Message and the medium

Updated: 2012-04-06 08:42

By Liu Lu, Wang Chao and Fu Jing (China Daily)

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Message and the medium

Nation needs to mobilize its soft power resources to win more hearts, minds

Kung fu, pandas or Peking opera are what one would commonly associate with China- but they are also vital cogs in a massive "soft power" exercise that China hopes will give it more global voice and an image makeover. It is also proving to be a tough challenge for policymakers, as the growth of the country's "soft power" has not been in tandem with that of its "hard power".

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So why all this brouhaha about "soft power", one may ask.

The answer can be found in the realms of the foreign strategy of China that advocates peaceful coexistence along with robust economic growth.

But with so many ingredients that make up the dish called "soft power", there are also doubts as to what should be the driving force for this collective vehicle. Policymakers believe that the real key to soft power lies in bolstering cultural productions and expanding the global cultural footprint.

Lending further credence to this view is the statement made by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the first 2012 issue of Qiushi (Seeking Truth), a bi-monthly political theory periodical published by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Hu writes that cultural strength is the basis of China's soft power and competitiveness on the international stage.

The opening of the first Confucius Institute in Seoul in 2004, or the expanding presence of Chinese media companies overseas, or even the ongoing first-ever Chinese Culture Year in Germany, are all indicative of the steps taken by China to spruce up its international image and soft power.

"China should use culture as a diplomatic platform to enhance its image and project its soft power," China's Culture Minister Cai Wu said at a recent news conference.

"There is no doubt that China has impressed the world with its booming economy. But that alone is not enough," says Yu Guoming, journalism professor at the Renmin University of China.

Yu feels that Chinese decision-makers are now looking to give the world a better picture of China through the appeal of its culture. To some extent, this also explains the buzz of activity associated with the culture sector, he says.

"Culture is fast emerging as the crucial indicator of China's competitiveness in the contemporary world."

With China's influence growing steadily, the thrust for the future is not only to export more goods, but also showcase the life and culture of the nation to the rest of the world.

According to information provided by the General Administration of Customs, in 2011, China's exports of cultural products hit a new high of $18.7 billion (14 billion euros), an increase of 22.2 percent over the previous year. Industry experts believe that this robust growth momentum will grow substantially in line with the nation's plans to boost its "soft power".

"China wants to forge greater trust with the world, especially through more cultural exchanges, as it helps build the global image of a peaceful rising power," says Martyn Davies, chief executive of Frontier Advisory, a leading research and strategy firm from South Africa that specializes on the emerging markets.

Davies says that China has one of the most ancient cultures in the world, and more cultural contacts will help the country learn international communication rules thereby reducing misunderstandings and stereotyped bias.

"The world also has a curiosity and urge to better understand China rather than just its economic strength," Davies says.

"Other countries' interests in China's politics and economy have inevitably extended to the cultural area."

European connection

Europe has been one of the vocal supporters of the Beijing strategy to boost soft power by expanding its cultural footprint.

"Economic cooperation is not and cannot be the sole dimension of the EU-China relationship. That is why people-to-people contacts have been added to EU-China strategic partnership. Cultural exchanges are at the heart of this new dimension," says European Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.

"Both Beijing and Brussels acknowledge the significant role of culture in international relations."

Vassiliou says films, books, music and other cultural products, as well as their creators and performers, play an important role in the way nations perceive themselves and each other in today's interconnected world.

"I am convinced that Europeans and Chinese still know too little about each other," Vassiliou says.

For the cultural expansion strategy, China has chosen the legendary Chinese philosopher Confucius as its brand ambassador. The Beijing-based non-profit Confucius Institutes have emerged as China's most successful global brand for promoting Chinese language and culture.

By the end of last year, there were about 358 Confucius Institutes and 500 Confucius classrooms in five continents, covering 105 countries and regions, with the number of registered students more than 50 million.

Xu Lin, chief executive of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, says China's remarkable change has been the catalyst for the sudden global resurgence in Chinese culture and language.

She says that at a time when most of the Western economies are reeling from financial problems, the Chinese growth engine has chugged along relatively smoothly, thereby sparking the curiosity to understand more about China and the Chinese way of thinking.

Confucius thrust

"Foreigners are puzzled by how much China could achieve economically in just 30 years. They are now more than keen to learn Chinese language and culture to get fresh perspectives and know more of the country," Xu says, adding that it has also been the motivator for many nations to set up Confucius Institutes.

"In addition to obtaining language skills, people are also surprised to find that by using Eastern wisdom, many contradictions and conflicts can be solved as Chinese tradition always advocates harmony," Xu says.

"Students taking classes at the Confucius Institutes feel that learning Chinese also increases their future employment opportunities," says Michael Kahn-Ackermann, senior adviser to the Confucius Institute.

But more importantly, the Chinese language and culture training opportunities will help deepen intercultural understandings and thus soften China's image as a threat as it grows stronger both economically and politically.

Confucius Institutes have helped trained more people in Chinese, which experts believe is also conducive to the expansion of other Chinese culture, particularly literature.

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