Beijing’s Charm Offensive: From Cultural Dwarf to Heavyhitter
“The soft can control the hard, the weak can control the strong.”
– Three Strategies of Huang Shigong
China has been understood – at least since the rise of Mao in 1935 – as a maladroit power stuck in the Cold War imagery of military parades; a relic of the Soviet Age much as the Forbidden Palace had ossified the Qing-era nation. This stubborn, sepia-toned character manifests today in brittle foreign policy briefings on global hotspots such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Uighurs and the South Sea Islands.
Aggression on these four fronts is justified on the basis that they transgress part of China’s “core” identity, compromising its “total sovereignty.” Players who turn a blind eye to its truculent rhetoric are rewarded in the currency of “panda diplomacy” whereby scores of the dim, aggressive bears are dispatched – truly a mixed blessing given Beijing charges $1m a year to retain the “gift,” and also maintains the right to repatriate any offspring.
These attempts at PR are half-hearted because China views the above threats as existential in nature (i.e. not up for discussion abroad) – very similar to how Russia sees its “blizhnee zarubezhe” (“Near Abroad”). Taiwan for housing its opponent – the Kuomintang – in the bitter civil war (1929-47), Hong Kong for prolonging the humiliation of foreign influence on Chinese soil, the Uighurs for upholding a non-Han/Confucian identity, and the South Sea islands as a place where the legal bumf that protects international waters should be sacrificed on a bonfire that celebrates China’s first-power status.
So far, so normal. China blunders while the West deftly wields the Excalibur of cultural hegemony; a tool that manipulates in ways hard power can only fantasise about. The US has Hollywood, democracy, globally recognised brands and the ubiquitous dollar, all of which forms part of its “Vast conspiracy to make [one] happy” in Elbert Ventura’s memorable phrase. Over the Atlantic, Europe – to paraphrase Harold Macmillan – peddles itself as a Grecian role model to American Rome; it’s the West’s birthplace; a historical, cultural heavyweight and a tourist’s delight. To the East, Japan and South Korea are formidable exporters of pop culture with highly liberal, if eccentric, societies.
China, meanwhile, has a limited appeal. It’s hard to polish a totalitarian regime that pollutes (it’s a world leader in greenhouse gasses and mercury), distorts (historical events such as Tiananmen Square), bullies (forcing the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959), incarcerates Nobel Peace Prize winners until death (such as Liu Xiaobo, d. 2017), forces publishers to censor publications, uses the United Front to cajole and bully nationals abroad into towing the CCP line, and produces pandemics that infect 420 million people, fragmenting societies, breaking supply chains and corrupting the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Despite its hostile stance on “core concerns,” however, China is not immune to fine-tuning its image abroad. Especially when it touches on its immediate sphere of influence: East Asia. Understanding that its main form of appeal is its reputation as an economic success story, particularly in the eyes of developing countries, China sells this image – often futurist at heart, with high-speed railways zooming through Laotian jungle, Shanghai’s skyline and the social credit system forming major components in its advertising toolbox – hard. Perhaps in the knowledge that several threats loom on the horizon, not least rising demands for a stronger welfare state, an aging population, concerns over environmental sustainability, and the middle-income trap.
Even outside its sphere of power, however, Beijing is learning to play image games. Accused of a COVID cover-up, while past regimes might have embraced steely silence or issued a frosty soundbite, Xi Jinping indicated the nation’s new-fangled maturity by conspicuously confecting an image of China as a medical superstar, shipping medical supplies abroad at cheap rates and forcing its citizens to let “science” reorder society. Often the Chinese masks supplied to others were donated and the most celebrated destinations were not in the third world but Europe. Few misunderstood the message behind these newsbeats.
More important than these winking gestures are the cultural centres that have opened globally. China has more than five hundred Confucius Institutes and classes, which seek to “Tell China’s story.” Each crafts a message of historical victimhood (at the hands of imperialism), emphasises the West as the victim of a paranoia that frames China as a “threat,” and accentuates its own benevolent paternalism abroad. These efforts are overseen by the Ministry of Education, which is supervised by the CCP’s propaganda department. Overall, they have been fairly successful at modifying the tone of media reports that touch on China.
Then there’s the famous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious plan to connect the world to the “Middle Kingdom” and sell it as beneficial to all “partners.” This Chinese equivalent of the Marshall Plan (1948-52) has neither stalled nor amounted to an astounding success. Instead it has plodded at a pace Xi Jinping claims is satisfactory. Issues remain, however. Some BRI plans resembled white elephants even on paper. Several loans teeter on the brink of default (or at least deferred payments), while others linger in limbo. Egypt, for instance, has “indefinitely postponed” the Chinese-funded construction of the world’s second-largest coal-fired power plant at Hamrawein. Evidence of Chinese debt-traps, as I argued here in early 2018, however, is currently inconclusive. Mainly because the most egregious examples, such as Sri Lanka and Tanzania, were bad debtors before Chinese intervention – though it does beg the question why China walks where angels fear to tread.
One of the BRI’s major components, the Information Silk Road, often falls under the radar but shouldn’t. The ISR seeks to build a “Digital Earth Under the Silk Road” and, geared to this end, has developed BeiDou (1-3), a Chinese satellite navigation system. Competing with the three global GNSS systems (US’ GPS, Russia’s GLONASS and EU’s Galileo) China believes it’ll become the main alternative to GPS. Over 120 countries have already adopted it.
Huawei Marine is also constructing submarine cables to boost the internet capacity of Pakistan, Africa, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. One of its showpieces is Myanmar, which had less than one percent of its population connected to broadband in 2012 but hopes to leapfrog Singapore, Malaysia and India by having almost everybody wired up to 5G by 2025.
