Fall and Rise of Chinese Soft Power

Let’s first make an important differentiation

“China” as a civilization has a very long history – in fact, it is the oldest uninterrupted civilization in the world. A unified Chinese empire first emerged in 220.

But “China” as a communist state also known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. So it is a relatively young state, much younger than America.

In this module we will study China’s charm offensives toward three important neighbors: Japan and Taiwan,, and examine if there is any general pattern about Chinese soft power we can draw from such a comparative study.

An important disclaimer:
I understand that some, particularly those from China, may refuse to see Taiwan as a state. I respect your view BUT —

An overwhelming majority of the people of Taiwan definitely see their island country as an independent state. They refuse being ruled by the Chinese Communist Party in any way.

Taiwan has its own government, its own military, and is a vibrant and affluent democracy.

It is true that for all the countries that recognize China, they do NOT recognize Taiwan as a state. However, it does NOT mean these countries accept Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is a part of China. Major countries like the US, Japan, and European powers simply “acknowledge” that China says Taiwan is a part of it. “Acknowledgement” is not the same as “endorsement.” It is simply a polite way of saying “whatever you say, that’s your view.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen

The first major western country communist China tried to woo was Japan.

This was a bold choice, given that China under a different, non-communist government had just fought a costly war with Japan, a war that claimed 10 million Chinese lives.

Some important facts in the timeline of Japan-China Relations leading up to normalization:

War ended in 1945. Japan surrendered to the Chinese nationalist government.

In 1949, Communists defeated nationalists and established the People’s Republic of China. Nationalists fled to Taiwan.

Japan continued to recognize the nationalist government in Taiwan as the legitimate government of China (1949-1971).

In July 1971, US President Richard Nixon announced he was going to China. Two months later, Japan abandoned Taiwan and switched recognition to the PRC.

Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei Meets Chairman Mao Zedong

in Beijing, China (September 1971)

Discussion Questions:

So – why would a young communist country try to woo a recent foe, a foe that incurred so much pain? What were the goals China tried to achieve through such charm offensive?

Please go back to the three sources of soft power and think about this question: as China was trying to woo Japan, which source(s) were its strengths? Which source(s) were its weakness?

You can only get an idea about how to answer these two question by reading Chapter 1. This part is your job.

China’s charm offensive toward Japan ended in 1989.

Main reason was domestic: after the government’s violent crackdown of a massive pro-democracy movement, the Chinese people no longer had faith in communism. So the government was in search of a new pillar to support its legitimacy – nationalism.

China has had four generations of leadership since the death of Mao Zedong. Relations with Japan have been generally on the declining path. For details see pp. 42-49 in chapter 1.

Under the current President Xi Jinping, China-Japan relations had a rocky start. His handshake with Japanese Prime Minister was mocked as one of the most awkward moment in diplomatic history.
But Xi has recently stepped up effort to improve relations with Japan – why? The answer again lies in America and US-China relations.

China’s failed charm offensive toward Taiwan

Lee Teng-hui (1923-2020):
Father of Democracy or Traitor of Chinese Nation?

Lee Teng-hui, the first democratically elected president of Taiwan, died on July 30, 2020. Lee was an extremely polarizing figure – many in Taiwan and beyond see him as the father of Taiwanese democracy. It was under his rule (1988-2000) that Taiwanese independence feelings were liberated. For the same reason, Chinese government denounced as an infamous traitor of the Chinese nation.

Beijing’s Proposal to Taiwan:
“One Country, Two Systems”.

This is the system under which Hong Kong is allegedly being ruled by China: Hong Kong has judicial and fiscal autonomy. The only two areas that the central government in Beijing will control are diplomacy and national security.

Beijing further promised Taiwan that if it agrees to rejoin the Chinese family, it may maintain its own military.

So – why has the Taiwanese people refused to accept this “sweet” deal? You need to read chapter 4 in order to understand why China’s soft power cannot go far in China-Taiwan relations.

Given the chaos and the loss of freedom in Hong Kong, Beijing’s hope of winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people is further dimming.

China fights with the West for the “Right to Speak”

This is the focus of the concluding chapter. Both the Chinese government and its people are frustrated that despite their country’s rise, China’s voice on the international stage is still marginal. The West, in particular, is viewing China through the lens of fear and prejudice.

To what extent is this Chinese grievance legitimate (that is, western prejudice and paranoia are indeed to be blamed)? And to what extent is this Chinese resentment manufactured by the government? You need to read the concluding chapter and draw your own conclusion.



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