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China’s “Politics of Harmony” and the Quest for Soft Power in International Politics

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<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1/09/2020
<mark>Journal</mark>International Studies Review
Issue number3
Number of pages19
Pages (from-to)507–525
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date9/05/19
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This article engages with China’s “politics of harmony” to investigate the dangers and possibilities of soft power as a concept and practice. Chinese sources claim that China will be able to exercise soft power due to its tradition of thinking about harmony. Indeed, the concept of harmony looms large in Chinese soft power campaigns, which differentiate China’s own harmonious soft power from the allegedly disharmonious hard power of other great powers—in particular Western powers and Japan. Yet, similarly dichotomizing harmony discourses have been employed precisely in the West and Japan. In all three cases, such harmony discourses set a rhetorical trap, forcing audiences to empathize and identify with the “harmonious” self or risk being violently “harmonized.” There is no doubt that the soft power of harmony is coercive. More importantly, the present article argues that it has legitimized and enabled oppressive, homogenizing and bellicose expansionism and rule in the West and Japan. A similarly structured exercise of soft power may enable violence in and beyond China, too. Ultimately, however, we argue that China’s own tradition of thinking about harmony may help us to theorize how soft power might be exercised be in less antagonistic and violent ways.

Bibliographic note

* Linus Hagström is a Professor of Political Science at the Swedish Defence University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. His research revolves around questions of identity and power in East Asian relations. Hagström is the author of Japan’s China Policy: A Relational Power Analysis (Routledge, 2005) and edited Identity Change and Foreign Policy: Japan and Its “Others” (Routledge, 2016). He recently published articles in Journal of Japanese Studies, Survival, European Political Science, The Washington Quarterly, Review of International Studies, European Journal of International Relations, and The Pacific Review. He can be reached at linus.hagstrom@fhs.se. ** Astrid Nordin is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Her research interests fall in the intersection of contemporary Chinese politics and international relations, and critical theories of global politics. Nordin is the author of China’s International Relations and Harmonious World: Time, Space and Multiplicity in World Politics (Routledge, 2016), and recently published articles in International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, International Affairs, Review of International Studies, and Millennium: Journal of International Studies. She can be reached at a.nordin@lancaster.ac.uk.