Building Soft Power in China Through Civil Society and Community Engagement

August 2, 2010
  • Pei Bin

    Former Director, China Partnership Development, BSR

At the recent Aspen Institute Socrates Summer Seminar, I attended the session “Soft-Power: U.S. Leadership in a Hardball World,” moderated by Professor Joseph Nye. The session sparked my own reflections on the existence (or lack thereof) of soft power in China. While everyone at the Aspen Institute expressed strong and positive interest in China, the majority of the United States still views China as a threat. As our President and CEO Aron Cramer once said: “One thing our countries have in common is that we see our weaknesses through the prism of the perceived power of the other country, and sometimes we lose sight of the balance between the two.”

As a Chinese national, China’s economic confidence is clear to me, but despite this, the country still lacks any sort of soft power—or, in other words, a strong global profile and image abroad. China’s dramatic economic development—driven by top-down policy support and bottom-up entrepreneurship at all levels and across all regions—was achieved at the cost of cheap labor, environmental deterioration, and the exploitation of natural resources. And even though China has brought 500 million people out of poverty, the majority of the population is still living in remote, mountainous regions and fighting for survival daily.

I echo David Shambaugh’s sentiment from a recent article in the International Herald Tribune: “China will not develop its soft power until it develops civil society.” The Chinese government needs to do a lot more to enable civil society development in China. For the past 30 years, the government has committed to further reforms to foster the development of trade associations and private foundations but with a concomitant desire to control the process. The growth in the number of private foundations in the past several years suggests the growing space for civil society in China; however, there is a lot more the government must do on this end.

In addition to a civil society, China needs to provide more support and guidance for Chinese companies that want to expand their operations overseas. There are nearly 60,000 trade associations and chambers of commerce in China, but their roles are quite limited. This is a stark contrast to the EU trade associations and governments that actively support companies’ internationalization efforts.

Additionally, Chinese companies that go abroad need to step up their efforts to engage local communities and stakeholders in their countries of operation. Many of these international projects have been contracted out to construction companies that have no knowledge of community development or sustainable development and lack international management skills. While they have helped build hard infrastructure, such as roads and clinics in Africa, Afghanistan, Peru, and beyond, they have failed to empower local communities, and as a result, have further tarnished China’s international image.

China is certainly an economic power with regard to volume, but it definitely cannot be considered a powerful international leader without raising its global profile and image abroad. Chinese companies should focus more on the social return on investment and driving positive social changes in local communities where they operate.

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