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Learning from China: ‘Soft war’ and cultural security

Line of Defence Magazine, Summer 2017/18

A propaganda poster in Shawo, Beijing: "Create a healthy family, build a harmonious society".A propaganda poster in Shawo, Beijing: "Create a healthy family, build a harmonious society".


Reports on the extent of Chinese political interference in New Zealand have presented sobering reading for those with a stake in the Sino-NZ relationship. But ironically, writes Nicholas Dynon, this is where we can learn from Beijing’s own struggle against what it calls foreign ‘ideological infiltration’.


Originally used by Iranian authorities following Iran’s disputed presidential election of 2009, the term ‘soft war’ referred to a climate of opposition that had prompted a government crackdown on dissent via media controls and propaganda. New York Times journalist Robert Worth commented at the time that the term was rooted in an old accusation by Iran’s leaders that the country’s domestic ills were “the result of Western cultural subversion.”  

According to University of Pennsylvania professor Munroe Price, the Iranians claimed the West was trying to encourage “internal disintegration of support for the government by undermining the value system central to national identity”.” In other words, to “force the system to disintegrate from within.”

The Iranian example was not without precedent, with Price noting the tendency of broadcasters in the West to point to the collapse of the Soviet bloc as a triumphant example of the use of media in “altering opinion and softly preparing a target society to become a more intense demander of democratic change.”

The use of peaceful means to accelerate the evolution of communist countries out of dictatorship and into democracy was a strategy referred to by US secretary of state John Foster Dulles in the late 1950s as “peaceful evolution”.

Unsurprisingly, the theory of peaceful evolution is not well liked in autocratic Beijing, where officials view its role in the collapse of the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale. As they see it, the fundamental reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union was not Western ideological infiltration itself, but rather the lack of strong domestic defences against it. 


Putting up the cultural defences

Conceptions of ‘soft power’ among seemingly hawkish yet highly respected Chinese strategic thinkers reflect the notion that China is engaged in a ‘soft war’ against Western ideological world domination. The Chinese Communist Party sees itself as the target of political, cultural, technological and media efforts to ideologically infiltrate its population and undermine its domestic political legitimacy.

It’s an external threat that informs a whole range of domestic policies, from domestic propaganda campaigns, to ‘United Front’ work, to the ‘Great Firewall’ and curbing of internet and social media freedoms, to controls over cultural and media production and how journalists can report the news.

Wide-ranging resolutions launched in 1996 under then-president Jiang Zemin called on the Party to “carry forward the cream of traditional culture, prevent and eliminate the spread of cultural garbage, [and] resist the conspiracy by hostile forces to ‘Westernise’ and ‘split’ our country.” 

It’s been a recurring theme. In a private speech delivered to Communist Party members back in December 2012, China’s current leader Xi Jinping argued that the Soviet system had collapsed because none of its members had been “man enough to stand up and resist” the onslaught of Western ideals.

Under Xi, ‘national ideological security’ has been elevated as a key policy imperative. The Party’s mysterious Central National Security Commission (said to be modelled on the US NSC), set up by Xi in 2013, listed “cultural threats” among its five focuses, including the “ideological challenges to culture posed by Western nations”.


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A reputation deficit


The various domestic levers deployed by Beijing to thwart the West’s ideological infiltration appear to have worked well. Decades after the fall of Soviet communism, the Chinese Communist Party – and the political system it fronts – enjoys overwhelming public support at home.

So much so that, according to a number of major indexes, the difference between positive domestic perceptions of the Chinese state relative to international perceptions of it are greater than for any other country. In short, it enjoys a far more positive reputation at home than it does among publics abroad.

Great news domestically, but not so good for a rising China looking to consolidate its great power status on the international stage.

Beijing had anticipated this problem as early as the 1980s, when policy makers measuring China’s rising power status developed their own national power ranking system, ‘Comprehensive National Power’. CNP accurately forecasted China’s rapid economic and military (hard power) rise, and also its equally formidable soft power deficit.

To counter this, Beijing has sought to promote China’s national brand via massive investments in soft power capabilities. President Xi and his recent predecessors have urged China’s diplomats, writers, educators, journalists, and propagandists to “tell China’s story well” via new international TV news channels, Confucius Institutes, mega events, bilateral charm offensives and various other forms of influence.

It hasn’t worked very well, particularly in the West. China continues to languish in the various annual ‘soft power’, ‘nation branding’ and ‘country reputation’ rankings since they started appearing around 2005. In the latest Good Country Index, for example, which measures what each country contributes to the common good of humanity, and what it takes away relative to its size, the world’s second-largest economy is ranked 76th out of a total of 163… out-ranking Uganda by one place.

So significant is the gap between the country’s hard and soft power status that it’s highlighted a further paradox in China’s rise: as China becomes more powerful internationally, it becomes less liked among publics of the developed West.

China’s political elite lay the blame this squarely on the sustained demonisation of their country and its meteoric rise by Western media networks, which they see as exerting a stranglehold over global information flows and public opinion.

But in reality, Beijing’s state-led, top-down approach to soft power simply fails to resonate with Western audiences who regard propaganda a pejorative term, and who prefer to be influenced by markets than by states. It’s prompted Harvard’s Joseph Nye, to whom the idea of soft power is commonly attributed, to comment that China “just doesn’t get soft power”.

According to Joshua Cooper Ramo (originator of the term ‘Beijing Consensus’), “China’s greatest strategic threat today is its national image.” The threat, he argues, comes in the form of the externalities faced as a result of poor image: quality of foreign investment and technology transfers, increased commodity costs due to uncertainty, and inability to exploit trade and investment opportunities due to regulatory and lobbyist barriers, lack of stakeholder confidence, and misunderstanding.

China’s leadership gets this. And the recent reports of Chinese political interference in Australia and New Zealand demonstrate how Beijing uses the levers it can control – its wealth, trade and investment strength – to influence political narrative and decision-making in foreign countries and to perhaps, one day, ‘peacefully evolve’ the publics of these countries into a political disposition more akin to its own.


Defending values sovereignty

The wielding of soft power is not an act of conventional war, and nor is it necessarily a crime. Nevertheless, the tactics of political influence used by Beijing in New Zealand as highlighted in various press reports and – most convincingly – by Canterbury University Professor Anne-Marie Brady, are worrying. And for good reason.

Soft power may not be physically destructive, but neither is it truly soft nor benign. It is not the win-win of panda diplomacy or the mutual benefit derived from cultural exchanges, but rather it is a force wielded within the context of a zero-sum game for cultural and ideological survival – a ‘soft war’.

As such, it is a force that may not just be projected or deployed offensively, but also responded to or defended against. Having defended its own political values since the Cold War against the ‘peaceful evolution’ of the West, Beijing knows this well.

New Zealand prides itself on the independence of its values, but the recent controversies have called this independence into question. Wellington now has an opportunity to reassess how it understands ‘influence’ and ‘soft power’, and to consider the rhetorical, policy and legislative levers available to it in the defence of New Zealand’s political culture against what would quite rightly be referred to in Beijing as ‘ideological infiltration’.



The hushed politics of foreign interference

Line of Defence, Summer 2017/18


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