Chinese competitor at the unofficial 2008 Olympic Wushu "Exhibition" in Beijing.
Chinese competitor at the unofficial 2008 Olympic Wushu “Exhibition” in Beijing.


Introduction: If Kung Fu is so popular, why can’t Wushu get into the Olympics?

I am first and foremost a political scientist.  When I look at the “traditional Chinese martial arts” what I see is emerging trends in civil society, shifting identities, regional aspirations and the gripping tides of global economic exchange.  The thoughts of very few other individuals immediately turn to the puzzles of “late-stage economic development” when they read accounts of Huang Fe Hung or Sun Lu Tang.  I suppose that this is what it means to be a social scientist.  Where others see “history” I see puzzles.

Wushu has been one of the more interesting puzzles to arise over the last decade or so.  In this case I am not simply using the word as a catchall phrase for the Chinese martial arts.  Rather I am referring to the discipline of “Wushu” as a specific set of sporting events (comprised of forms competition and a type of kickboxing) as outlined by the athletics ministry of the People’s Republic of China.

This “official Wushu” is fairly popular in Mainland China.  It is practiced widely by martial arts students in full time training programs at the city, provincial and national levels all around the country.  It’s practice is actually highly regulated and mandated by the state.  If one wishes to make a career in the professional martial arts sector, or to attend a university as a martial arts student, you must demonstrate your expertise in Wuhsu, and not the other, generally better known, folk arts.

In fact, Wushu, as it is taught and supported in state schools, is pretty divorced from the folk arts.  It is originally derived from them, but it has been modernized and rationalized to the point that there is now little resemblance either in its movements or goals.  The performance of the mandatory routines in Wushu tournaments resemble floor exercises in gymnastics as much as anything you might see in a traditional school.  Likewise the more physical contests of Sanda are pursued as a type of competitive kickboxing rather than a method of self-defense training.

Not that there is anything wrong with this.  I find Sanda matches to be quite exciting to watch, especially in comparison to other forms of boxing and wrestling.  Rather my main point is that while Wushu may share a common origin with the folk styles, it has become its own discipline.  It is the official, state sanctioned, Chinese martial art.

Over the last few decades China has gained immense economic, military and diplomatic power.  As its influence has gown it has sought to leave its stamp on various international institutions.  One of these is the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

China has long been aware of the importance of the Olympic Games as a venue for international diplomacy.  Winning medals at these games does more than showcase a nation’s athletic talent.  It demonstrates the ability of a state to design institutions and marshal its resources in effective ways.  These victories are an important source of prestige and a means by which nations attempt to measure otherwise intangible resources.

Of course the Olympics, being the product of the modern western world, are dominated by modern western sports.  Worse yet, they valorize European forms of physical culture while implicitly diminishing the value of other cultural traditions.  This fact has irked Chinese intellectuals since at least the 1930s.  Winning at the Olympics has been an important national goal, and one that they have been very successful at.  Having a uniquely Chinese form of physical culture accepted and celebrated by the international community has been another goal, one that has enjoyed far less success.

China sent a group of martial artists to the 1936 Olympic Games who provided an exhibition of their then rarely seen arts on the global stage.
China sent a group of martial artists to the 1936 Olympic Games who provided an exhibition of their then rarely seen arts on the global stage.

Why is that?  Given that China is one of the most influential and wealthiest nations on the planet, with a very strong central government and almost unimaginable cash reserves, why have they been unable to get Wushu adopted as an Olympic sport?  The IOC has proven to be one of the most corrupt and problematic institutions of global diplomacy in existence today.  The stories of payoffs being directed to its members and delegates are the stuff of legend.  The Koreans were able to figure out how to manipulate this system and successfully lobby for the inclusion of Tae Kwon Do.  Why has China, with vastly more international clout than South Korea ever enjoyed, not been able to do the same thing?

This question has been once again emphasized by the recent exclusion of Wushu from the short list of sports being considered for the 2020 games.  The fact that the IOC would not even extend the basic courtesy of allowing it to be performed as an “exhibition event” in Beijing in 2008 is beyond puzzlingYes the IOC was abiding its own rules by making this refusal, but the rules of international institutions can be changed and altered to suit the needs of the moment.  That is what true superpowers do.  They create institutions to serve their needs.  Yes those institutions eventually gain some degree of independence, but they never simply ignore the demands of key states.

Whatever the full list of problems turns out to be, a lack of motivation on the part of the PRC is not likely to be on it.  Both the Chinese state and public have been very invested in the topic of Wushu’s inclusion in the Olympics.  It has become a master symbol that represents dozens of other places where China feels under siege by western culture (something that its leaders perceive as being systematically hostile to their values and interests).

