threat'. Not only was their economy still growing, it was said, but they violate their people's rights – the 'butchers of Beijing'. By the 2000s, 'China's rise' was clearly here to stay and any debate over giving China 'most favoured nation' trading status or not was resigned to the dustbin of history. By 2011, the discomfort spread from what China was doing inside its borders to what it was doing outside of them. Perhaps the best example lies in Beijing's African outreach strategy. Here, China was (is) 'depicted as the shrewd winner of a neocolonial scramble for resources, offering developmental assistance – mainly in the form of low-priced manufactured goods, infrastructure investment, and soft loans – all proffered with no pesky Western-style demands to respect human rights'. The 2006 Beijing Summit on China–Africa Cooperation confirmed some Westerners' fear: apart from numerous investment and loan packages, China also pledged to train 15,000 highly skilled workers, set up ten agriculture technical centres, thirty hospitals and a hundred schools – all within three years. In addition, Beijing was to establish an annual scheme sponsoring 4,000 Africans to study in China. Would all these pledges truly be kept? Did it matter to those who saw a threat? For not only was China having economic success with its development model, it was now trying to do something more: achieve its ideal of 'global harmony' through its own soft power approach. In other words, it wasn't just cheap blue jeans spreading through the world – now Chinese ideas were available for export. And none more so than the Beijing Consensus.

The Beijing Consensus refers to China's model of development. Its elements include: a commitment to innovation and constant experimentation, export-oriented growth, state control and investment in key industries and infrastructure projects, and financial self-determination, especially in setting tax rates and managing currency exchange rates. The Beijing Consensus actually goes by a variety of names: the China Model, state capitalism, market authoritarianism, authoritarian capitalism have all been used. In a nutshell, it stresses the prioritization of state-directed economic growth without democratic political reform.

The role of the state, and the lack of transparency that produces, is one reason why the Beijing Consensus has caused concern among so many commentators. For the Beijing Consensus must be understood in contrast to the 'Washington Consensus', the neoliberal prescription of privatization, deregulation and democratic reform that has been promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as the development model of choice for crisis-ridden developing economies. Of course it must be said that the two models are not entirely at odds, since both stress fiscal discipline, the accumulation of foreign currency reserves, managed inflation, and a broadening of the tax base.

The results of the Beijing Consensus speak for themselves, as China's success in poverty reduction is without precedent in human history. The Chinese economy has grown by an average rate of 11 per cent over the past thirty years, lifting more than a half a billion people out of poverty. Literacy rates have improved from 66 per cent in 1982 to 94 per cent in 2008. Infant mortality fell nearly 40 per cent between 1990 and 2005, from 80 deaths per 1,000 births in 1970 to 17 deaths per 1,000 in 2008; telephone access in this period increased more than 94-fold, to 57.1 per cent of the population. Disposable incomes and consumption rates have grown by about 18 per cent a year, compared with just 2 per cent in America. Beijing's hard currency reserves are the largest in the world: approximately US$ 2 trillion as of 2010.

Not all of China's success can be attributed to the Beijing Consensus, as there are many reasons for its remarkable economic performance, some of which have nothing to do with its policies. For example, more than 70 per cent of China's population is of working age, a demographic trend that will not last as the one-child policy begins to be felt. The country also enjoys a large domestic market, which helped make up for sagging foreign demand during the 2008 financial crisis. It is worth noting, of course, that these are advantages Western nations once enjoyed as well.

Neither should the drawbacks of the Beijing Consensus be underestimated. These include: endemic corruption, fierce and at times destabilizing competition for business between localities and regions, the absence of freedom of expression, growing income inequalities, large-scale social protests in rural areas where social services have been neglected, and a legacy of environmental degradation that is only now being addressed.

But this book, as I've indicated, is not a critique of development models. Instead it reveals how underneath these hard power issues lies soft power fears and how the two often get tangled. Before getting into China's soft power, however, it is first necessary to demonstrate how some observers of China go wrong, and to offer some reasons why fears of China are not likely to go away any time soon.

Why the 'Beijing Consensus' is neither a consensus nor unique to Beijing

In 2010 The Economist magazine organized an online forum. It asked whether 'China offers a better development model than the West'. In other words, was the Beijing Consensus a better route to prosperity than privatization and democratic elections? Whilst a majority of respondents thought not, a healthy 42 per cent nevertheless indicated that they believed China's approach was better.

