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.
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
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.
Good ones recently.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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… 🙂
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.”
Great suggestions Niubi. I read an article about Nye a few weeks ago, which gave me the idea for the articles.
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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[…] 中国见红：西方不懂中国 0 条评论 2011/10/19 18:39 1 次阅读 原文：The West doesn’t understand ChinaPosted on October 17, 2011 by Tom经常有人不同意我对中国的一些看法。我欢迎有想法的评论，开这个博客的主要动机之一，就是了解人们对我的看法的赞同程度。话虽这么说，仍有一些说辞是我听腻了的。接下来的几天时间，我们一起来看看这些老生常谈。西方不懂中国要想读一篇人民日报的文章，却不碰到“西方”“霸权”和“西方人不懂中国”等字样，这似乎是不可能的。这种感觉出自中国的民族主义群体的优越感/不安全感。在谈到民主问题和其他一些令中国领导人烦恼的话题时，人民日报经常会反驳说，中国不同于（优于）西方，而西方记者根本不懂这一点，外国人不应该期望（在中国与西方之间）找到任何相似之处。像这样的观点在中国已经宣传了数十年，2008年西藏骚乱期间，随着 Anti-CNN.com 网站的建立，这些观点的受欢迎度上升到一个新的层面。这个网站鼓吹民族主义，对于广泛存在的抗议行动背后的原因却含糊其辞。考虑到那片地区才通电没多久，认为外媒（比如CNN）与当地抗议者有关联的想法就太可笑了，但是，西方媒体正积极尝试阻止中国崛起，这一反复出现的主题又在汉人当中流行起来。值得注意的是，三年之后，西藏的情况仍未得到改善，自三月以来，已有8位僧人自焚。可是，如果中国真的这么难懂，它何必又为了增进软实力，把大把的钱花在孔子学院这样的项目上？一些中国在软实力上努力却遭到挫败的例子，此前已被我们讨论过（《距离我们都唱京剧还有多久？》以及《中国电影的失败》），但是，一个最大的问题中国领导人却没能抓住，那就是，中国不曾真正理解西方。回顾上周那篇文章，他们宣称北京的空气污染事实上并不严重，还有中国人不应该期盼美国标准。这篇文章发表在环球时报英文版上，却没有为适应外国读者而做出任何调整。文章是为了挽回面子，面子观在中国文化里很重要。然而，对许多（当然并非全部）外国人而言，透明度和诚信远比面子重要。写一篇文章承认问题所在，并解释说明为了改善这种状况，正在采取哪些具体措施，这种做法也许有效得多。出于某些不为人知的原因，环球时报的编辑们却没这么做，他们以为他们的外国读者会去相信“医生”的话，相信严重的空气污染其实与健康无关。我希望看到中国（未必是共产党）在国际上扮演一个更重要的角色，因此，他们犯的这种错误让我感到尴尬。即使开设了多家英文媒体门户，西方人仍然“不懂中国”，这才是值得中国重点关注的问题。西方人不懂，当中国宣布新的航母完工，还向津巴布韦与利比亚这样的国家出售军火时，它怎么会是一个和平的国家，西方人也不懂，为何胡锦涛告诉他们党才是中国发展的唯一希望。如果中国的媒体能够真正理解西方人的想法，他们就会明白，为什么国有媒体的话语难以取得外国读者的信任。 […]