Public diplomacy is a critical issue for the Chinese government.  They have literally spent a fortune attempting to polish their image and promote their values around the globe.  They have organized hundreds of “Confucius Institutes” at universities to subsidize the teaching of Chinese language classes, they have poured untold dollars into the creation of foreign language radio and news programs.  China has undertaken high profile foreign aid projects around the world spending millions on infrastructure development.  Yet despite these efforts the global perception of the Chinese state (not the Chinese people I should add, this is an important distinction that I will come back to) keeps slipping.

The martial arts were supposed to be the one bright spot in all of this.  Kung Fu is without a doubt one of China’s most successful (if also unintentional) exports.  It has a level of global appeal that is truly surprising.  Kids in Latin America are just as interested in Bruce Lee posters as kids in Western Europe.  Martial arts movies, stories, lessons and instructional materials are consumed around the globe.  So why has the attempt to promote Wushu as an Olympic sport been so difficult, and what does all of this say about the state of China’s soft power in international diplomacy?

Putin watches a Kung Fu exhibition with the Abbot at the Shaolin Temple in Henan.  Shaolin has become an important stop for visiting VIPs.  Source: People's Daily.
Putin watches a Kung Fu exhibition with the Abbot at the Shaolin Temple in Henan.  Shaolin has become an important stop for visiting VIPs. Source: People’s Daily.

Soft Power: Harnessing the Energy of Aspiration

Commentators online and in the press have noted that the setbacks suffered by Wushu point to a larger failure in the Chinese government’s ability to yoke its “soft power” to its larger foreign policy initiatives.  What exactly does this term mean?  How is “soft power” actually different from any other type of influence in international politics?

This label was first coined by the American political scientist (and occasional US diplomat) Joseph Nye in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (Harper Collins, Basic Books).  He later released an entire book dedicated to this concept, but I feel that the shorter discussion provided in his 1990 volume (mainly in chapter 6) does a better job of situating this concept on the broad stage of international politics.

Like most political scientists from the 1960s onward Nye began his examination of the concept of political power by turning to the debate between Robert Dahl and his various critics (especially Steven Lukes and Bachrach and Baratz).  All of the authors in this literature rejected a materialist definition of power which attempted to reduce it to weapons, natural resources or economic advantage.  These things could certainly be used as resources to develop certain types of power, but they are simply the vehicles of influence.  Power itself is something different, it is social.

For members of my field power is a characteristic of a relationship between two or more actors.  It is that element of the relationship that allows player A to influence what player B is going to do in ways that player B might not otherwise undertake.

It is worthwhile to point out a few of the implications of this sort of power analysis.  Because it’s a social characteristic power is always limited by scope and domain.  Statements about influence are always bounded by limits about “who” and “what.”  Further, not all types of power are fungible.  Owning a tank may keep my neighbor from deciding to invade my back yard, but it probably won’t be very helpful when it comes time to convince my students to actually do their reading.

So certain types of power resources are more helpful at pursuing some goals than others.  Yet it is critical that we never confuse the resource with the change that we are attempting to explain.  Again, actual power is about relationships.  Objects may help to establish those relationships but they are not what we are ultimately studying.

When introduced to the power literature students often assume that power is always a negative thing.  This is an artifact of how we use the term in everyday speech, but it is not necessarily true on a theoretical level.  For instance, I might get my students to read by threatening to punish them if they do not, perhaps by assigning reading quizzes that are a large percent of their grade.  Or an inducement might be more effective.  For instance, I might promise to invite an interesting or famous guest speaker if they do well on the first quiz.  Both strategies are designed to get students to do something they would not otherwise do.  Both “punishments” and “inducements” can be used as instruments of power.

Of course threats and promises are never actually free.  As a result they are never perfectly credible.  It costs me something to carry out that punishment.  I now have to spend hours grading all of those quizzes.  And my students know that.  As a result a large percentage of them will discount my threat of weekly reading quizzes.  Its just not credible.  Alternatively, if I were to provide a guest speaker I would not have to prepare a lecture at all.  So when analyzing a given threat or promise players have to ask what carrying out the proposed course of action would actually cost and whether it is even credible in the first place.

This is the real issue for Joseph Nye.  Traditionally countries carried out diplomacy with two dominant tools of statecraft, their militaries and their economies.  But in the current era of high-tech warfare and global economic integration, the cost of either military or economic disruption is growing exponentially.

