Maria Repnikova on Chinese soft power and Ukraine

Foreign Affairs

As Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, I spoke to Latvian-American scholar of Chinese soft power Maria Repnikova about her new book, and how Ukraine looks from Beijing.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafe

Just hours before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, I spoke to political scientist Maria Repnikova, who studies communication and politics in non-democratic regimes.

We talked by video call about her new book, Chinese Soft Power, the Olympics, and the Ukraine crisis. This is an edited and abridged transcript of our conversation, part of my Invited to Tea interview series.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

What do you make of the goings-on in Ukraine?

The Ukraine crisis has been very much on my mind. I have close Ukrainian friends and I’ve been observing this crisis for years as it’s been unfolding since 2014, if not before. And it feels quite personal because I, myself, am from Latvia. So I had the background, being from that region, and Russia’s relations with the region are very complex and tense to say the least. So from a personal perspective, it’s been nerve-wracking.

In terms of China’s view or how China has been engaging and reacting, I’ve been going through various statements by Chinese officials from the Foreign Ministry to Chinese ambassadors, including Chinese ambassadors to the UN, and social media statements and the Chinese press. And I’m finding some continuities and some differences from the 2014 statements that China made on the Crimea annexation.

Some similarities are basically that China still takes a fairly neutral, kind of vague approach to this crisis. There is not so much direct critique of Russia, but, the overarching sentiment is basically that we should resolve this crisis peacefully, and both parties — meaning Ukrainians and Russians — should engage in dialogue and just attempt to resolve this through diplomacy. So basically there’s no explicit blame of Russia.

There are some differences between now and 2014 in particular. I think there’s a stronger emphasis on the U.S. as the faulty actor, the provocateur in this crisis.

In today’s press briefing by Huà Chūnyíng 华春莹, she was basically stating that the U.S. is behind this crisis escalating and that sanctions don’t work. So a direct critique of sanctions as a form of disciplining and resolving the crisis.

The other thing I noticed is that, overall, this crisis has been underreported and sort of hidden from Chinese media coverage. If you look at major newspapers, major media, including CGTN, or in the People’s Daily and many others, you don’t really see Ukraine at the heart of the coverage, the way you see it in Western media or Russian media or Ukrainian media.

It’s just not at the top of the page. And in fact, many other less important stories are occupying the center of coverage. So to me, that also signals that they don’t want to overblow the crisis. They’re afraid of domestic reactions, and they’re still figuring out how to really respond as it unfolds.

But there does seem to be a sort of base level of rock-solid support for Russia. Even just based on the timing of Putin being in Beijing for the Olympic opening ceremony and the statement that was made at that time of closer comradeship than has been expressed in Stalin’s day?

Yeah…but at the same time when it comes to supporting them militarily or supporting Putin’s proclamations of the so-called independent regions of Ukraine and threatening to use force or [Putin’s speech about Ukraine] always depending on Russia and it should be grateful to Russia…President Xi and Chinese officials haven’t really stood by this type of argument.

And they haven’t stood by the potential annexation, they haven’t stood by the proclamations of independence. So I think there is definitely support in terms of standing by Russia, kind of symbolically and rhetorically, in terms of not blaming Russia directly. So [Beijing is saying] that both parties are guilty and in fact, the U.S. is actually equally guilty here or responsible for this crisis, but at the same time, they are not saying “we hundred percent support what Russia is proclaiming.” So I think there’s definitely some degree of closeness and support, but they are not totally on board with what Russia is doing.

The second question for today is about your new book, Chinese Soft Power. Can you talk about the main thesis of your book, and the ways in which the Chinese conception of soft power differs from the original concept, at least as it was articulated by Joseph Nye?

The key theme of the book is the distinct conceptualization and practice of soft power by Chinese thinkers, scholars, and also policymakers, in contrast to Nye’s original concept. So what is the key distinction? I think there are two.

