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Chinese Culture Fix: Exercising Soft Power through Cultural Dynamics; By Raakhee Suryaprakash

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Article No. 19/2019

Taoism which can be described with “going with the flow” and Confucianism which emphasizes the structures of life; these demonstrate that there is a lot more to Chinese culture than communism. China is opting for  charm offensive – the appeal of its culture as part of its soft power push, beyond the aggressive Chinese version of dollar diplomacy. Culture lies at the heart of a people and a cultural connection forges strong bonds. As the proponent of the concept of soft power with his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, Joseph Nye put it in 2012 in the Chinese context, with soft power, “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”From the pull of Tai Chi( something I read about for the first time in middle school in a Sidney Sheldon novel If Tomorrow Comes- not in a history or general knowledge class), to Chinese government push for Confucian Centers and Shaolin martial arts, culture is slowly but surely being mainstreamed in China’s inoffensive soft power offensive. Today informally its more the pull of Chinese dramas that according to a friend of mine are as addictive as Korean drama and very relatable for Indians and Asians with mega-serials abound and serialized English web-novels from China that have massive readership online. Social media is becoming a powerful tool introducing Chinese culture and winning hearts and minds despite its censorship in the People’s Republic of China.

Overseas Chinese are also very efficient cultural ambassadors and have a greater impact than government initiatives, just like in the case of NRIs. Add to this the massive online following of the mega-rich Chinese millennial “princesses and princelings” showcasing their high life on Instagram and inadvertently life in China itself – the appeal is getting as subtle as Hollywood’s showcase of Americana. They are also ensuring a give and take – westernizing or Asianizing China depending on whether the influence is the West and Asian as much as taking the Chinese life and culture to an international audience. In the Asian and East Asian context especially, the promotion of the fact that we are all very similar is subtle but very much there. Less effective but still part of the soft power mechanism are the engaging content from CCTV and Chinese wooing of Hollywood bigwigs. From Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan to Ang Lee (Taiwanese director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Life of Pi; and Brokeback Mountain) the arts and the artists continue to woo international audiences.

Take for example the latest Chinese craze for pianos. It’s believed that playing a classical instrument in general and learning to play the piano in particular like with learning to play chess inculcates self-discipline, singular focus and rapid mind body coordination.For many overseas Chinese as well as Taiwanese and mainlanders (Asians in general) making their children learn a musical instruments and fostering the talent is part of their culture. It is also seen as a way to get into good college or start a career in the developed world. Many a musical child prodigy is of Asian origin which in turn has led them to immigrate to the West, unless they were already there.

This fascination for the Arts has manifested in building booms in both Taiwan and Korea where giant Performing Arts centres are choc a block. While America built malls East Asians built performing arts centres. Now both Taiwan and Korea and more slowly Mainland China are becoming bestselling and in-demand venues for international artists: musicians, dancers, opera companiesand theatre folk. As this Guardian article puts it in the case of Taiwan,

“It is an extraordinary abundance of venues for one country to be opening in the span of a few years, all planned in the mid-2000s by different regional and national administrations. As China picks off Taiwan’s allies with dollar diplomacy (only 17 countries now recognise the island as independent, thereby disqualifying themselves from formal relations with China), it seems as if cultural diplomacy is one of the few weapons it has left.”

And China with its lucrative competitions and equally luxurious venues is producing many culture hubs that are in demand for various performers across the globe.

Culture tourism and tours to ancient Buddhist sites are major successes in the exercise of soft power in the Chinese case as well nowadays. unique ethic groups and tribes showcased, tourists both domestic and foreign and brought into Tibet as much as a way of mainstreaming Tibet as it is to showcase to the global audience and international tourist that Tibet and other ethnic minorities as very much part of China.

While the Chinese Cultural Revolution, “formally the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”(1966-1976) that saw China’s Communist leader Mao Zedong reclaim his authority over China,left a gaping hole by destroying a lot of its social fabric along with the mass killings. Under President Xi Jinping, “Beijing’s leaders have also turned to more traditional tools of soft power: promoting Chinese language, educational exchanges, media expansion, and pop culture icons.”

Think tanks also play a vital role is promoting culture and as a soft power mechanism, as I mentioned in my presentation “Role of think tanks in fostering people-people contacts: Cultural organizations’ perspective” at the “Why Think Tanks Matter” one-day international conference  jointly hosted by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and National Maritime Foundation – Chennai Chapter (NMF) last January (January 30, 2018). While Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizationspredicts that the clashes of cultures are threats to peaceful coexistence,these threats can be transformed into opportunities to build peace, prosperity, and sustainable development through effective cultural organizations that foster people to people contact while providing insights and introductions to different cultures. In this “culture” remains an effective “soft power” strategy and think tanks have a major role to play in harnessing culture to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and fostering international partnerships for development – sustainable development that is.

More recently, while chairing the plenary session on the theme Soft Power and Cultural Dynamics and participating inthe 3rd C3S International Cultural Conference “Know Thy Neighbour: Growth of India & China: Socio-Cultural Percepts and Propositions”(February 9, 2019)I learnt a lot more. As in Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy’s theme address, beyond Bhai-Bhai and buy-buy the fact emerged that cultural and historical ties as well as people to people contact can create many avenues of cooperation that can yield better mutual understanding and profit for all – a win-win soft power approach as opposed to coercive power of hard power or even the abrasive power of money perceived as in the Chinese context as the Chinese Money Trap.

Ms.Sooryakala Jeyasooria a journalist at HERE! Dongguan Magazine, China, who presented at the conference about the Publishing Industry in China and its exponential growth in Mandarin Chinese and in foreign languages publications – these help take Chinese ideas to an international audience and vice-versa, helped along by the highly literate Chinese audience thirsting for new content. The fact that Chennai’s museum has the largest collection of Chinese coins outside of China as highlighted by Dr. Suresh Sethuraman, Fulbright Academic and Professional Excellence Lecturing Fellow is one of many historic evidences supporting the presence of Chinese travellers in India during ancient times. Such archaeological sites demonstrating the historic cultural ties in India and in China in turn can foster growth of tourism and enhance bilateral cultural linkages. Gender disparity in the work force and beyond (in families and in the fields of economics and politics), glass ceilings and wage gaps are cultural problems the world shares with China, it was brought out in Ms. Anuja Gurele, former Research Officer, C3S and current Teach For India fellow’s presentation at the conference emphasizing Gender Issues amidst Growth Stories of India and China especially. This is turn is an area of cooperation where nations can work together and share best practices to bridge the gender gap which can bring people together in the best tradition of soft power. The growing number of billionaire Chinese women entrepreneurs and powerful businesswomen as well as the fact that Taiwan becoming the first Asian nation to legalize same-sex marriage demonstrate this new avenue of cooperation.

Soft Power after all is “a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence.” It is attraction and seduction as opposed to coercion and abrasion. And culture as a powerful currency of soft power is being recognized by China and used to upgrade and soften its international reputation “changing and influencing social and public opinion through relatively less transparent channels and lobbying through powerful political and non-political organizations, and through economic influence.”

[Ms. Raakhee Suryaprakash is a Chennai-based analyst and Associate Member, C3S. She is Chief Programming Officer, Red Elephant Foundation. She holds a Master’s degree in International Studies and is the founder of ‘Sunshine Millennium’ focused on sustainable development and social issues. Views expressed by the author are her own.]

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