The new geopolitical Father Christmas on the block, however, has plenty of coal to throw. Those who fail to understand or conform to the Chinese agenda, or simply make the country look bad are pushed into very public firing squads. When South Korea deployed a missile-defence shield in late 2019, for instance, one of its corporate front-runners (the chain Lotte) saw its stores in China hit with fire-code violations. A government-backed boycott kept Chinese tourists out of the country too. Later, Australia also fell afoul of Beijing when it backed a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus (April, 2020). China immediately imposed taxes (of up to 212 percent) on its wine in “Anti-dumping measures.”
These responses aren’t limited to countries. Disney (which spent $5.5bn funding Shanghai’s Disneyland) censors its films in order to protect its access to Chinese markets. Jamie Dimon, CEO of J. P. Morgan, retracted a joke that the bank was likely to “outlast the Communist Party.” The NBA lost hundreds of millions of dollars in TV revenue after a controversy stemming from comments about Hong Kong. The English Premier League was transferred to a less popular channel (and reduced audience) after similar comments. Learning from these lessons, some companies change tack. The American hotel chain Marriott grovelled before Chinese authorities over an employee’s unobliging tweet. Airlines, too, queued up to comply with Beijing’s demands over the nomenclature of Taiwan. This list goes on.
True soft power doesn’t rely on the buttons and levers outlined above, which are best read as attempts to wield the economic carrot over the political cudgel rather than create a culture industry. Just as someone converted to British culture via the wiles of the British Council is probably initiated in a more superficial manner than another who naturally learns to love Elgar, roast dinners and the National Trust, so China is finally appreciating that its international cajolery does not compare to the manipulative effects a thriving culture industry might yield.
Chinese high fashion editorials, for example, have raised their game across nearly every publisher. Indeed, authorities consistently rate the (explicitly oriental) aesthetics of Chinese publications – which often focus on Qing-era themes – above their US counterparts, which lazily rely on the pulling-power of celebrities.
This new confidence may be connected to the fact that China surpassed the US as the world’s biggest fashion market in 2019. Moreover, out of the top twenty global fashion companies, eighteen have a presence in China. One of the big winners is fast-fashion e-retailer SHEIN, based in China, which is extremely price-sensitive and image-conscious, but also indifferent to quality. Items are often stitched too fast with various shortcuts; many disintegrate after a few outings; almost none resemble the advertising shots.
Beauty is also affected. Not only by mini-fads like filters and prosthetic make-up but also debates around more globalised (i.e. non-western) ideals. While it was probably Japanese manga that ingrained a preference for epicanthic folds and docility in Western men, their women are increasingly plugging themselves into the Asian Youtube discourse on whether freckles or plain complexions make ladies alluring, whether luxury western brands should be shunned for “exoticising” the Chinese face, and whether narrow eyes should be celebrated or disregarded.
Indeed, the rapid expansion of China’s cosmetics industry (which has enjoyed roughly fifteen percent growth every year for the last decade) consistently forces global brands like L’Oréal and local challengers like Perfect Diary to adapt. There’s a constant pressure to align themselves to Asian ideals of beauty, the mental universe of Chinese medicine, the preferences of local R&D centres, as well as ever-more Chinese brand ambassadors (and their politics).
This cultural pivot also influences wine. Historically a sphere in which China exercised almost no authority, it entered a few media stories in the last decade but outrage hinged on transgressions of French sovereignty after China’s wealthiest had purchased roughly a hundred and fifty chateaux in Bordeaux.
What’s less appreciated is that young Chinese customers are increasingly turning away from Solaia, Ornellaia, Tignanello and top-end Pomerol – the super-wines of a show-off culture – and attempting to nurse a sense of creativity and adventure by opting for home-grown vintages. In fact, China is now one of the biggest wine-producing countries thanks mainly to the regions of Ningxia, Xinjiant and Shandong. Flagship wineries include Chateau Changyu Moser XV and Domaine des Aromes. Most impressively, small boutique wineries such as Silver Heights, Helan Qingxue and Tiansai are gaining popularity, and independent winemakers are starting to have their presence felt, forging a real wine culture rather than a knock-off prestige model.
Finally, film. China blocked all four Disney Marvel films from being released in its theatres last year. A grim sign for US film giants – companies which feel squeezed out of the world’s fastest-growing box office. Despite Disney’s best efforts to court Chinese officials, its Marvel titles were blocked reportedly for character portrayals or concerns about comments made by filmmakers, directors or actors in the films. The total share of US films among China’s foreign film offerings declined from 46 percent in 2020 to 39 percent a year later.
This is linked to China’s goal to become a “strong film power” by 2035. An ideal considered realistic after it surpassed the US as the world’s largest cinema market for the first time in 2020, and again in 2021. China’s massive market also means films don’t have to go global to have huge success. They just need to be effective locally. Out of the 200 top-grossing films globally last year, 44 were from China, 80 from North America and 76 from other regions. And it’s the Chinese narrative that’s being sold. Most obviously in the highest-grossing film in the Chinese box office last year: Battle for Lake Changjin, a war film that nakedly glorifies the Chinese fight against America during the Korean War.
It is this changing cultural mood, a growing confidence, that amounts to something new. Cultural heft by creative industries outside the state’s formal ambit represents a big development. It marks a pivot in soft power from a reliance on the government’s heavy-handed agenda to something approaching a culture created by multiple actors beyond the state. Whereas the former attitude often resulted in suspicion (because the Chinese state tended towards coercion rather than the cultivation of mutual advantages), the latter results in a genuinely appealing (or seductive) culture; a soft power – enshrined in the ideals of Tianxia – to which the world might one day gravitate.