Buried in the online discussion of the Economist debate were two key and often overlooked facts about the Beijing Consensus: it is neither unique to 'Beijing', nor does it represent a 'consensus'. First, the basic tenets of the China's model were established elsewhere in East Asia before leader Deng Xiaoping launched the Reform era in 1978. To varying degrees, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have all liberalized their economies without first enacting political reform. Each of these has democratized in due course, but in earlier stages of their development they followed a programme of state capitalism, export-driven growth and authoritarian political control. Of course each of these countries followed a different path according to their own circumstances. But the notion of a 'model' which sequences economic growth and legal reforms first, with political liberalization and robust civil society later, is evident. In this way, there is nothing unique to 'Beijing', except that China's size and subsequent power projection make it more influential internationally; and its pace of political reform has been, arguably, slower than other nations. It is a telling point that even the term 'Beijing Consensus' itself was created not in Beijing but by an American commentator, Joshua Cooper Ramo.

More importantly, the Beijing Consensus does not in fact represent much of a consensus, especially in China itself. The Chinese policymaking process is much less decisive than most realize. Achieving bureaucratic consensus for bold departures has become increasingly difficult because today's leaders lack the personal authority of a MaoZedong or a Deng Xiaoping. The central government is unable to enforce many of its directives among the thirty-five provincial-level units, even though it appoints the governors and party secretaries of these units. It issues regulations to protect the environment and improve health, education and pensions. But provincial leaders, whose promotions depend primarily on growth rates, often ignore them or misrepresent statistical reports. Indeed, if there is a consensus at all, it's to be pragmatic – a very American philosophy if ever there was one.

Moreover, Beijing's economic strategy has shifted over the thirty years of reform and opening up. Chinese economists scoff at the notion that there is one consistent 'Chinese model of development'. This debate rarely surfaces in public but is fierce within the CCP. There is old-fashioned left-versus-right debate about the size of the state, and how to reform the health-care system, address income disparities, and change the pace of political reform. Only days after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010, twenty-three former senior officials known for their reformist views (including Mao Zedong's former secretary and a former editor of the People's Daily, the official government paper) signed an open letter criticizing the government for not respecting the Chinese constitution, which guaranteed freedom of speech. The letter demanded an end to 'scandalous' censorship, which in their view was embarrassing to China. This, at least, hardly sounds like a consensus.

In many ways, though, the Beijing Consensus is perceived as being a manifestation of Chinese soft power across the globe. China has been remaking the landscape of international development by progressively limiting the projection of Western influence and values, or, as former US diplomat Stefan Halper puts it: 'China is shrinking the idea of the West.' This is reminiscent of the Asian values debate in the 1990s, when a number of authoritarian leaders in Southeast Asia sought to justify their rule on the grounds that the region possessed a unique set of institutions and political ideologies which reflected Confucian culture and history. Yet talk of the China Model may well fade if and when China's growth slows or its political system becomes unglued. Indeed, many of the comments in the Economist forum reminded readers that Japan was both idealized and demonized in the 1980s.

So the Beijing Consensus is neither a Consensus nor unique to Beijing. Instead it is a 'catch-all' phrase for a series of strategies and rationales that have successfully helped China rise. The phrase has achieved far more popularity outside of China than in, which is telling. Perhaps this shows that anxieties over China exporting its model of intelligent authoritarianism are not matched by discussions within China on the merits of actually doing so. A few notable authors have made this point, but not enough. The danger is that framing China's success by referring to the uniqueness of its model can be more misleading than helpful and has set up a barrier rather than a bridge to comprehend Chinese soft power.

Power: hard, soft and smart

I have discussed soft power without actually defining it. My definition relies on the work of Joseph Nye, a former defence official in the Clinton administration, and now a professor at Harvard University. Nye has probably done more than any other figure to develop and popularize the concept. His work has caught on as today books and articles on soft power abound. Soft power lies in the ability to 'shape the preferences of others' through the attraction of one's values, culture, and policies. It is often contrasted – and confused – with hard power – that is, the ability to get others to want what you want through coercion or inducement. Hard power, of course, largely grows out of a country's military or economic might, whereas soft power arises from getting others to 'want what you want' through persuasion and being able to co-opt rather than coerce. But, like hard power, soft power is a descriptive rather than a normative concept. It may be used for good or for ill and can stem from either government or non-governmental actors.

The success of soft power depends on the actor's reputation within the given community, as well as the flow of information between actors. This is one reason why we've seen such attention given to the concept of soft power in recent decades: its importance has been facilitated by the rise of globalization and networked communication systems. As we will see in Chapter 3, popular culture and media are regularly identified as sources of soft power.

