Strengthening China’s Soft Power through Public Diplomacy: NGOs as Important Players

This essay will explore China's international relations with a focus on societal aspects. It aims to examine how non-governmental organizations.

This essay will explore China’s international relations with a focus on societal aspects. It aims to examine how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a crucial role in public diplomacy by enhancing China’s soft power and improving its global image. The author argues that NGOs play a vital role in public diplomacy efforts to enhance soft power and improve China’s image on the international stage. Therefore, the essay will primarily focus on elucidating three arguments: First, China as a rising power is persistent in spreading soft power in the international world through public diplomacy to improve the country’s image by showing a peaceful rise. Second, NGOs play an important role in public diplomacy because they can increase soft power and improve the country’s image in the international arena through various forms of propaganda on contemporary global issues and the establishment of international communication networks. Third, NGOs, as crucial instruments in public diplomacy, are regulated by the Chinese government to ensure their actions align with national interests.

Public Diplomacy China as a Peaceful Rise

China’s rise through rapid economic growth, military power, and political influence has been widely acknowledged worldwide. In 2014, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest economy in real terms. It is projected that by 2020, China will become the largest economy in the world, surpassing the United States in nominal terms (Akdag, 2022). This rapid rise has understandably raised concerns among countries worldwide. To support and further its economic growth, China requires a peaceful environment. In light of this, the Chinese government emphasizes the dissemination of soft power in its relations with other countries (Akdag, 2022).

The soft power exerted by China includes cultural, societal, and contemporary issues such as human rights abuses, climate change, energy transition, and more. China aims to foster a harmonious society both domestically and internationally and become a reliable partner in politics and economics (Zacharias, 2021).  In line with this, China also advocates for image improvement to be viewed positively by the international community, leading the Chinese government to focus on public diplomacy (Nevers, 2017). According to Joseph Nye (2008), public diplomacy is an instrument used to manage resources to project soft power. Public diplomacy is essential as part of China’s foreign policy, with the primary goal being to ensure peaceful development and to avoid being perceived as a “threat.” (Miao, 2015). Chinese officials often use the terms “Peaceful Development”, “Harmonious World” or “Responsible Nation” as a form of positive narrative that is trying to be shaped (Scott, 2015).

Public diplomacy practices in China have been emphasized by the central party committee as a significant aspect of China’s foreign policy (Zacharias, 2021). China’s public diplomacy takes the form of foreign communication through traditional media such as newspapers, radio, magazines, and television, as well as the newly added internet platforms in line with the digital era. These communication activities are influenced by the government as the owner of major communication channels, including “China Central Television, China Daily Newspaper Group, and International Publishing Group” (Zhou & Mo, 2012). Furthermore, public diplomacy can also be seen through the significance of Confucius Institutes, which expand the dissemination of Chinese culture worldwide. Public diplomacy significantly contributes to China’s national interests by enhancing trust and understanding from the international community towards China (Luo, 2014 in Hartig 2016). This interaction is conducted without suspicion and distrust, bringing significant benefits to China’s economy and long-term development. It can be seen that these various forms of public diplomacy struggle show China’s persistence to spread soft power and also improve its image in the international world.

NGOs as Important Players

Various actor elements play a role in China’s public diplomacy. The main decision-maker in public diplomacy is the Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Leading Group, which was renamed the Central Foreign Affairs Commission in 2018 (Zacharias, 2021). Besides state officials, the role of non-state actors is crucial in promoting the effectiveness of China’s public diplomacy. Non-state actors within civil society groups participate significantly in forming global networks between state and foreign private actors, creating interpersonal relationships and lobbying efforts that advance specific policies and promote a positive image of China (d’Hooghe, 2008).

Considering the current crucial role of non-state actors in public diplomacy, particularly NGOs, their significance cannot be overlooked. NGOs play a central role in shaping agenda-setting processes, framing, and priming in a country, all of which are key elements in public diplomacy (Miao, 2015). Agenda setting is concerned with determining the issues that get mainstream media attention and are considered most significant by the target audience. Framing involves selecting, excluding, and emphasizing certain issues in the media to advance a particular narrative. Priming involves influencing the media to adopt specific criteria in judging a matter (Miao, 2015). NGO scopes are extensive in discussing transnational contemporary issues such as climate change, pollution, organized crime, terrorism, diseases, and more. With this broad scope, they can build global coalitions through social movements with significant competence and influence the direction and form of international relations (Bros, 2017). Undoubtedly, with strong ties in global relations, this strengthen public diplomacy and shape the image of a country concerned about global issues.

