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China’s soft power influence and hegemony building – a new way for South Africa?


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

The world is more unequal than ever, poverty levels are dangerously high and soon hard power will be considered as an alternative to secure what some have and others don’t. Is it time now for something a little different — socialism with South African characteristics?

The feedback from the 20 November opinion piece “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was so overwhelming that I thought it important to write a take two.

One of the first things I noticed on our study tour was that every policy objective the Communist Party of China (CPC) agreed upon was embedded within a theoretical framework. Whether it be a Marxist or a developmental framework, each policy trajectory finds expression through one or other theory — something I think would stand us in good stead here in Mzansi and elsewhere in the world, perhaps.

The articulation of such theoretical trajectories is crucial to understand and locate current policy stances. For example, the decision to redress the dispossession of land must be understood within the context of an historical injustice that occurred.

Now, some of you may wonder what the purpose of this study tour to China was all about. It was an attempt by China to influence the delegation, make them understand the various traditions and cultural practices, to learn the language and food of choice as well as just experience the life and times of ordinary Chinese people, both in cities and rural areas.

I’m reminded of a similar study tour I undertook, as a young African leader, to the United States in 1997 with the ANC Youth League. The trip was sponsored by the US Information Services and involved going to New York, Washington DC, Lincoln in Nebraska and Raleigh in North Carolina. It was also over a two-week period, just as in this China tour.

So why do these countries invest in such activities and go all-out to showcase their respective homelands, you may wonder. Well, in International Relations theory, its all about soft power. Joseph Nye, a former dean of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, coined this phrase many years ago. Soft power, he says, is the means to success in world politics.

When exploring the changing nature of power, Niccolo Machiavelli advised princes in Italy that it was more important to be feared than to be loved. However, I’m sure you will all agree that in today’s world, it is best to be both.

Winning hearts and minds has always been important and even more so in a global information age. Information is power, and modern information technology is spreading information more widely and rapidly than ever before in history. Yet political leaders have spent little time thinking about how the nature of power has changed, and more specifically, about how to incorporate its softer dimensions into their strategies for wielding power.

Not in China I dare say. The Chinese have internalised this approach and decided to execute with haste. They, like the Americans at that time, understand power. The dictionary tells us that power is the capacity to do things. It is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes one wants. But there are several ways to affect the behaviour of others. You can coerce them with threats, you can induce them with payments, or you can attract and co-opt them to want what you want.

Everyone is familiar with hard power. We know that military and economic might often get others to change their position. Hard power can rest on inducements (carrots) or threats (sticks). But sometimes you can achieve the outcomes you want without tangible threats or payoffs. This soft power — getting others to want the outcomes that you want, co-opts people rather than coerces them. Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.

And so when we were in New York in 1997, we were in awe of the Big Apple and the efficiencies of Wall Street. The infrastructure was out of this world, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Twin Towers and Times Square. When we got to Washington DC, we met congressmen, Republicans and Democrats, all sharing great American feel-good stories of overcoming adversity such as the fight for independence from the British, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950/60s and the Pledge of Allegiance, to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. I remember one of my fellow African leaders, Nomfanelo Kota, and I engaging critically with most of these issues at the end of each day. Next we were whisked off to the state of Nebraska, of which the state capital is Lincoln.

Something we learnt about this city, which I’m sure most may not know, is that a precise replica (in real time) of the New York Stock Exchange is operated from Lincoln. We were told this was in case of a terrorist attack on New York City or the New York Stock Exchange. Our host in Nebraska was none other than the state governor, who at the end of the evening’s festivities proceeded to hand us certificates indicating that henceforth, Nebraska was our home away from home. I doubt this meant I qualified for a Green Card, but I digress.

Our final pit stop was the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. I recall we were taken to Fort Bragg, a military installation where elite special forces were trained. Their motto at the time was: We are able to deploy forces anywhere in the world within 24 hours. Shock and awe and instilling a sense of admiration for the ways of the United States of America was the objective of the US Information Service.

Now, the soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: Its culture, its political values and its foreign policies. This is what we were exposed to in the US.

Similarly, in China in 2018, rapid growth to high-quality productivity and development was high on the agenda. We were taken to the capital, Beijing, and introduced to the Forbidden City and its rich history of the various dynasties that reigned in China over the centuries.

The infrastructure was equally impressive — modern architectural marvels adorn the city. The combination of modernity and ancient vitality was beautiful. In the centre of Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province, we visited, the ancient “Three Lanes and Seven Alleys” architectural complex, which was breath-taking. To think that luminaries such as painter Qi Baishi once lived here. I might also add that this province’s GDP is twice the size of South Africa’s, in excess of $700-billion.

Next, we visited Hangzhou province, one of the first to be permitted to open up after the 1990s, now highly successful in its endeavours, both economically and technologically. The Chinese constantly reminded us that theirs is a people-centred development path. And that the four elements for development are politics, economy, culture, and environment.

They were adamant that this is what contributes to the rise and fall of modern political parties. Political parties make and implement policy — they must continually improve themselves to effect such plans. Mutual learning and exchange must be continuous. Last, strengthen weak links in order to succeed.

On the final day we were invited to a conference with the theme, “the stories of the Communist Party of China (CPC)”, where we were told that there is an old Chinese proverb:

If you want to be rich, build a road” or put differently in a modern context, “If you want to be prosperous, build connectivity”. Between peoples and countries. This is the fundamental basis of their Belt and Road initiative and why they have opted to export it to the rest of the world. All of this is possible, they contend, because of the Indigenisation of Marxist theory to suit the conditions in China.

Furthermore, they indicated that General Secretary of the CPC, Xi Jinping, talking about the development of China, emphasised the following:

  1. We need not only an effective market, but a capable government (one-stop government services), law-based government and also a clean government.

  2. The development potential of China can be found far beyond its borders. In other words, China must open up to the globe. Openness is critical.

  3. Emptying the cage for better birds and the Nirvana of the Phoenix. Innovation and vitality, AI, big data and the internet of things. You have to reinvent yourself in order to survive. China was once reliant on steel. Now it is technology and innovation.

  4. Lucid waters and lush mountains are part of our invaluable wealth. Looking after our environment is critical to survival. Rural development is as important as the development of our cities.

So, as you can see, there are similarities between the US and China. They both want to influence the rest of the world through their respective soft power tactics. But what do we learn from both these countries?

On the one hand we have experienced the failures of both the communist system (1989), with the fall of the Berlin Wall and recently the fall of the capitalist system (2008), with the global financial crisis. The one empire (US) is busy crumbling and is really on its last legs, perhaps another 10 years or so, while the other, China, is seemingly on the rise. The developing world, including South Africa, has experimented over the last two centuries with the recipe of capitalism and free market economics and where has it brought us?

The world is more unequal than ever, poverty levels are dangerously high and soon hard power will be considered as an alternative to secure what some have and others don’t. Is now the time for something a little different — socialism with South African characteristics? A social democratic epoch where capital can still thrive, but where our social responsibilities towards the poor and working class are foremost on our minds, and where we cater for them through welfare safety nets of all sorts. Where we suspend certain civil liberties and personal freedoms in order to effect real change for the majority in our country? The “status quo” is evidently not working.

Just a thought. DM


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