It is important to understand that soft power is not merely anything non-military such as economic sanctions – since sanctions are clearly intended to coerce, and thus a form of hard power. And herein is where the confusion sometimes lies. For when discussing power, many tend to conflate the resources that may produce a behaviour with the actual behaviour itself. This is known as the 'vehicle fallacy'. It is committed by those who believe that 'power must mean whatever goes into operation when power is activated'. Yet, as we know, having the means of power is not the same thing as being powerful. It is an elementary point perhaps but one that curiously escapes many observers, as we shall see below.

An example may help explain what I mean. If a restaurant patron leaves a large tip after their meal, in the hopes of getting better service next time, this is not soft power. It is not soft for it involves economic inducement, and it is not power for nothing has been achieved by the mere deploying of resources (in this case, the tip). Next let's surmise that instead of leaving a large tip after their meal, the same patron tells the staff how much they loved their food. But if the head chef had used more garlic, then it would in fact have been tastier and healthier because garlic is flavourful and has vital antioxidant properties. And, after all, is not cancer prevention a worthy value? But this is not yet soft power. For whilst the patron is attempting to win over the restaurant to the value of garlic through ideational persuasion (i.e. not force or inducement), it remains to be seen if they have indeed attracted the chef to this idea. If next time in the restaurant, our customer notices that garlic has indeed been added, then this would count as soft power effectively deployed. In keeping with the comments above, however, the success of the patron's initiatives would depend in part on their reputation in the restaurant. Were they a loyal, polite customer? Or were they loud and generally uncooperative with others? The answer would likely impact how seriously the restaurant would consider their ideas.

Finally, to combine the deployment of hard and soft power is known as 'smart power'. It refers to an integration of force, coercion, inducement and ideational persuasion in a way that 'underscores the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions at all levels' to expand influence and establish the legitimacy of one's claims.

It must be said that the relation between hard and soft power is not always clear and the two concepts are often intertwined. However, there is a difference between using soft power to achieve economic goals (such as promoting national image films in the hopes of boosting exports) and actually equating the giving of economic aid as an example of soft power, which it is not. There is also a difference between deploying resources in the hope of achieving a goal and actually achieving that goal – this, as I have indicated, is called the vehicle fallacy.

Chinese soft power misconceived

China's soft power rise has attracted much commentary. However, it often seems too easy for some analysis to slip into the realm of hard power. The journalist Joshua Kurlantzick, for example, writes that 'soft power has changed ... For the Chinese, soft power means anything outside of the military and security realm, including not only popular culture and public diplomacy, but also more coercive economic and diplomatic levers like aid and investment.' According to Kurlantzick, China has dramatically expanded the definition of soft power beyond Nye's original meaning. But this claim is objectionable on two grounds. First, Kurlantzick curiously gives no references for his assertion, even though there has been a veritable explosion of literature on soft power in Chinese, as we will see in the next chapter. It is true that there are many variations of soft power in China in that it has been applied across nearly every field and discipline. But claims that the Chinese themselves define soft power to include coercive economic measures do not stand up to the evidence. Second, in more abstract terms, if one seeks to subsume hard and soft power so that coercion is now part of soft power, then the utility of the concept is so badly tarnished that it becomes of little analytical value. Indeed, we may ask then what is the point of having categorizations at all?


Excerpted from Who's Afraid of China? by Michael Barr. Copyright © 2011 Michael Barr. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael D. Barr is Associate Professor in International Relations, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

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Who's Afraid of China?: The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
BrianGriffith More than 1 year ago
This is a well done spin through the world of image creation around China. We see the perils of promoting brand China--where one person's wholesome virtue is another's lurking evil. What are those people up to with all that supposedly altruistic development work in Africa? How come they are pushing Confucius Institutes in a campus near you? Can they pull their own country out of 100th place in per-capita income ranking? Are Chinese super-moms gonna destroy childhood as we know it? What are Chinese people thinking about the future world order? What is the Yellow Man's burden? The book is serious, but it's short and doesn't belabor its points. As Barr spins amusing tales, he looks at fear. What do Western people fear as their sense of being the center of the world shifts? I like the story about a woman who attended a series U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century meetings in early 2001. The woman repeatedly insisted that a showdown for world supremacy was inevitable with China. China would only get stronger with each passing year, and the longer the war was put off, the worse it would be. The sooner the U.S. attacked, the better. Fortunately, most members of the Commission did not accept the inevitability. The woman was Lynne Cheney. Since Barr is married to a Chinese woman, I figure he has relevant experience on the balance between fear and opportunity in the multi-polar world. He looks at what our fears and hopes say about ourselves, and quite enjoys himself doing it. --author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization