China went large at the recent Book Expo America in New York but, for the most part, American readers did not notice. Maybe they were turned off by marketing language like this: "provides visually perceptive materials for education in patriotism and safeguarding national interests." Not quite NYT Bestseller list stuff there.
The book bust is symptomatic of a larger problem for Zhongnanhai: even though the powers-that-be extoll the strategic importance of building Chinese "soft power," there is very little evidence in the US that the PRC is gaining in cultural attractiveness.
A quick aside here: I am generally skeptical about the efficacy of soft power. My sense is that Joseph Nye's analysis is not much more than a thinly veiled recycling of "American exceptionalism," and, moreover, insofar as the Sino-US relationship is concerned, the "hard power" dynamics of island dredging in the South China Sea and epic hacking of Office of Personnel Management data are much more significant in shaping American perceptions than are popular cultural flows. But it doesn't matter what I think. Xi Jinping thinks China needs soft power and, by damn it, he's going to work hard to gin up some Chinese soft power.
From what I can tell, however, there hasn't been much success, at least as far as the US is concerned.
Quick: what was the last great movie made in the PRC that you saw? Haven't been keeping up with the Tiny Times series? That's OK, they're pretty bad. Of course, Cannes regular Jia Zhangke creates marvelous films, but his work is regularly banned in his home country and he has become a symbol of the anxious censorship that disrupts so much creative art in China. And that's the point: in the realm of popular culture the biggest obstacle to the development of Chinese soft power is the heavy hand of the Chinese government.
Now it might be the case that Chinese popular culture is attractive to some people in some countries. A (pay walled) smart analysis of soft power reminds us that attractiveness varies from one target audience to another: what North Koreans find alluring might turn off Norwegians. Seems obvious, but too many discussions of soft power assume that it is a unitary thing that can be easily isolated and measured. It's really quite variable and vague. Safe to say, though, that there has yet to be a significant breakthrough for PRC popular culture in the US. Nothing to match, say, the British Invasion, or Jogo Bonito or even Hello Kitty.
Much the same can be said about higher education. Colleges and universities may be the biggest generators of US soft power. In the 2013-2014 academic year 274,000 PRC students were enrolled in US colleges; only 14,000 Americans did the reverse. The disproportion here is well beyond population differences, or even differences in domestic higher education enrollments. For many Chinese, gaining a degree from a foreign university is a coveted goal. And the US ranks at the top of the most desired locations. They come, their families pay their way often with no financial aid, even if they are ill prepared.
Of course, not all Chinese students in the US embrace American values. The experience for some might reinforce their perceptions of deficiencies in American culture and politics, a kind of reverse anti-soft power. But many are positively influenced, and increasing numbers are quite literally attracted to the US for purposes of education.
The 14,000 or so American students in China (most of whom are there for one year study abroad opportunities as opposed to multiple year degree programs) come away with more positive attitudes toward the PRC. The good feelings, however, are generated mostly by personal friendships with Chinese people. American students are turned off by government censorship and pollution and other facets of life in the PRC. At my own college, several students turned down post graduate fellowships to China because they did not want to return to crowded, sooty Beijing. Other evidence suggests that American students more generally are losing interest in study abroad programs in China.
Needless to say, the current ideological tightening on PRC campuses will further reduce the attractiveness of Chinese college for American students.
On the language learning front, English is required in Chinese schools from at least the sixth grade onward. Conversely, although Chinese language instruction is gaining ground in American high schools, at the college level enrollments are leveling off.
Confucius Institutes are not going to close the language gap nor improve PRC soft power prospects. Following the closings of programs at the University of Chicago and Penn State, and the critical report by the AAUP, many American academics are now wary of potential political ramifications of a Confucius Institute. Those places that do sponsor CIs do so for the money: the PRC covers a good portion of the cost for a basic language program. Thus, the institutes are more a matter of inducement than attractiveness. And the inducement is now colored by political concern.
Overall, I'm just not seeing it. There does not seem to be much increase in China's soft power in the US. Perhaps I'm missing something, and I would welcome evidence to the contrary.
On the other hand, it may be that China is playing a different soft power game than the one suggested by Nye. William Callahan puts forth a notion of "negative soft power ." (pay walled) It might be that the key target audience for PRC cultural diplomacy is not people in the US but people in China. Instead of creating attractive popular cultural and educational products, the more important goal might be to demonstrate how "American values" are an existential threat to China and Chinese culture. Thus, when US academics criticize Confucius Institutes, the regime can present this to a Chinese audience as just another example of American narrow-mindedness and ingratitude for the altruistic efforts of the wise Party leadership. The goal, then, is not to increase the attractiveness of Chinese culture in America, but to weaken the attractiveness of American culture in China.
An interesting idea. And it would reinforce my general sense that Chinese soft power is not on the rise in the US.