A “total war” between two nuclear armed powers might extinguish all life on the planet.  And everyone knows it.  It’s a terrible threat to make, but mostly because it is in bad taste.  As long as you believe the other side is basically rational, it is never credible.  You know that, they know it, and they know that you know it as well.

Former American Secretary of State (and the man who engennered Nixon's "Opening to China" as National Security Advisor) Henry Kissinger visits the Shaolin Temple.
Former American Secretary of State (and the man who engineered Nixon’s “Opening to China” as National Security Adviser) Henry Kissinger visits the Shaolin Temple.

The spread of global markets would seem to make economic statecraft the dominant tool of the age.  Yet once again, there are complications.  Could China use its vast reserves of American treasury bills and dollars to coerce the US government?  Probably not.  Why?  Because if we have learned anything since 2008 it is that China’s economy is both more delicate than we thought and highly dependent on Europe and the US.  An economic recession in either place could lead to major economic disruption in China itself.  Threats of economic warfare are simply not credible in the current era.  The basic structure of the global economy dictates that China would probably suffer more than the state that it was attempting to influence.

This is where Prof. Nye’s other career in the State Department (where he did policy planning for Asia) becomes critical.  The central problem he faced was not just that American power was declining in some respects.  He actually argued that America was likely to remain a “super power” for some time to come.

The real problem was that all of the tools that countries have traditionally used to project power through the global system were losing their bite.  They were becoming increasingly costly and ever more narrow in the scope of the goals that they could safely be safely applied to.

Cost is really the critical element here.  Every nation has a budget, and coercing or convincing another state to go along with your plans for global management is just prohibitively expensive.  How expensive?  This is the sort of stuff that brings down empires in the end.  America just finished fighting two simultaneous wars against minor powers (something that its military and governmental institutions are explicitly designed to do by the way) and look at the economic fallout from that.

It is at this point that Nye turns his discussion to “soft power.”  This resource works differently from threats and promises.  In those cases the target actor is aware that they being forced to ignore what they actually want.  Soft power is different.  It is an attempt to use persuasion, image, example or culture in such a way that you change what individuals perceive as being in the subjective best interest.

Rather than coercing other states through threats and promises, you simply convince them that you are a “shining city on a hill.”  You demonstrate the inherent vitality of your economy, or the richness of your cultural products, or the stability of your governmental institutions.  Who does not want a faster growing economy?  Who would not prefer greater social stability or a rich public culture?

Rather than coercing anyone to do anything you simply open a space for public dialogue.  When individuals decide they want what you have they will start to change their society, economy, culture and state to match these new values.  In so doing they create a global system that is more likely to be compatible with, and profitable to, the dominant states of the era.  Further, it is now individuals in the target states that bear the full costs of reforms.  True hegemony means that you pay nothing and the world remakes itself in your image.

And that right there is why one must be careful about assuming that “military power” is always normatively bad or that “soft power” is always good and desirable.  Either type of influence can be used to pursue a wide variety of goals.  The rapid economic growth of the Soviet Union in the 1950s provided Stalin with “soft power” and he used it to attract many developing states to his side.  Of course it is interesting to note that while these states cloaked themselves in the institutions of Soviet socialism, they generally did not enjoy the same degree of economic development that the USSR did.  This disconnect between strategies and actual outcomes is an important object lesson to remember.

Prime Minister of Sri Lanka visiting the Shaolin Temple.
Prime Minister of Sri Lanka visiting the Shaolin Temple.  Source:

Wushu and the Paradox of Chinese Soft Power

In global politics nothing succeeds quite like success.  China’s rapid economic rise has been the envy of much of the developing world.  Most of the gains made in limiting global poverty in the last decade have occurred exclusively within China’s borders.

This creates an intoxicating appearance of exceptionalism.  One wonders if the Chinese have somehow found the secret of rapid economic development that has so long escaped the grasp of most states.  All of this can translate into a lot “soft power.”

Economists and political scientists are not exactly sure how to best explain China’s rapid rise.  Multiple movements towards liberalization since the late 1970s have certainly been critical.  So have low wage rates, political stability in Asia and the most favorable global trade environment in all of human history.

Whatever the ultimate cause, this economic miracle has not come without a price.  Rapid urbanization has displaced large parts of the Chinese population.  Wage rates and benefits have been kept artificially low.  The government has granted a degree of economic freedom but maintained careful control of domestic society.  It goes without saying that the environmental costs of this rapid buildup have been nothing short of devastating.