One is that the Chinese conceptualization of soft power and its actual practice fuse together material power and cultural power. So there is not really a clear separation between cultural and material, especially economic power. I think it’s very much seen as part of China’s overall branding image. They don’t really see soft power in the strict sense that Nye originally proposed. It’s cultural values and foreign policy, but it includes almost anything that is advantageous for China to advertise, from technology to scholarships to education. It’s basically anything that helps promote China’s image.

Any form of economic power can be counted as soft power.

Secondly, the other side of it that I explore is the motivation behind soft power. So in Nye’s original concept, the motivation is primarily externally oriented. So it’s all about changing hearts and minds of global publics. But in the Chinese conceptualization, the motivation is very much also domestic. I was struck by just how much of this rhetoric about soft power [in China] was about domestic cultural cohesion, patriotism, allegiance to the Party, as well as the idea of cultural security, meaning also protection from Western cultural infiltration.

So they’re using military jargon and some strong words. These are strong terms to think about how to conserve China from Western influence. So by making the Chinese public more confident in China’s image externally, they’re hoping to also create more cohesion and allegiance, and [backing for] the status quo.

So the motivation is very much dual and we see this a lot in how it’s implemented. Sometimes China’s soft power efforts are seen as a failure externally, but actually, it is very much appealing to domestic publics.

How did the Winter Olympics make you think about your ideas on Chinese soft power? Did you change your mind about anything or what did you think of China’s sort of performance?

Olympic Games are a key manifestation in some ways of soft power, but also they’re very contentious events. They attract a lot of attention to domestic politics and human rights issues. Not just China, I think any country that holds an Olympics, gets mixed coverage, both positive — the excitement and congratulatory kind of press — but also investigations and critiques of how [the Games] affect domestic society. That was very much true for China.

I was expecting a stronger negative reaction from the international community and media. But I think in some ways this Olympics was so subdued because it was such a bubble and journalists weren’t allowed to really go outside of the bubble to cover anything, Beijing or anywhere else in China. I think that’s one factor that played into the more subdued coverage.

There were also some unexpected stories that emerged, for example, the dual Chinese-American athletes who became kind of the stars of the show. So some of these stories played into China’s image and soft power.

But overall, these Olympic Games didn’t really shift global perceptions about China in a positive way. But domestically, there have been so many media stories about how well China has done in terms of the medals, but also just being able to host the Games [in the middle of a pandemic]. So I think domestically, it has played into Communist Party legitimacy.

What’s your sense of how big the gap is between Chinese self-perceptions and international perceptions of China?

I think the gap has expanded, I think, especially under Xi Jinping. The country is more closed than ever, in addition to the pandemic. There have also been so many sparks and spikes in nationalism. Over the past few years, [media reports on] how China has handled the pandemic to all kinds of increasingly negative coverage of what’s happening here in the U.S., like January 6 and many other events [have made] China come off as the winner or at least as doing quite well.

Outside of China, there’s still a lot of suspicion and a very critical mindset, but it ranges by region. In Africa, there’s more enthusiasm for engaging with China.

I did most of my fieldwork [for my book] in Ethiopia pre-pandemic. We see much, much more favorable public opinion about China in Africa, than almost anywhere else, including other parts of the global South. But when you do in-depth interviews or go a little bit under that public opinion, there’s still a lot of suspicion, critique, pushback, and concern with China’s influence.

It really depends on how one actually asks and talks about China. So even the same elites that might say, yeah, China’s great, it is a performance of allegiance to China. They want to get new investments, free trips to China, free education… But at the same time, if you ask further questions about concerns with China’s presence, investments, environmental impact, labor practices, overall influence of China in your country, there are still a lot of concerns, and unresolved tensions.

When Chinese scholars themselves write about Africa and Chinese soft power in Africa, I was surprised by how there’s no overwhelming consensus that they’re doing great… But many blame the West for that. The west, [they say,] is curtailing China’s discourse power, they’re spreading stereotypes and misrepresenting the China story.

Invited to Tea with Jeremy Goldkorn is a weekly interview series. Previously:

Linda Jaivin on the Wolf Warriors and sissy boys in the metaverse