China’s (soft) deficit: What ideas does the rising power offer the world?

“While America has ‘liberty’ and Europe has ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, China lacks comparable values capable of moving peoples’ hearts and minds.”
Qiu Zhenghai

International student exchanges are a good way to spread ideas, values and norms across geographic borders.

The logic behind this is quite simple (at least in theory): A foreign students comes to America, for example, to study for four years. During that time, he or she will likely have many opportunities to experience first-hand elements of American society. She will witness national elections. She may see or even participate in a protest. By talking with classmates and friends, she will get a sense of what American students value most; what they expect of their leaders; what they feel entitled to; and so on. If she returns home at the end of her studies she inevitably brings all of this along with her.

During the Cold War, American leadership advocated for exchange programs as a “weapon” in the struggle against communism and the Soviet Union. American presidents and Secretaries of State called for the development and expansion of these education programs as a way to diffuse democratic norms and values.

This practice did not end with the end of the Cold War (luckily for me, who, as a fellow on a U.S. government sponsored Fulbright Scholarship, is a beneficiary!). In a 2007 speech, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes stated: “I believe that America’s international education and exchange programs have proven to be our single most important public diplomacy tool of the last fifty years.” A number of scholars (most notably Joseph Nye) have published articles describing the value of exchanges for spreading democratic norms and nurturing “soft power.”

Undoubtedly, this (at least in part) explains why the Chinese government has been steadily increasing the number of scholarships to foreign students – Africans in particular – despite some domestic opposition.

So, the rapidly rising number foreigner studying in China should mean also the widespread diffusion of Chinese values. There’s only one problem:

Which Chinese values? 

While there seems to be general consensus on the content of the “American democratic values” that are spread through the U.S.’s many exchange programs, there is no such consensus in China about Chinese values—in fact, quite the contrary. The content of “core” Chinese values is currently a subject of debate.

My ruddy-faced poli-sci professor from ZNU’s Institute African Studies brought this to my attention a few months ago. Lecturing a small group of graduate students, he described what he thought was China’s most critical problem:

We lack a core value system [核心价值观] of Chinese origin capable of engaging in dialogue with Western liberal democracy.

A series of scholars have written pieces about this deficiency and the consequences for domestic and international politics. As the scholar Qiu Zhenghai puts it:

While America has ‘liberty’ and Europe has ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, China lacks comparable values capable of moving peoples’ hearts and minds [1].

This is not news to Chinese leaders, who, since the early 2000s, have made “culture building” and the development of a “core value system” an official priority.

A statue of Confucius at the center of ZNU's campus

Confucius at the center of ZNU’s campus

“What about Confucianism?” I asked one afternoon in class.

Confucianism is indisputably Chinese with Chinese characteristics (as opposed to “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, which, my professor likes to point out, “Chinese characteristics” aside is actually of Western origin). I had also just read a Party publication that argues that, “Confucian ethics can forcefully replace the currently mighty Western individualism.” Also, doesn’t the proliferation of the Confucian Institutes around the world suggest that these traditional ethics are being place at the core of China’s international cultural efforts?

The problem with Confucianism, according to my professor, is that it’s simply not relevant; there is too much “residue”, as Qiu Zhenhai puts it. As for the Confucius Institutes—the “Chinese culture” encountered by, for instance, a Cameroonian at an Institute in his country “has absolutely nothing to do with” what he sees when he comes to China.

China’s challenge then, he and others argue, is “distilling the best qualities” from a disparate set of influences – East and West; old and new; secular and sacred – in order to establish a core value system “that can be sent out into the world” [2]. According to my professor, China still has a long way to go. “Just look at how messy [乱] this promotion video for Shanghai is,” he instructed us.

In the meantime, however, what – if any – ideas, values and norms are being spread via China’s expanding international exchanges? To what extent does the deficiency of a “core value system” impact the soft power effect of these programs?

To explore this, I incorporated questions about Chinese culture into my research design. While the research is still in progress, some preliminary observations are the following:

A few students stated that they have no impression of local culture or values—or that Chinese culture is “different”, but different in some inexpressible way. Others focused on a Chinese work ethic (努力). Given the prominence of stereotypes of “hardworking Chinese”, I expected these responses to be common. And they were. But a third group of students, interestingly, focused on family values.

When asked if there were any elements of Chinese culture that they would like to bring back home, many students brought up the family. “A family—their relationships are very tight,” one student observed. “Sunday with my children,” another answered. “No matter how busy, parents make time for their kids,” a third told me. A number of others expressed similar sentiments.

This is particularly interesting given the central role of family in the Confucius value system. Indeed, according to Confucius and Mencius, proper family relations “are the root of character”, necessary for the cultivation of a moral individual. A well functioning political society emerges from the extension of filial feelings [3].

Does the fact that many international students are responding to Chinese family values perhaps suggests at least this element of Confucian ethics will enjoy more prominent role in a “core value system” than Chinese scholars seem to think?

Could the rise of China as a destination for student exchanges lead to the diffusion of Confucian-based family values?


[1] Qiu Zhenghai, “How can China offer a value system to gain the confidence of the world?” [中国如何一价值观让世界信服?] (2012).

[2] See Tu Hongxing, “How we position core values today” [今天我们怎么定位核心价值?] (2012); Fan Shiwei, “The paths of core socialist value system construction” [社会主义核心价值体系构建的路径选择?] (2007) Xu Jilin, “How China can walk towards a civilized rise” [中国如何走向文明的崛起] (2013).

[3] See, for instance, James Behuniak Jr., Mencius on Becoming Human (2005).


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