The last 30 years of Chinese history have become a sort of social Rorschach Test.  For many policy makers in the developing world, China has become the “shining city on a hill.”  Increasingly they wonder whether economic growth without political liberalization is not just possible, but the secret formula.  Do China’s highly regulated institutions hold the key to its success, or have the Chinese essentially grown despite them.  It is an interesting question, and one that I expect papers will be written on for some years to come.

Individuals in the developed world see something very different when they look at China.  The levels of growth are astounding, but the actual standard of living enjoyed by most individuals still lags behind the west.  Being less entranced by the size of the miracles these individuals are more prone to pay attention to its political and environmental costs.

When discussing the sources of soft power Nye claimed that its sources ultimately lay in a nation’s values, culture, policies and institutions.  This assortment of factors lies at the heart of China’s current diplomatic problems.  Simply put, individuals in the developed and the developing world value different things about China.  States yearning for growth and stability may look up to its policies and institutions, or at least the growth that they seem to have brought.

Yet these same policies and institutions are a problem in the west.  We are instead attracted to its values (hard work, thrift, competition) and its culture.  This is why Kung Fu is such a well spring of potential soft power.  It embodies those elements of the Chinese identity that are most valuable to 21st century westerners.

I used the term “Kung Fu” quite consciously in the preceding paragraph.  The variant of China’s martial culture that has been popularized in the west, and indeed across the world thanks in large part to the Bruce Lee phenomenon, has very little to do with official Wushu as it is imagined and promoted by the Chinese government.

While they have been attempting to rationalize and modernize the martial arts, doing away with medieval superstition and adopting “scientific training methods,” westerners have instead been immersing themselves in highly romanticized, often explicitly backward looking, folk traditions.  Whereas Wushu celebrates modernity, Americans and Europeans are much more concerned with “authenticity.”  The values that we promote in our Kung Fu schools have nothing to do with Chinese nationalism, but instead reflect a persistent focus on self-cultivation.

Bruce Lee was the great martial saint to the west and so it is instructive to consider the stories that he popularized.  In them we see individuals fighting against the oppressive forces of economic and political exploitation.  The villain may be Japanese imperialists, organized criminal factions or (to a certain extent) the inept Chinese leadership which cannot standup for itself.  Yet it is remarkable that in Lee’s movies the state is never the answer.  At best it something to be tolerated or accommodated, and at times his characters take a markedly revolutionary stance.

Perhaps this is understandable given the fact that Lee grew up in Hong Kong during the 1950s.  Still, this revolutionary strain of storytelling has roots much deeper than the Cold War.  Every time the story of the burning of the Shaolin Temple is told, in all of those martial arts class rooms around the world, the implication is quite clear.  The government is not your friend.  The powers that be are not benign.  You need training in order to achieve personal liberation.

A celebration of the 2011 "world tai chi day."
A celebration of the 2011 “world tai chi day.”

The deeper one digs the more problematic this all becomes.  While there may not be any deep historic connection between philosophical Daoism and the martial arts, the former has become a very popular topic of study among practitioners in the modern era.  Again, this is a problem as Daosim tends not to respect or put a lot of trust in the institutions and policies of state government.  At best one might consider it a variant of political quietism.

The message coming out of the martial arts is not totally, or even primarily, negative.  Instead it holds out a promise that personal liberation and change are possible.  This claim resonated deeply with individuals seeking meaning in modern society.  It is actually somewhat remarkable to me that practices that come out of the period of rapid modernization in early 20th century China can have such powerful resonances in the 21st century western world.

Nevertheless, it is important to be clear about what is resonating.  Western consumers seem to be consistently drawn to Chinese “values” and “culture” (to use Nye’s interpretive categories).  Further, these values are being mediated through the lens of economic markets.   The teachers who have had the most impact in the west have been entrepreneurs and business owners, not gentry-scholars or monks.  Through the repetitive interaction of sellers and buyers we have worked out a balance of Chinese practice that is both compatible with a western lifestyle and remarkably powerful.  It creates positive feelings towards China and an immense store of good will.  And that is potential soft power.

However, when the Chinese government has attempted to pursue its goals in the realm of international physical culture, they have not turned to the folk masters of Kung Fu.  These are individuals who exist in the realm of civil society.  As such they are pretty much beyond the immediate control of the athletics bureaucracy.  Many of them no longer even live in China.  This is the central issue.  Control.  The Chinese government so very badly wants to craft and control the message that it broadcasts.

As such they rely on highly structured, often very rational and efficient, institutions.  One example would be the various English language media channels it has created.  Another would be the realm of official Wushu.

