How Long Until We Are All Singing Beijing Opera? – China’s Soft Power

This week we’ve taken a brief look at China’s ability to project economic, political, and military power, and whether or not China is approaching super power status. Today we look at China’s cultural power.

Culture a.k.a. Soft Power

Chinese language is becoming widely popular in schools throughout the world. People are eager to learn the world’s most spoken language, and this has given China a great opportunity to use it’s GDP (and people’s desire to get into the Chinese market) to build China’s soft power. The Confucius Institute has been by far China’s most successful attempt at exporting it’s culture.

However, many expats have already discovered that Chinese isn’t actually a necessity for living in China. I know dozens of foreigners that have never progressed beyond a few basic survival phrases, but function without much difficulty in China. On top of that China has been pushing English education so strongly here that many foreigners have discovered their co-workers speak English well enough that they don’t have to speak much Chinese to get by in the workplace.

Recently there have also been many claims that once China’s GDP passes the US it will become the major source of cultural output (books, TV shows, movies…). I don’t believe it. After all Japan and Germany have had major economies for decades, but are nowhere close to matching US output.

Just for fun, try to name 5 Chinese actors, or 5 Chinese authors, or 5 Chinese artists…

I’m guessing that unless you have been studying China for more than a few years, you probably couldn’t list many people in any of those categories. I’m also guessing many of you named Jackie Chan and Bruce Li, they actually both got their starts in HK, and only got popular in the US after their Hollywood debuts.

Predictions that China is going to change before 2050 are a bit too rosy in my opinion. Like I mentioned before, China’s lack of creative thinking is going to prove to be a major impediment as China tries to take to the global stage. That paired with regular gov’t crackdowns on artists and film makers means that a lot has to change before China can even begin to compete globally in entertainment which is a large indicator of cultural output.

China also has big dreams for CCTV – making it a globally respected news organization. I doubt that many, if any, of you would trust the Chinese gov’t as your news source, after all most Chinese people don’t. This presents the bigger problem facing China’s soft power efforts, the gov’t is so disliked overseas, that many of their attempts fall flat. For China to be successful in bringing a Chinese voice to the world stage, like Al Jazeera did for the Arab world, it is going to need to create a media branch that is completely free from gov’t control.

China’s inability to separate people’s perception of the gov’t from influencing their views of the culture is going to be a major obstacle for China to overcome in its mission to become a superpower. Until the gov’t releases its tight control on media and art, not much progress will be made on the world stage.

About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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16 Responses to How Long Until We Are All Singing Beijing Opera? – China’s Soft Power

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Any news on poor old Ai Wei Wei? BBC ran a radio programme on him recently, just after he was locked up again. He has an exhibit at Tate Modern Art Gallery and is becoming widely known and respected in UK

    • Tom says:

      still no news about Ai Weiwei. The gov’t has been running some stories about it to test different charges out with the public. So far they have mentioned that it might be an immigration issue, or tax evasion, plagiarism, or even child pornography.
      We still have no idea where he is being held, or when they will even charge him with a crime.

  2. Mark Walker says:

    Good ones recently.

  3. NiubiCowboy says:

    Great post Tom! A few thoughts..

    (1) Language: As much as China is promoting the study of Mandarin Chinese throughout the world, it’s wishful thinking on their part to think that, because of its size and its rising position within the world, Chinese will simply replace English as the world’s lingua franca. I always like to look at the geographical spread of the language as an indicator of how widely used it is. The umbrella of Chinese languages is spoken primarily in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and in overseas Chinese communities throughout the world. English, on the other hand, is spoken in the UK, the Commonwealth countries, Europe (as a second language), and throughout many parts of the world as the second or third language of choice. Chinese is an extremely difficult language to learn and even Chinese students spend much of their time in primary and secondary school learning enough characters to become literate. I find it difficult to believe that the rest of the world shelve enough subjects in their curriculum so students can study enough Chinese to be able to read their new Chinese-language newspapers, enjoy their new BBC xiangsheng performances, and listen to their Chinese-language government edicts. I believe the written language is the biggest impediment to Mandarin becoming a more widely used global language. Until they devise an adequate romanization system, I don’t think it’s in the cards for China in the near future. More likely would be that Chinese English becomes a more definable strain of the language, much like Indian English or Singaporean English.

