Tag Archives: Soft Power

Hey, Speaking of Soft Power Fails…

A couple days ago we looked at one way to fail at soft power, but while we were doing that, China’s highest levels of leadership were working on a way to fail way, way harder. In case any of you have been living under a rock, Xi Jinping — China’s presumptive next president — is M.I.A.

Now, before things get all Jiang Zemin-y up in here, plenty of sources seem to be suggesting that Xi has been out with minor injury and will likely be back in the public eye soon. But no one knows for sure because no one has actually seen Xi since September 1, and China’s government has refused to explain where Xi is.

Let’s just pause for a minute and think about the message this sends to the world. China is saying, “Trust us. Make the RMB your reserve currency. We are a stable, peaceful economic powerhouse and you have nothing to fear from investing in us. Oh, by the way, the guy who’s running our country may periodically just disappear for extended periods of time and no one will explain why. Don’t worry about it!”

I’m no economist, but I believe the sudden, unexplained disappearance of someone in charge of the world’s second largest economy is going to have an impact on the markets. It certainly doesn’t instill confidence. And things don’t improve when that disappearance drags on for weeks. Whether or not Xi was seriously ill or injured is almost beside the point now. What the hell did Chinese officials have to gain from all this? Because they sure lost a lot of points internationally, and having your impending next president disappear doesn’t play too well domestically either, no matter how hard you scrub the weibos.

I suppose whenever Xi reemerges from his cucoon underground bunker sex palace marble boat whatever, it may become clear what happened to him. If he had some sort of horrific visually-evident disease — flesh-eating bacteria or something? — then I could see why the government might want to hide him from the world. But short of that, I’m seriously at a loss for what the upside of “the president-to-be has disappeared” approach to governance is. I welcome your explanations in the comments.

Anyway, this is probably a good enough reason for plenty of countries to stick with the US dollar for now. Sure, our jackass bankers may have ruined the world economy, and sure, it turns out our strategy of invading random middle eastern countries, destroying them, and then leaving hasn’t been hugely popular with the locals. But say what you will about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — it’s hard to imagine either one of them vanishing without a trace just a few months before the all-important power transition (or the all-important lack thereof).

The economic numbers aren’t everything, and even if China’s economy was looking as rosy as it was a few years ago, trust matters. It is time for China to start trusting its own people and the world to be able to handle news like “Xi Jinping has hurt his back and is going to skip some meetings on doctor’s orders.” Perhaps I’m off here, but I think most people’s response to that would be something like: “Oh. Hmm, I’ve got to remember to pick up some milk on the way home from work” and not “OMG, anarchy in the PRC!”

Leave it to China to take what seems like a pretty innocuous incident — an old guy hurting his back a bit — and turning it into one of this year’s more epic propaganda/soft power own goals.

Another Lesson in How to Fail at Soft Power

I came across this story a couple days ago, and found it mildly amusing, but eventually decided it was worth sharing here because it’s indicative of the larger trend. First of all, here are the basics for those that haven’t already read the article:

Citing “strong resentment from the local Chinese community,” the Chinese government has asked the city of Corvallis to force a Taiwanese-American businessman to remove a mural advocating independence for Taiwan and Tibet from his downtown building.

But city leaders say the mural violates no laws and its political message is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Taiwanese artist Chao Tsung-song painted the 10-foot-by-100-foot mural last month on the side of the old Corvallis MicroTechnology building at Southwest Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue. The work was commissioned by property owner David Lin, who is renovating the space for a restaurant and has rechristened the building Tibet House.

In vivid colors, the painting depicts riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.

In a letter dated Aug. 8, the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco formally complained to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning about the mural’s content and asked for her help in having it removed.

“There is only one China in the world,” the letter reads in part, “and both Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China.”

Now, I can’t be too sure about the quality of the reporting here, because the article refers to Tibet as a “country” and as a “breakaway province” (it most certainly is neither, though some might like it to be). But I’m guessing the basic facts of the case here are true.

Let’s think about this from the perspective of the local Chinese consulate general. A business owner in your area of the US has put up a mural that you find offensive. If this were China, of course, you could have it taken down, and maybe have the guy beaten or tossed in jail for a little while to teach him a lesson. But you don’t have those powers in the US, so your only real options are to ignore it or make a big stink about it. Why in hell would you ever choose the latter?

If you ignore it, the only people who ever hear about it are the people who happen to visit or drive by that building, most of whom probably aren’t even going to understand its meaning. If you make a big stink about it, on the other hand, you turn it into a news story. What’s more, you turn it into a news story that the local government has an active interest in promoting because it makes them look awesome. ‘We stood up to pressure from the Chinese government and defended the first Amendment rights of an American business owner’ — what US government official wouldn’t want that story on the front page of every newspaper? That is exactly why what could have been a tiny non-story is now being discussed on this blog and elsewhere despite the fact that I don’t even know where Corvallis is.

The other question is what the hell did Chinese consular officials think they were going to gain from sending that letter? Surely Chinese diplomats are given at least some basic training in US laws, so they ought to know the local government wasn’t even going to consider taking the mural down. And while I understand this is probably the sort of thing that has to be done from time to time to please the overseers back in China, I can’t imagine anyone in China would have heard of this mural either of the Chinese consulate general hadn’t broadcast it to the world by formally making a complaint about it.