Taijiquan is clearly the most popular Chinese martial art in the world.  It might actually be the single most popular fighting system of any type taught on the planet today.  It is practiced by individuals on every continent and in practically every country.  Teachers are already widely distributed and consumers love it.  I think some version of Taiji forms mixed with competitive push hands would have had a much better shot at inclusion in the Olympics.  Simply going with Sanda, open to all practitioners, including fighters from the folk arts, would have been just as good.  Calling the Olympic sport (whatever it turned out to be) “Kung Fu” would have been brilliant.  That is a labeled that is recognized and loved around the world.

Instead the government followed protocol and went with its official art (Wushu) even though no country other than Russia, its old Cold War ally, could actually field a truly competitive team.  Worse yet, most countries had no interest in doing so.  Wushu has never been all that popular outside of China.  Lacking state subsidies and protective regulations, it just hasn’t fared all that well in the open market.

Very often China’s centrally managed public relations efforts are met with hostility in the west.  We should now have the tools to understand why.  It is not that westerners dislike the Chinese people.  Indeed Chinese culture has never been more popular than it is right now.  And China enjoys an immense reserve of potential soft power.

Rather the problem is that we distrust the institutions of the Chinese government.  Rather than focusing on the economic miracle we remember the political crackdowns, the environmental damage, and our unfortunate history of hostility during the Cold War.  On a deeper level this stage handling just feels wrong.  This isn’t how soft power is supposed to work.

Remember, soft power is different from coercing someone with a bribe.  When you change someone’s mind by offering them an incentive they are still aware that this idea is not theirs and they may change their mind again in the future.  Its better, and much cheaper, to let them convince themselves that this is what they really wanted to do all along.

That is a much more subtle process.  It cannot be rushed, and it does not happen on any particular timeline.  Governments can put certain preconditions in place in an attempt to lay the groundwork.  For instance, English language news broadcasts and TV programs are a good idea.  So are language classes.  But people need to change their minds through an organic, person to person, idea to idea process.

This is what has been happening in Kung Fu and Taiji classes around the world.  Individuals have been learning that the Chinese are not implacably hostile or inscrutable.  In fact, they even have a number of ideas that are very advantageous in the modern world.  But this is a process and message that is not under the direct control of the Chinese government, and I suspect that scares them.  They distrust civil society, at home and abroad.  Rather than working with a movement that could be their best allies they instead attempt to replace it with something official.  Something that feels much less flexible and endearing and focuses our attention quite acutely on all of the aspects of China we are not sure that we trust.

A group of African disciples study the traditional arts at Shaolin.
A group of African disciples study the traditional arts at Shaolin.

Conclusion: Soft Power and Civil Society

The Chinese have attempted to use the traditional fighting styles as part of their public diplomacy for some time.  From state visits to the Shaolin Temple to government sponsored martial arts displays, this theme comes up surprisingly often in its foreign policy efforts.  Generally these gestures are enthusiastically received owing to Kung Fu’s global popularity.

This is the root of our paradox.  Given the popularity of the Chinese martial arts, and the government’s frequent promotion of them, why can’t they get them into the Olympics?  For that matter, why haven’t the Chinese been able to build up and support a “Wushu infrastructure” outside of their own borders like South Korea did with Tae Kwon Do during the 1970s and 1980s?

While the Chinese hand combat styles have built up an immense store of good will the problem arises when the government attempts to actualize that “soft power.”  This type of persuasion works best when state action is least visible.  Ideally it arises as an organic process as two civil societies come in contact with one another.

As such soft power is something that is actually never totally within the government control.  It’s a process that is allowed to play out in the background which greases the wheels of other diplomatic strategies in powerful and unexpected ways.  Unfortunately the Chinese state is not comfortable delegating this sort of function to its own civil society.  Rather than going along with the global popularity of folk Kung Fu they insisted on imposing their own, modern, rationalized variant on the Olympics.  Such a move ignored the cultural and social base of their power while antagonizing many people who should have been their allies.

There is a lesson in all of this.  In the modern world soft power is an important source of influence, but it is exercised through the force of one’s example and social presence.  When it becomes a strategy to be centrally implemented it is just another form of coercion, of the sort that Nye found is losing its edge in the 21st century.  In order for China to really exercise soft power it needs to do two things.  First, it needs to start supporting, rather than working against, civil society.  Secondly, it needs to resolve the fundamental background issues that lead many people in the world to distrust its basic intuitions and policies.  Once those things happen the traditional fighting arts have the potential to become a much broader bridge to the world.