One of the notable aspects of China’s foreign policy in recent years has been the increasing focus on developing soft power. Beijing has arguably invested more in this area than any other country in the world, China expert David Shambaugh has estimated it at an incredible $10 billion per year. This soft power-orientated approach became more pronounced recently at the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress which was held in October 2017. At this meeting, President Xi Jinping strengthened his rule by incorporating the so-called “Xi Jinping Thought” into the constitution, a powerful move that no other leader has done since Mao Zedong. Crucially, within this new political framework, Xi Jinping envisions that China will play a more proactive role in international affairs. What this will entail exactly is not clear, but it is likely that soft power will be an important part of its bolder international outreach as recent party statements have alluded to.
This comes at a time when Europe is in the process of seeking to strengthen further its cultural industries which are of course closely related to soft power. Although Europe has long prided itself on the successful employment of its soft power, recent perceptions are that it is starting to decline in influence. If the Xi Jinping government is going to be more proactive in pushing its influence abroad, Europe will certainly face increased competition in this field. How then should it respond?
Naturally, there will be voices calling for the European Union to adopt more protectionist measures for its cultural industries in the face of China’s expanding outreach. Already such views have been adopted by the European Commission over the development of the Digital Single Market (DSM). The belief was that only by adopting quotas can Europe’s cultural industries compete with the American giants like Netflix and Amazon. However, as shown with the DSM case, protectionist measures are unlikely to address the challenges that Europe faces in an increasingly competitive global cultural industries market.
What this all comes down to is whether soft power should be managed by governments or be allowed to develop within civil society. Which approach is more likely to have a stronger impact or more influential effect? For Beijing, as its power status rises, the pressure is on to develop soft power in order to achieve its political goals. Europe by contrast is fearful that its cultural industries will be weakened as a result and therefore it must intervene. Yet state efforts have shown few successful results in respect of developing cultural industries. For example, Europe may seek to protect them through quotas, but these can be circumvented by efforts like co-production.
In this regard, the example of South Korea’s cultural industries point to some important lessons. Firstly, Korea has also had to face increasing soft power efforts from its neighbour China and secondly, its cultural industries have prevailed in the region and beyond without relying upon government intervention. The strengths of Korea’s cultural industries can be seen through the international success of its music and films. Crucially, these industries have enjoyed their greatest achievements when they were not afforded the luxury of quotas or subsidies. In fact, when the government did intervene it created negative conditions while recent efforts to promote these industries in order to boost the country’s soft power have proved ineffective.
Recently, Korea’s cultural industries have faced difficulties following the Chinese government’s implementation of an unofficial ban on their activities in the country. Although this was in response to a political dispute with Seoul, the Korean government has not responded with protectionist measures of its own. Despite these problems, its music and films continue to enjoy success in other countries. For example, the pop group BTS is making significant achievements in the U.S. market.
In understanding which path to pursue, it is a good idea to go back to the original source of soft power. Joseph Nye has always hailed the importance of civil society when it comes to soft power. As he recently stated in an interview, “the soft power of a country comes not just from government programs but from its civil society.”