“The art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This simplified version of the words of Chinese thinker Sun Tzu in his eleventh-century essay, The Art of War, resonates today as Beijing challenges American leadership on the global stage. Central to this strategy is a soft power extending beyond Chinese borders, particularly in the cultural arena.

Lebanon is no exception. As with many other countries, China is making significant investments in the Land of the Cedars. These investments span infrastructure projects, language courses, student exchange programs and the cultural allure propagated through social media. In essence, the Middle Kingdom is demonstrating the formidable reach of its soft power.

‘Convince and seduce’

In 1990, Joseph Nye’s defined soft power as the ability of a state to “convince and attract both other states and their civil societies.” Culture plays a pivotal role in this, akin to Hollywood’s role in projecting American influence. This concept is often contrasted with hard power, which refers to a state’s ability to impose its will through coercion.

While China began integrating the principles of soft power in the late 1990s, it officially incorporated this strategy into its political agenda in 2007 under President Hu Jintao. In the following years, this shift led to the creation of a substantial cultural industry.

This includes organizing globally impactful events such as the Olympic Games, as well as investing in the media sector (radio, TV, etc.), social networks (notably TikTok) and cinema. Simultaneously, Beijing has implemented a vigorous cultural diplomacy by establishing numerous dedicated institutes around the world.

A flagship: the Confucius Institute

In Lebanon, Beijing’s endeavor began with the establishment of a Confucius Institute as early as 2006 in Beirut. Much like other institutions such as the Alliance Française, which serves as a model, this institute primarily focuses on teaching the Chinese language and providing insights into Chinese culture.

Located within the campus of Univsersité Saint-Joseph (USJ) on Damascus Street, the Confucius Institute in Beirut is presently led by Nisrine Abdelnour Lattouf. Its teaching staff mainly consists of Chinese nationals. The institute primarily conducts classes on Friday evenings, catering for approximately a hundred students, and offers access to a specialized library.

“We often host activities showcasing Chinese culture,” explains Mrs. Abdelnour Lattouf to This is Beirut. “Recently, we have also introduced courses on various aspects of Chinese culture, including geographical and political aspects of the People’s Republic.”

However, the Confucius Institute does not confine its courses to its premises alone. Since the onset of the crisis in 2019, it has forged partnerships with other institutions, such as Notre-Dame de Jamhour College. “We found it more convenient for teachers to visit school campuses,” Mrs. Abdelnour Lattouf clarifies. “This allows interested students to take these classes on-site.” “They have the option to learn this language as part of their extracurricular activities,” she adds.

The initiative primarily aims to address the economic concerns of Lebanese individuals grappling with the crisis. Additionally, it seeks to enhance the allure of the Chinese language within Lebanon by strategically targeting its education sector.

Chinese soft power in action

The Confucius Institute in Beirut remains dynamic amidst these changes, leveraging China’s broad cultural influence abroad. Angela, a student at the Institute, attests to this, stating, “It’s primarily a cultural fascination. I became intrigued by Chinese culture, including its pop culture, films, literature, series and music, and I thought, why not give it a try?”

Social media platforms, notably TikTok, play a significant role in fueling this interest. Despite facing criticism from Western political figures as a tool for Chinese influence, TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance.

Li Xiaoyan, a Chinese professor at the Confucius Institute in Beirut, acknowledges the influence of the largest non-Western social network. “Some adults are interested in learning Chinese because of TikTok,” she observes. However, she adds, “others, in the medium term, begin to see China as an appealing destination for travel or potentially work in the future.”

In 2019, a document leak revealed that the app instructed its moderators to censor videos mentioning topics such as Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence and the Uyghur issue. TikTok has since responded, claiming to have revised these guidelines.

However, suspicions remain, particularly regarding its algorithm. Kept secret, it has since faced regular accusations of promoting a positive image of the People’s Republic.

Musical diplomacy

Beyond the Institute, the Chinese government is extending its efforts into other areas of the cultural field. It is funding the construction of the National Higher Conservatory of Music in Lebanon with a donation of $62 million. The project is being carried out by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation Limited (CSCEC), a state-owned enterprise.

This project features the key elements of the “New Silk Roads.” The acting president of the conservatory, Hiba Kawas, enthusiastically describes the project as “truly unique, as it represents, in a way, a symbol in our region.”

“I believe the Chinese government’s approach was a long-term one,” she adds. “The fact that they initiated the relationship with Lebanon through this project, which is purely cultural, shows how much Chinese policy relies on musical diplomacy and recognizes its power, its true power.”

Since antiquity, politics and music have been intertwined in China. “Music has the power to transcend borders,” stated Xi Jinping in November 2023, in a letter addressed to the Philadelphia Orchestra. And in Lebanon’s case, it is indeed about strengthening exchanges between the two countries.

A broader vision

This rapprochement goes beyond language and music, as demonstrated by Caracalla troupe’s  “Sailing the Silk Road” performance in 2018, for the 60th anniversary of the Baalbeck International Festival. The performance took place in Beijing, at the invitation of the Chinese authorities.

However, China’s soft power is not limited to cultural events. It also seeks to embed itself in their dissemination. Thus, in December 2023, the caretaker Minister of Information, Ziad Makary, signed a cooperation agreement in the media field with the Chinese Minister of the National Radio and Television Administration, Cao Shumin.

In addition to technical cooperation, the agreement included the exchange and distribution of media programs, as well as logistical support for media teams in both countries. It also involved cooperation in the administrative policy management of media institutions.

Are these merely agreements between two amicable countries? Let’s not forget that on August 19, 2013, Xi Jinping defined his approach to propaganda and international messaging by emphasizing the importance of “telling China’s story well.” The Chinese leader stressed the concept of “external propaganda.”

In other words, the aim is to present the People’s Republic in its finest image, particularly through the media. This initiative now extends far beyond the cultural field, deeply embedding itself in the political sphere.