Top of Form

Effective communication is crucial for obtaining soft power. The majority of NGOs have specific targets and areas of focus, giving them an advantage in fostering reciprocal communication and thus contributing to the strengthening of soft power (Yang & Taylor, 2014). NGOs also contribute to providing platforms for information and idea exchange, an essential part of public diplomacy (Miao, 2015). Public trust in NGOs is higher, and their credibility is greater because they are independent. Based on the roles and functions of NGOs outlined, it is evident that NGOs play a crucial role in public diplomacy, particularly in the contemporary era, enhancing the dissemination of soft power and a positive national image on the global stage. In the context of China’s international relations, NGOs will certainly be important instruments whose existence needs to be considered

China’s Government and NGOs

China’s government supports the massive development of NGOs by regulating them to ensure that they align with China’s national goals in their public diplomacy. NGOs operate in a tightly regulated environment, following crackdowns on civil society such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square events and the 1999 confrontation with Falun Gong practitioners. Regulations have been put in place to provide more space for NGO movements and civil society as a whole, such as the Regulations for the Management of Foundations in 2004 (Ketels, 2023). Furthermore, changes in NGO regulations continue to be made, with more than 900,000 Chinese NGOs registered under three officially regulated types: membership-based associations, foundations, and social service organizations. Additionally, international NGOs have registered according to the Overseas Non-Governmental Organization Law. Some Chinese and international NGOs operate without registration or use alternative legal identities.

In the past decade, Chinese NGOs have undergone internationalization by expanding their development and humanitarian activities overseas. This is particularly intriguing as the Chinese government considers NGOs as key instruments for building “People-to-People Bonds,” one of the five main cooperation priorities in the Belt and Road Initiative (Ji & Zhang, 2016). While a small number of Chinese NGOs were internationally engaged in the 1980s and 1990s, and only a few organizations led global expansion in the mid-2000s, the participation of Chinese NGOs in the international arena has been steadily increasing since 2013. Assessments indicate that currently, fewer than 100 Chinese NGOs are actively involved in international projects abroad. Although this number is relatively small, the trend is growing, attracting increasing attention from observers and practitioners in the Chinese NGO sector and international relations (Ketels, 2013).

The internationalization of Chinese NGOs reflects how these organizations continue to explore new territories, while the state party recognizes the benefits of this development and increasingly supports it. NGO internationalization represents a step forward in promoting a positive image of China in the global community. Although Chinese NGOs are not truly independent in practice, there is a mutually beneficial relationship where NGOs can still operate and advocate for their specificities while the Chinese government gains support in global governance, achieves international recognition, strengthens its position as a responsible major country, and promotes national development through international cooperation and influence (Ketels, 2023). By regulating, the government simplifies the benefits and productivity of NGOs so that they are not only controlled but can also benefit China (Shieh, 2018 in Ketels, 2023).


Based on the elaboration of the three main arguments – China’s persistent efforts to enhance soft power and its image on the global stage through public diplomacy, the vital role of NGOs in supporting public diplomacy by enhancing soft power and the country’s image, and the regulation of NGOs by the Chinese government to ensure their movements align with national interests – it can be concluded that NGOs indeed serve as crucial instruments in public diplomacy, which is part of China’s foreign policy. The significance of NGOs’ roles and functions in the international community, undoubtedly enhances the effectiveness of China’s public diplomacy, which in turn implicates the improvement of soft power and the country’s image on the global stage. Through the Chinese government regulating NGOs, they ensure that the movements and presence of NGOs are beneficial for national goals and interests.

Rahma A. Khairunnisa
Rahma A. Khairunnisa
Undergraduate International Relations Student at Universitas Gadiah Mada, Indonesia. Interested in International Relation, Human Rights, and Education Studies. Currently works as a Human Resources Development at Dewan Mahasiswa Fisipol UGM and Teaching Volunteer at Gadjahmada Menginspirasi.