The soft power myth

Has “soft power” been over­rated?

Traditionally, many have argued that it is a significant component of a nation-state’s international influence. India, for example, has consistently emphasised soft power components of its international outreach — International Yoga Day being one of the most recent and high profile aspects of this strategy, but Hindi movies have perhaps been the most long-standing component. No evaluation of Sino-American tensions going forward is complete without an analysis of how American soft power is a crucial aspect of its competitive arsenal.

But some recent developments make it clear that this narrative needs to be complicated. The United States’ National Basketball Association or NBA has run into trouble following a statement by an official for the Houston basketball team that expressed support for the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. There was an outcry in mainland China, and the NBA dissociated itself from the statement. One Chinese-origin owner of an NBA team — Joe Tsai, an early backer of Alibaba — managed to respond by linking the tweet to the Opium Wars in the nineteenth century. (Mainland Chinese nationalists can link anything to the Opium Wars, presumably because they have so little other reasons for a grievance against the world.) Subsequently, fans expressing pro-Hong Kong sentiments have reportedly been ejected from American sports games (basketball again, but this time in Philadelphia).

The NBA is very popular in mainland China. The traditional “soft power” assumption here would be that this means that American values of free speech and openness have a route into mainlanders’ hearts thanks to their fondness for the NBA. But perhaps that traditional assumption is wrong — in fact, it might be the case that we need to do a full 180-degree turn, and wonder if it works in the opposite direction in some cases. When you rely on the private sector to project soft power, then, it is now becoming clear, the profit motive means that you are in fact providing a lever to other countries instead of extending the strength of your own.

Hollywood movies have long been subject to this phenomenon. During the Cold War, it was common to have movies that impacted on geopolitical issues in which the villains were related somehow to the Eastern bloc, or which expressed the Western bloc’s values in clear contradistinction to those the Soviet Union might espouse. But you would struggle to imagine a similar movie made about mainland China in recent years. Now that it is a giant market for any big-budget movie, not a single value expressed through movies is likely to challenge the foundation of the Communist Party’s authoritarian control. Worse, it will mean that studios bend over backward to indulge every single whim of the Chinese government or the most extreme of its hyper-nationalist online commenters. Earlier this year, when the trailer for the sequel to the 1980s classic Top Gun was released, the extent to which studios are willing to go became clear. In the original movie, Tom Cruise’s leather jacket carried patches from the air forces of American allies, including Japan and Taiwan. In the sequel, the jacket was identical — except those patches were missing. Nothing underlines the cowardice of Hollywood more than the fact that it is willing even to compromise on a movie about courageous mavericks.

You think that’s the deepest they’re willing to go? Consider that the last reboot of The Karate Kid didn’t have the protagonist practising karate at all. Nope, it was all kung fu, because karate is clearly too offensively Japanese for Chinese audiences.

What is truly ridiculous is that nobody imagines that the NBA or Hollywood is likely to kowtow to American power in the same way. NBA stars and managers can happily insult either Democratic or Republican parties, the president, the American system of government. Fans shouting “Help Puerto Rico” at a sports game are never going to be ejected. Hollywood constantly makes movies viciously attacking American political parties or big business or international finance. But Beijing’s authoritarian power or its irredentist impulses would not be challenged in the same way. An outspoken Houston basketball star, who created headlines in the past by speaking out about police violence against African-Americans, on this occasion said “we love everything they’re (China) about”. The contrast could not be more stark.

Soft power is supposed to be about the ability to project values. But it turns out that the only people who are successfully projecting their values on to the rest of the world using American soft power are the mainland Chinese. Only money matters. That’s the hardest power of all.

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