    (2) Soft power: The biggest problem with China’s soft power push is that it is so state-centric. And, once again, being the biggest doesn’t necessarily translate to being the best. As the Ministry of Culture struggles to earn acceptance abroad, nearby South Korean culture is taking Asia by storm with its hallyu, or Korean Wave of entertainment. I’d often ask my Chinese co-workers what television and films they enjoyed watching. One co-worker told me bluntly, “I don’t watch Chinese TV. Only American.” She proceeded to rattle off a list of shows even I hadn’t watched yet. A few of my other co-workers told me, “I watch Korean dramas. Do you watch them in America?” Part of the reason these cultural products are so successful is because there’s no government entity shoving it in front of people’s faces, desperately trying to get people to like it. Hollywood and the American cultural industry have their own interests of course, business and otherwise, but when they craft products now I imagine they’re attempting to create a television show or film that has as broad an appeal as possible. Movies like Avatar aren’t designed to cater only to American tastes, but global palates as well. In contrast, Chinese blockbusters tend to be historical and culturally irrelevant to everyone except Chinese people and interested Sinophiles. Even Japanese video game developers have begun creating titles that cater exclusively to broader audiences outside of Japan, as competition from abroad becomes more fierce.

    And, as you mentioned, Confucius Institutes have been established around the world to help spread Chinese culture, ideas, and values. A noble effort, and one I endorse. However, it seems problematic when you’re teaching foreign children about things like traditional Chinese music and calligraphy while Chinese students back in China are listening to Justin Bieber, watching Friends, and taking their dates to KFC. It almost seems as if China’s afraid of promoting their pop culture because (1) much of it is imported and (2) much of what isn’t and much of what is popular in China at the moment wouldn’t be deemed “harmonious” by the authorities. So, foreign students are learning about China that barely exists anymore, except in the hearts and minds of its older citizens.

    For China to succeed in acquiring more soft power it has to, in the words of the man who coined the term, Joseph Nye, “lighten up.” It doesn’t help either when you’re trying to promote yourself abroad while denying your citizens at home. Whenever something happens at home that damages its soft power (Ai Wei Wei’s detention), it’s almost as if they’re attempting to pull a Jedi mind trick on the rest of the world: “These aren’t the human rights activists you’re looking for *hand wave*” Ultimately, lightening up at home and allowing its civil society to grow and flourish with progressively fewer government restrictions would do more for China’s soft power than any Confucius Institute or Mandopop song.

    • Tom says:

      Thank you for those great additions Niubi. I find it funny when people make these claims about how quickly Chinese culture will rise, when American culture took nearly a century to become so popular, and that was riding on the back of English colonialism that had already spread our language.
      Fun side note, Chinese TV isn’t even that popular in it’s neighboring, Chinese-speaking neighbors. Malaysian Chinese are more likely to be watching house than anything from the mainland.
      I also found it interesting that there is now the network show “outsourced” about India, but nothing yet about China.

  4. China’s deep ‘foreign policy’ probably hasn’t changed much in the past 2,000 years: have as little to do as possible with foreigners and overawe them through cultural superiority.

    Occasional ceremonial visits from foreigners’ representatives accompanied by obeisances (ours) and generous gifts (theirs). It worked for millennia.

    That’s about it. You heard it here.

  5. Jacques Huynen says:

    If “soft power” is that of influence through cultural prestige for instance and if religions and philosophies are cultural productions, China, as Vietnam where I lived for 6 years, fails to see the enormous leverage it could get on global public opinion, especially those sections of it in the West or in the Muslim world looking for alternative to Christianity and monotheism, through finding a reasonable solution to the Tibet autonomy question – and promoting its taoist, confucianist and Buddhist practices and traditions. It could then cash in parts of the huge capital in prestige accumulated worldwide by the Dalai Lama and become the center of a new New Age culture.

  6. Chopstik says:

    I don’t have much to add to this discussion as most of it has been aptly stated by Tom and Niubi Cowboy. However, on a humorous aside, I have to say that I will never be singing Beijing Opera. After having tried to appreciate it on more than one occasion, it comes across as little more than falsetto screeching to me. No offense to its many devotees… 🙂

  7. NiubiCowboy says:

    I thought I’d offer a reading suggestion for you, and anyone else interested in the topics Tom has discussed in his four part “China as Superpower?” series. The book is called “The Future of Power” and it’s written by Joseph Nye, who I mentioned was the academic who coined the term “soft power.” He looks at the economic, political, military, and soft power of the United States and the challenges to its superpower status in the short and long term. He also examines these shades of power in potential superpowers, chief among them China. In the book, he argues that what’s needed now is “smart power,” the successful blend of hard and soft power strategies in a country’s political arsenal.

    Also, glad to see you’re reading “Nothing to Envy.” A few months ago I read another book in that same vein, only it dealt with China. It’s called “The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up.”

  8. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Thanks for the suggestion of Joseph Nye book “The Future of Power”, Niubi. I also read “The Corpse Walker” recently and recommend it to anybody wishing to learn more about the laobaixing. Thanks for a great set of articles on China as Superpower, Tom.

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  11. Ematz Whippet says:

    I learned about internet memes that are popular in China – there are homegrown Chinese cultural things that are interesting. But the government doesn’t approve of many of them, like the Grass Mud Horse (Caonima)

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