Soft power is defined as “a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence”. It is generally contrasted with military might and several forms of economic leverage. From the middle of the 20th century to the turn of the 21st, the US mastered the arts of both hard power initiatives (often aggressively) combined with tremendous achievements in the propulsion of soft power. The prevalence of American pop culture (films, television, records) throughout much of the world led many people to cease questioning the obvious downsides of US geopolitical hegemony due to the often seductive qualities of the multi-billion dollar US entertainment industry that portrays a gentler side of the global American experience than Pentagon documents or US Treasury Sanctions, let alone war. It all boiled down to the psychological phenomenon of people wondering how the ‘land of Hollywood happy endings’ could somehow be related to a country whose foreign policy became increasingly aggressive throughout the 20th century.
The gradual decline of the US in the 21st century has been matched by the rapid rise of China to a position of economic dominance. As part of this process, China has also become increasingly assertive in its geopolitical initiatives while domestic soft-power is mirroring the pervasiveness of US pop culture in terms of being highly funded and technically state of the art.
Chinese domestic popular culture is now as polished, technically brilliant and pervasive in China, as US pop culture remains domestically in the United States. Contemporary Chinese pop music is widely available through streaming services that have more users and in many cases better technical quality than those available in the west. Moreover, films like Wolf Warrior 2 have proved that high-budget action with Chinese characteristics are a force to be reckoned with. Wolf Warrior 2 is already the second highest-grossing film of all-time in a single market, just behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Future films in the Wolf Warrior series by acclaimed actor and director Wu Jing are assured to smash many more global box office records.
Meanwhile on the other end of the entertainment spectrum, the China Philharmonic Orchestra is a rising treasure that remains criminally under-reported in music circles in Europe and North America. The comparatively young orchestra has not only achieved performance excellence rivalling some of the top orchestras in the world, but online super-hifi audio downloads and HD videos from the orchestra now rival and at times exceed the technical quality of the pioneering Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic. While symphonic Orchestral music remains an indigenous art form to Europe, in the 20th century, many US orchestras became the most revered in the world. The China Philharmonic’s rise not only equals this but exceeds it because while the US often relied on strong private finance to attract top European players in addition to highly trained Americans, the vast majority of the musicians in the China Philharmonic Orchestra are Chinese.
Automatically, the rise of high-budget popular Chinese culture is proof positive that there was nothing particularly philosophically unique about the US approach to pop culture soft power. The US was the wealthiest country in the world for the majority of the 20th century and because of this, it was able to invest in the creation and promotion of globally pervasive entertainment that made many people envious of the American experience as portrayed in film, television and music.
While Chinese pop culture is a force to be reckoned with in the largest domestic market in the world, as well as becoming more pervasive in other parts of Asia, on a global level, American popular culture remains the most pervasive of any one nation’s pop culture. This ironically is off-set by the fact that most of the tools of American culture from recording equipment, to cameras, computers, satellite dishes and even clothes and make-up, are made in China.
Xi Jinping has stated that as part of his drive to create a moderately prosperous society through the development of Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new ear will include transforming the moniker ‘made in China’ to ‘created in China’. This is already expressing itself in terms of Chinese technological development, military hardware development, the development of new cars, trucks, planes, trains and space vehicles as well as in the medical sciences. In fact, this is already happening at full speed in terms of domestic pop culture. But while there is little doubt that the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs will likely be from China rather than the United States, where will the next Sylvester Stallone or Michael Jackson be from? Frankly, where should he be from?
One of the biggest differences between Chinese soft power projection and American soft power projection is reflective of the main difference between Chinese geopolitical strategy and American geopolitical strategy. Chinese geopolitical strategy is about securing international partners via the attraction of peace through prosperity. This win-win model looks for respectful partners across all nations and cultures with a focus on economic cooperation based on regional needs, rather than military and fiscal dominance via a forced system of zero-sum ‘partnerships’. Likewise, Hollywood, the US music industry and US television industries went out of their way to promote themselves abroad. When it was not profitable for private entertainment enterprises to promote American pop culture abroad, the State Department and even the CIA would often provide the cash to do so.
In this sense, one can see a divide between soft-power imperialism and organic soft-power. Wolf Warrior 2 has indeed delighted action film fans in the United States and Europe, but this is mostly due to the fact that they sought the film out of their own volition, rather than be bombarded by advertisements for the film as is traditional in Hollywood productions.
When China becomes the undisputed heavy weight economic leader of the world, the philosophical question Beijing will have to ask itself is: do we want to do with our resources in respect of pop culture soft power projection, what the US did with its 20th century wealth? There are many good answers and few negative ones. First of all, China should do more to at least let the wider world know what China is producing for the simple reason that many are curious for and even hungry for Chinese pop culture. On the other hand, the ‘Hollywoodisation’ of 20th century pop culture has led to an inevitable backlash against the US in some parts of the developing world due to the stereotypically vulgar, materialistic and simplistic nature of many forms of popular American entertainment. In this sense, global reactions to US soft power can and have mirrored negative global reactions to American military power. The stereotype has become immortalised in the phrase ‘the ugly American’, which in its 20th century heyday was almost a term of endearment to some US patriots.
There is one other argument many will proffer to explain why US soft power might outlive US hard power. As a nation of immigrants (with the exception of persecuted indigenous American communities), the modern United States has been praised for developing a pop culture that is a melting pot of many different older cultures. This argument however only goes so far. Even in the 21st century as America becomes a less ‘white’ country, the entertainment industry is still generally dominated by those of European ancestry. While there are more African American, Latino-American and Asian American individuals in the US entertainment industry, they are still far fewer in numbers than those who can trace their ancestry back to Europe. Thus, while America is a melting pot, some elements of this fused material are far more pervasive than others.
China by contrast is not and will never be a nation of immigrants, but nevertheless, Chinese culture has the ability to become pervasive through the all power tool of promotion, combined with the fact that much of Chinese pop culture is of objective high quality in terms of production. But just as China rejects the model of geopolitical hegemony that defined both the rise and fall of the United States as the world leader, China too will likely allow its pop culture soft power to globalise itself in a more gradual and organic way.
This itself is in keeping with the notion of China being the de-facto leader of a multipolar world where even the powerful will not force their power on others as was the tradition among the United States and powerful European empires before it. Therefore, the 21st century will likely develop in such a way that while Chinese culture will become more global in popularity, including in the United States, it will never reach US levels of cultural domination for the simple reason that this is not in keeping with Chinese characteristics, while for better or for worse, the spread of American culture was an all American geopolitical soft power coup.