One of the fascinating aspects of China's hosting of the 2008 Olympics was the feeling that, for the country's political elite at least, this was a chance for the world to look at its achievements over the three decades since reform and express some appreciation. We now know that much of that went wrong. The Olympics were efficiently managed and contained some great sporting moments. But the build-up to the event, with fractious torch ceremonies held across the world, showed that whatever feelings China might arouse in the outside world, they were not straightforward - $40 billion (£25 billion) later, the Chinese government had to think a little deeper about its projection of cultural power and influence beyond its borders.
Michael Barr rightly spends the first part of this concise overview of China's efforts in this area trying to nail down what, exactly, soft power is. The celebrated Joseph Nye definition is more useful now for saying what it isn't - the use of coercion and force. But finding a replacement for the sinister terms of "propaganda" or "country marketing" has proved more difficult. And as Barr says, this is not helped by the fact that most of the time when people in various communities outside China talk about what the country's rise means, they are revealing more about their own fears and preoccupations than that of the country they are supposedly discussing.
There are things we know, and in separate chapters Barr covers these, with up-to-date examples of the good, the bad and, sometimes, the ugly. In its efforts to promote its message through state-directed television, radio and printed media, China has invested billions - much of it copying what is done by the West. Whether the Xinhua news agency or Chinese Central Television will crack an international market in the way the BBC and CNN have done is not yet known - but there is no denying the resources being chucked into the attempt. In his consideration of the Confucius Institutes, Barr plots the line between their function as entities to teach the Mandarin language to the vast numbers who now want to speak Chinese, and the less easily describable job imputed to them, namely to propagate important messages on behalf of the Chinese party state as it tries to enlist supporters abroad. In their constitutions, Confucius Institutes contain stipulations that work done with them must accord with Central Office principles, and that simple legal request is probably the greatest source of suspicion about them.
The central Chinese state is not a coherent, unified actor, and China itself is a society in ferment, as Barr shows in discussions of some of the views of racial issues internally. Blogs and other social media, despite operating under restrictions, give a map of the complexity of what could be called Chinese public views and thinking. As he argues, to try to sum this up as some vast, unified strategy to slowly bend the will of the rest of the world to China's strategic advantage would be to misunderstand the fact that what we are really witnessing is a moment of intense cultural and intellectual engagement between multiple actors, inside and outside the country, in trying to make sense of what China is, what its development means to the world, and, more recently, what the world really means to China.
That this is happening at a time when Western (for which read European and North America) confidence has been economically dented and is now undergoing its own crisis of faith has only made things more complex. China-bashing in the US, and fears of an ominous Chinese reach throughout the internet via espionage, speak to an earlier era of the fear of a "yellow peril". That China's rise has to mean something, for insiders and outsiders, and fit into some kind of framework is self-evident. But as Barr shows, we're going to have to think harder and longer to get to a more truthful understanding than the one that exists at the moment, where too much discussion is polarised, or hedged in by defensiveness and vested interests.
Who's Afraid of China? The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power
By Michael Barr
160pp, £70.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9781848135895 and 135901
Published 8 September 2011