China’s Global Soft Power Ambitions Face Obstacles

Chinese Experts See Relative Dearth Of “Cultural Products” A Hindrance As China Looks To Promote Culture Overseas

An effective ambassador? Actress Zhang Ziyi (Image: Omega)

An effective ambassador? Actress Zhang Ziyi (Image: Omega)

Over the past 20 years, the Chinese government has made the projection of international “soft power” a central priority, increasing investments in cultural initiatives like Confucius Institutes to promote the study of the Chinese language while engaging in “panda diplomacy,” “art diplomacy,” and even “terracotta diplomacy” in an attempt to win over the world. Despite the billions spent on bolstering the country’s soft power arsenal, however, interest in Chinese culture has lagged behind interest in the Chinese economy, leading some academics and social commentators in China to question what’s standing in the way of China’s soft power rivaling that of the United States.

This week, China Industry News takes a look at the obstacles preventing Chinese soft power from making serious strides. Translation by Jing Daily team.

Consultant Zhou Chunbing recently said in an interview with China Industry News that China should promote essential elements of Chinese culture (Confucianism and Taoism) and its traditional culture and arts (martial arts, Chinese medicine, etc.) as its own universal values throughout the world. Although [China is] one of the world’s four ancient civilizations, the outside world really doesn’t understand [it]. Put another way, we can say that people have impressions of our recent history, but the long history and broad cultural background of China are little known in the outside world. We need to systematically plan and promote ourselves, and find the fastest channel through which we can send our cultural products out into the world.

But exporting cultural products is difficult. According to Peking University Cultural Industry Research Center Vice President Chen Shaofeng, though the West has felt China’s rising economic power, it hasn’t felt the rise of Chinese cultural power. Absent core values and lacking leadership in terms of core values, this is one of the major issues facing us. China has experienced problems exporting cultural products both quantitatively and qualitatively, which has had an impact on the promotion of national values and the common values of the [Chinese] people.

Professor Yao Zejin feels that in terms of the output and distribution of cultural products, the values inherent in the content are obviously important. However, these values don’t necessarily have to depend on so-called “universal values.” The successful distribution of cultural products depends on complex factors, such as ideology, artistic expression, national background, marketing models and other aspects. So we can say that cultural products first and foremost need to be artistic…[but] at the same time must strike a balance between art and product, so as to be widely acceptable by individuals both young and old.

“Don’t just think of a film’s popularity, think of its background as well. Why can other people shoot great movies but we can’t? It all depends on our degree of ideological freedom, ability to innovate and express ourselves artistically and so forth. But the key is a system’s ability to unleash human freedom, creativity and vitality, not just [parrot] so-called universal values,” Yao Zejin said.

Actually, establishing a national image through the export of cultural products is a gradual, imperceptible process, one in which China has been moving. Outstanding Chinese films and Chinese directors taking part in international film festivals are becoming increasingly well known throughout the world, and excellent [Chinese] actors and actresses have started to walk down the red carpet and attract the world’s attention. So we see Gong Li (ed. note — Gong Li is a naturalized citizen of Singapore) and Zhang Ziyi as members of world-class juries, and we see Fan Bingbing stunning [audiences] at the Cannes Film Festival. A better image of the Chinese people is gradually coming about because of them.

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