Although our traditional view of international relations may be in purely economic or political terms, the accessibility of digital media worldwide means that cultural exports play an increasingly important role in projecting a narrative about a region and its people on the global stage. Although not as provocative as an economic embargo or display of military prowess, this process is helping countries achieve their national interests by less direct means, and improve their image overseas. This activity of international marketing is what we have come to know as ‘soft power.’

‘Soft power’ was coined by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, defined as the ability to co-opt using economic and cultural influence, rather than coercion or military strength (contrastingly known as ‘hard power’). Hard power is what we may typically associate with international politics: enforcing economic sanctions or conducting missile testing to show how powerful a particular nation is. Although hard power can be a necessity, an excess of it can lead to unsavoury relationships with neighbours, and leave a country without immediate allies, resulting in political and economic isolation. To balance their international image, nations may use soft power for cross-cultural engagement in various ways. However, in the Information Age, we increasingly see this implemented through digital media. 

So, which countries know how to implement soft power well, and who has a problem with their ‘soft’ reputation on the international stage?

One area that this has risen to prominence in is the ongoing tensions between the US and China. Perhaps one of the best examples of the two countries’ relationship with soft power actually comes from a place we would least expect … that is, with the release of ‘Kung Fu Panda’ in 2008. The Hollywood comedy was an international success, even amongst the Chinese, and was the focal point of debate about cultural arts in China. The movie was faithful to Chinese culture, yet laced with the family-friendly humour typical of Hollywood, leading many Chinese artists and creatives to question why China could not have created such a successful film about their own culture. Following the release of the film, young Chinese film director Lu Chuan turned the blame on China’s media restriction laws, which he had experienced in the production of a short animated film to be featured in Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games. He remarked: “The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity.” This production only garnered more negative press for China in the lead-up to their hosting of the Olympics. Steven Spielberg quit his role as an artistic adviser in protest of China’s links to the Sudanese government and their subsequent role in the assault on Darfur that killed up to 300,000 people. Although this led nationalist critics to call for boycotts of “Kung Fu Panda,” it still made approximately 110 million yuan at the Chinese box office, making it the first animated film to earn over 100 million yuan in China.

This is only one example of how many people believe China has a “soft-power problem”, where political and international controversies consistently overshadow attempts to garner more positive international attention. As much as China has invested in soft power in the years following Beijing 2008, similar issues occurred for the Winter Olympics hosted in Beijing in 2022. The US, UK, and Canada declared a diplomatic boycott of the games, along with India, Australia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark, and Estonia, following concerns about the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Global perceptions of China typically match these concerns too. The Pew Research Centre found that most countries do not hold Chinese entertainment and standard of living in high regard: only 17% and 14% (respectively) of people in other wealthy nations state that these are above average in China. This transcends to international politics, with the same study finding that across 24 countries, 74% of responders have little or no confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping. Contrast this to the United States, where composite measures across culture, governance, and influence demonstrate that around three-quarters of people surveyed have favourable views of the nation, most prominently in China’s neighbours such as South Korea and the Philippines.

Soft power has been a hallmark of successful American foreign policy since the Cold War. In the later Soviet years, there was a thriving market for Levi’s Jeans in East Germany and Poland, Bruce Springsteen was one of the most popular artists in Soviet nations, and 38,000 customers queued for Moscow’s first McDonald’s. Even with restrictions, the all-American lifestyle was a must-have trend. In what many declare ‘the New Cold War,’ the US still utilises and promotes soft power foreign policy amongst its allies, some of which have developed their own cultural identity internationally. Perhaps the most prominent of which is South Korea.

South Korea is a somewhat unanticipated force on the global stage, rapidly climbing to international fame over the past 30 years in a series of cultural export booms known as the Hallyu phenomena – meaning ‘Korean Wave’ in Mandarin. K-pop music streams have increased by 230% globally since 2018 according to Spotify, the Oxford English Dictionary has introduced 26 new Korean-derived terms since 2021, and in 2020, more than 160,000 students participated in Korean language classes. These booms coincide with major critical acclaim for the Korean arts, where ‘Parasite’ became the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020, and ‘Squid Game’ became Netflix’s most-watched series of all time. So what made Korea stand out amongst its Chinese neighbours despite China’s heavy efforts to invest in soft power?

An opinion piece in the Guardian declares this is down to the people who create it: “Soft power belongs to nations, not governments.” Although governments can and, in the eyes of Nye, should utilise soft power to strengthen their diplomatic ties, soft power is ultimately driven by individuals. This creative liberty has enabled criticisms of societal structures, and flawed protagonists that do not necessarily match the pristine characteristics a country may want to associate itself with. Korea itself knows best that too much government interference in media can affect its national image. Before the Korean Wave, there were only two broadcasting networks in South Korea which largely controlled what media Koreans would consume, and a financial crisis in the 1990s only further tarnished their national brand. The establishment of the Sixth Republic in the late 1980s, however, brought new media reforms and steady investments that were heavily influenced by the potential of the Internet. Ultimately, this saw new freedoms that allowed individuals to heal the wounded image of South Korea on the international stage, and create a new, dynamic creative sector.

Take ‘Parasite’ as one example that sets South Korean cultural exports apart from its Chinese and Japanese neighbours. The Palgrave Handbook of Asian Cinema distinguishes South Korean film as less safe than Chinese film, allowing for more stark societal criticisms within cinematic contexts, such as the class criticism found in Parasite. The imperfection of characters in the film has allowed South Korean cultural exports to be “most uniquely Korean” in the words of President Moon Jae-in concerning Parasite’s success.

This is not to say that South Korea has perfectly utilised its soft power for foreign policy. When South Korea deployed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System produced by the United States, China Central Television, the largest consumer of Korean media, responded by reducing allotted times for K-dramas and productions. This marks a growth in the anti-Korean wave which has risen in popularity in China. Whilst the Korean Wave can be mobilised to further South Korea’s foreign policy goals, Korean political scientists have stated that “too deliberate an attempt to use cultural assets for economic and political purposes will provoke backlashes as in the case of anti-Korean Wave movements and slogans.”

Currently, it appears that the depoliticised, decentralised approach to South Korean media exports removes any ulterior motives that drive unpopularity for a country’s national brand. Whilst these productions offer flawed characters and blatant societal criticisms, sentiments towards such nations remain largely positive. It is beyond doubt that, even 16 years after the Beijing Olympics debate, China still faces the same issues when it comes to its soft power: media restriction. Whilst China’s American and Korean counterparts in the creative industry allow for more flaws in their productions, they are received far more positively internationally. It can, therefore, be interpreted that the individual freedoms given to productions in the digital boom have largely supported the success of South Korea’s soft power. The overt censorship of China’s media may, as a result, need to subside to bolster its positive national branding overseas.

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