Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in a 1990 article in Foreign Policy, defining it as a nation’s ability to co-opt rather than coerce, persuade rather than compel, to set agendas and to attract support. Soft power, for Nye is composed of (1) the appeal of a state’s values, (2) the legitimacy of its foreign policy, and (3) the attractiveness of its culture.

When Chinese scholars first translated and discussed Nye’s theory, some were critical of the American concept. For most, however, Nye’s assertion that power flowed from the perceived success of institutions shaped by virtues fit well with the Confucian ideal of leadership by moral elites (德治天下). Chinese leaders and scholars are trying to grasp what China can do to increase its cultural attractiveness. Indeed, the idea of soft power can arguably be traced back to Mencius, who said that “righteous causes garner support, while unrighteous causes do not” (得道多助失道寡助).

China’s formal quest of cultural soft power (文化软实力) began at the 17th National Congress in 2007, when then-President Hu Jintao announced that, “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture… We must enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country… We will further publicize the fine traditions of Chinese culture and strengthen international cultural exchanges to enhance the influence of Chinese culture worldwide.” During the the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2014, Xi Jinping remarked that “We should increase China's soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China's messages to the world.”


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