Can American Soft Power Overcome Chinese Sharp Power?

Sharp Power
Photo by Thomas Wolf, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

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Sharp Power vs Soft Power

For decades American culture was omnipresent around the globe. Americans exported their values and ideas through music, movies, and other forms of popular culture. Joseph Nye described this phenomenon as soft power. He believed the appeal of American ideas translated through its culture gave the United States an edge in international relations over its rivals. However, China’s influence particularly in cinema has upended Nye’s ideas about soft power. Hollywood now considers whether its major studio films will resonate in China before they green light major productions. Sometimes they even edit or tweak films to remove possible objections from the CCP.

Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig describe the power of China in popular culture today as sharp power. Walker says sharp power “seeks to ‘pierce, penetrate, or perforate’ the political and information environments of targeted countries.” For example, a few years ago then Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey made a relatively innocuous tweet. It said, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The NBA responded with immediate apologies to China without prompting from the CCP. Morey deleted the tweet and also issued an apology. The Chinese Communist Party subtly censors the speech of high profile figures with business interests in its country.

Chinese sharp power is so effective, because of its market size. In the past the United States was not just the largest consumer market, but the largest opportunity for growth as well. Today China is the largest opportunity for market growth even though it is only the third largest consumer market behind the United States and the European Union. However, the CCP’s tight controls create significant barriers to entry. Moreover, once countries access the market, very few can afford to exit. Nonetheless, China’s influence remains fragile. Strict party control over its economy will eventually stifle its dynamism.

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