National gifts give new look at China

Updated: 2014-09-01 07:07

By Zhao Shengnan(China Daily)

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From a bicycle to former US president George H. W. Bush and a set of audio equipment to Pyongyang in the late 1980s, to the sewing machines and skincare products that first lady Peng Liyuan gave to Tanzanian women in 2013, China's gifts also portray how lives have changed in recent years.

Yao Yao, chief of a soft power studies center under China Foreign Affairs University, said: "It doesn't matter whether people in other countries like the songs or TV dramas produced by today's China, we should at least help them know about today's China.

"Most issues of contention arise from a lack of understanding," he said.

"It's not an easy task, but we have to continue presenting a true picture of the country."

Soft power

Ling Di, a brand director of Perfect World (Beijing) Film and Entertainment Co, which produced the shows included in the DVD gift sets, noticed that the Chinese government has been paying increasing attention to spreading China's soft power and development through its rich culture and modern values, rather than "show how wealthy we have become".

"Popular TV drama and movies are the most straightforward way to demonstrate China and how ordinary Chinese people are living," he said.

"Family intrigue, romance and friendship can strike a chord in any audience regardless of their nationality."

The DVD sets that Xi presented to Brazil and Argentina during his visit to Latin America in July included subtitles in Chinese, English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Zhang Jingying remembered a different type of gift and how it has been updated.

The general manager of the Tianjin-based Flying Pigeon bicycle brand, behind the first bicycle after the founding of New China, referred to a Flying Pigeon bicycle that was given to former US president George H. W. Bush. An electric bike was subsequently presented to US President Barack Obama.

"From the bicycle to Bush in 1989 to the electric one to Obama in 2009, the technologies we used have changed beyond all recognition. Take the one to Obama for example - the lithium batteries we used could match standards in the US or Europe," Zhang said.

The role of bicycles has also changed a lot in China, she said.

In the 1980s, bicycles were the top means of transportation and Bush was keen to visit places in Beijing by bicycle when he worked in China before he became president.

"Now they are more about leisure, physical exercise and environmental protection," she said.

Lu said when Bush first saw the gift standing in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, he just jumped onto it and kept riding "so fast and happily that the Chinese security guards could barely follow him".

This bicycle was later exhibited in a prominent position in the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

On the occasion of Obama's 53rd birthday in August, The Washington Post listed all 274 gifts he received from 2009 to 2012. Among the 15 gifts given by China during the period, the Flying Pigeon electric bicycle ranked first.

Economic effects

Diplomacy has never been independent from economic interests and the promotion of products related to diplomatic gifts is a common occurrence.

When first lady Peng gave the Pechoin skincare products to African women, the 83-year-old brand and other homemade skincare products in China saw a surge in sales.

Ling, from Perfect World, said the company would "definitely" promote itself overseas as a producer of the national gifts.

"The government has set the platform for the development of China's cultural industry, and we have to perform well on that platform," he said.

A delegation from the company had traveled with Xi to Latin America to seek business opportunities, following a wave of Chinese TV drama exports.

Mao Doudou And Her Sweet Days, a 36-episode light comedy about a modern Chinese couple and their relationship with each other's families, struck a chord with African audiences last year. Other TV series have gone down well in Southeast Asia.

"Both the company and the directors were surprised by the gifts chosen for Latin America. Beijing's decision greatly encouraged us to match Western TV levels. As long as we produce something that is really high quality, it can be a national gift and honor for us," Ling said.

Zhang said Flying Pigeon has established more than 60 stores across China to sell bicycles of the same model as those given to foreign leaders.

Lu said this was not something new. When Beijing was considering giving a cashmere coat to visiting former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, many Chinese coat producers flocked to the protocol department he worked for, hoping the free sample they brought might be chosen.

The foreign ministry usually did not pay for the gifts. It would give a certificate to the producer instead, Lu said.

"The issuing of such certificates has become more strict due to the economic windfall it can lead to," Lu said.

Some gifts can also bolster development.

In July, Xi also presented former Cuban leader Fidel Castro with 5 kg of moringa seeds, an edible plant whose Chinese name literally means "spicy wood", and promised closer cooperation with Cuba to develop the plant.

In 2011, Xi, then vice-president, visited Cuba and Castro's house, which was shaded by moringa trees. Soon after the visit, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a program with Cuba regarding pest control, breeding and cultivation techniques.

Liu Changfen, an expert at the Tropical Crop Research Institute in Yunnan province, said the move reflected China's own rich experience in moringa planting.

The seeds were "a perfect gift from the country", Liu said.

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Li Xiang in Tianjin and Chen Jie in Beijing contributed to this story.


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