The international debate around China’s soft power has been growing constantly since the 2004 publication of The Beijing Consensus by Joshua Cooper Ramo. The term was coined to emphasize China’s alternative developmental path with respect to the political and ideological contents of the “Washington consensus.” Not every analysis agrees with this standpoint. However, along with some influential authors – Giovanni Arrighi, Martin Jacques, John Naisbitt and to a certain extent Daniel A. Bell – I deem that China’s development model has demonstrated an ability to combine capitalist and socialist elements, as well as tradition and modernity, in a unique way.
Therefore, when we engage with social, political, economic and cultural analyses of China’s contemporary experience of development, the “Chinese characteristics” are always at stake. From firms’ ownership to the multilayered and multi-scale planning processes, from land use rights to State-owned enterprises, from welfare state reforms to political cultural values embedded in a combination of Marxism and Confucianism.
It is important to remember the deep roots of China’s new influence, culturally and politically, in the current changes of the international order (http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1098806.shtml). The influence of Chinese thought and words on the international arena has been growing dramatically in recent years, in step with economic and diplomatic successes. China in the new era is also represented by a stronger international soft power – that is the power of ideas and strategies alternative to the status quo – exerted in the most authoritative seats of the established world order: economic and political forums such as the Group of 20 nations, World Economic Forum, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization and in other forums shaped by Chinese initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank and the Belt and Road initiative.
The new Chinese cultural power on the world scale is supported, legitimized and deeply rooted in the material manifestations of the Belt and Road initiative, which includes more than 100 organizations. The initiative is already a reality, in the process of being updated, and it is inclusive, cooperative and open to adaptation, being free from ideological and political discriminants. This reality is the opposite of the old and smaller Marshall Plan.
In spite of this picture, the US National Endowment for Democracy coined for example a term – “sharp power” – to define and discredit China and other competitors. This term has become very popular in the West. Moreover, if we look at European public opinion and authorities, we find that there are divergent voices on the new Chinese influence in relation to the Belt and Road.
It is ironic to hear from the West criticisms of media manipulation and political interference addressed to China and other countries. Turning this accusation to China – and Russia – seems curious in light of the Western long-term history of media domination and interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The history of the National Endowment for Democracy is proof alone of this irony. The responsibilities attributed to these countries could be easily attributed to the accuser.
In the second case, the Mercator Institute for China’s Studies, based in Berlin, has for example offered rising skepticism and criticism in a February 2018 report, maintaining that China is exploiting, in an opaque way, the European Union’s weaknesses to interfere in the internal affairs of member states. On the contrary, other authoritative voices see the new Chinese proactive role in Europe as beneficial and constructively alternative to the current state of affairs, characterized by slow economic recovery, political instability and belligerence under the US-NATO alliance system.
In Italy, for example, Manlio di Stefano – a Member of Parliament of the 5 Stars Movement – has expressed this thought several times. In 2016, he talked about the Belt and Road initiative like this: “It is fascinating the attention of China on developing the project in a different way. The intrinsic principles of the BRI (Belt and Road initiative) adhere to those of the UN Charter. The project is open to new nations and will follow market rules, working actively to satisfy mutual advantages for all the participants.”
My studies and arguments are closer to this constructive interpretation of China’s new soft power, but, as written, in Europe the political and cultural perspectives on this subject are still varying and often divergent.
At the end of the day, it is important to notice that the Belt and Road initiative is still in its infancy and it will take time to show all its potentialities. It will necessitate protection and trust between many polities and stakeholders in a world that is severely fractured.
Reshaping international relations according to a cooperative and win-win approach will require further engagement from the international community and, each country that adheres to the Chinese initiative should play its own part with a high sense of responsibility. World peace is at stake.