The complaint makes the Chinese government look petty and weak even as it draws attention to two issues the Chinese government doesn’t want anyone talking about. The publicity helps ensure that more Americans are going to come down on what the Chinese government would consider to be the “wrong” side. Sure, consular officials may have scored some points with their buddies at home, but they did so by putting yet another scratch in China’s already-battered international reputation and by setting the country back even further on its increasingly unrealistic-looking quest to wield some kind of measurable cultural power outside its borders.

The Wu-Tang Clan and China’s (Unintentional) Soft Power

In early 1992, over a decade of Beijing’s soft power aspirations led to the founding of the first Confucius Institute, traditional Chinese culture found unintentional ambassadors (of a sort) in the unlikeliest of places. In the slums of Staten Island, a young Robert Diggs was forming hip-hop’s first real super-group, and he was using a Chinese aesthetic to help brand it.

The name “Wu-Tang Clan” itself is, obviously, Chinese, originating from a kung fu film called Shaolin vs. Wu Tang. The group peppered their first album with audio clips from dubbed Chinese films (especially the aforementioned film), samples from traditional Chinese musical instruments, and esoteric references to kung fu legends — amidst, of course, the braggadocio battle-style rhyming that has been popular in one form or another since rap was invented.

The final product might have left something to be desired, from a Chinese perspective. Probably, this was not exactly the image of China they wanted presented to the public ((Although one wonders if perhaps in private moments Hu Jintao doesn’t occasionally say to himself, “Zhongnanhai ain’t nothing to fuck wit!”)):

Still, the Wu-Tang Clan spread Chinese kung fu and the Shaolin name — which they adopted to refer to their Staten Island home — to a whole audience that didn’t really know anything about China.

Of course, they still don’t. Nearly two decades later, kung fu is one of the few things most Americans associate with China. The Shaolin temple is a household name, or close to one, which certainly puts it ahead of every other Buddhist temple on the face of the planet. Of course, not all — not even most — of the credit for this belongs to Wu-Tang. But Wu-Tang’s influence in spreading Chinese kung fu and even traditional Chinese music indicates something about soft power that Beijing may have missed; namely, that it is most effective when it is derivative and not directly controlled.

By derivative, what I mean is that when one culture (for clarity, we’ll call it C1) interacts with something from another culture (C2), people are inevitably going to take parts of that culture (C2) and assimilate them into something that already exists in their own (C1). RZA and the Wu-Tang took Chinese kung fu and the Hong Kong kung fu flick aesthetic, mixed it with hip hop, and the results were explosive. They weren’t Chinese, of course, but they were a gateway into things that really were Chinese — like actual Kung Fu.

This method seems to be more effective than the more direct (and thus more easily controlled) soft power attempts we see from Beijing. CCTV International and Confucius Institutes, to be frank, are probably too Chinese for mainstream consumption. They are, of course, easily controlled by the government. But they haven’t been as effective in spreading Chinese culture throughout the US as a group of black guys from Staten Island. Which is to say, of course, they haven’t been effective at all.

America’s soft power, on the other hand, is pretty undeniable, and I would submit that this is in large part because it comes mostly from non-government organizations, and thus is much more flexible. It can be changed and adapted to fit local cultures while still representing the “American way” (as KFC and McDonalds, for example, adopt their menus to fit local tastes). It can lead to derivative work that outpaces the original while still retaining some of its cultural influence (as in Jay Chou’s fusion of elements of American hip-hop and dance with C-pop to create something much more marketable to a Chinese audience than, say, 2pac).

Of course, there are also dangers in this approach. Precisely because American soft power output cannot be controlled, the image of America that is presented is not wholly positive, or even accurate. Americans who’ve been in China more than a few second are probably familiar with the question “How many guns do you have?” (because we all own guns, thanks Hollywood!), and may have heard terrible things about American cities (one of my Chinese teachers in Harbin once told me she didn’t dare travel to the US for fear of being killed in a gun battle on the streets).

Still, the sooner Beijing can get over the idea that it’s possible to present China without exposing some of the less perfect bits, the better. In fact, the sooner it accepts the fact that it cannot really effectively control soft power at all, the better. Soft power is a cultural export, and as much as Beijing likes to think it controls Chinese culture, we need look no further than the Wu-Tang Clan to see that the idea of “Chinese culture” is far too amorphous to be defined by a cabal of old men.

Han Han has suggested in speeches that China cannot be a cultural power while its culture is being controlled, and he’s right. Obviously, cultural censorship inhibits domestic development as well, but internationally speaking, government control is the ultimate mood-killer. No part of Chinese culture will spread through the US like wildfire because of the Confucius Institutes — this is not to say that they’re totally useless, of course, but they’re not nearly as effective real cultural exports could be.

If RZA can spread the word about the Shaolin temple through a Christian country via dubbed kung fu tapes funneled into hip-hop albums and music videos, imagine what China’s vast army of creative people if they were unmuzzled and unleashed.

See this article I translated a while ago for CNReviews for an interesting discussion of China’s soft power tactics. (Or, alternatively, click the link for pretty photos of Zhang Ziyi).