The Economist (December 16th-22nd 2017) is mistaken to accept so readily the National Endowment for Democracy’s term ‘sharp power’. We don't need this categorisation because we already have an adequate label - ‘soft power’.
Soft power is often used to describe cultural attraction and familiarity with a place in the belief that ‘to know us is to love us’. However, we should not assume, as the current discussion on China’s ‘sharp power’ assume, that soft power is benign by definition. Soft power can have hard characteristics, and this is demonstrated most clearly in the China case. Culture and values are not always attractive or appealing, but can and often do create resentment and conflict. For a society that sees a Hollywood movie, a Confucius Institute, or programmes of democracy promotion as agents of a foreign power’s propaganda or as cultural imperialism, one that is intent on subverting accepted social norms of the prevailing political order soft power is far from non-coercive and non-threatening. In fact soft power can be more insidious than hard power precisely because it can be embedded and hidden within cultural products and aims to influence thought and behaviour. In fact, to know us may be to hate us or fear us.
In other words, China’s behaviour described in The Economist is soft power. It aims to influence, persuade, change opinion and behaviour – and to do so without resorting to the instruments of ‘hard’ power. We do not need yet more terms (not so long ago the fashionable moniker was ‘smart power’), but we do need to recognise – as China clearly does - the hard potential of soft power.