For years now, the notion of advancing China’s “cultural soft power” has exercised the collective mind of the country’s political elites — a priority iterated at the most senior levels ever since Joseph Nye‘s phrase first made its way into a five-year political report in 2007.

Much of the animus behind China’s soft power imperative is the idea that China continues to suffer the stigma of Western-imposed negativity, what one writer of scar literature once called the “third affliction.” According to this view — premised on a visceral sense of historical wrong — China’s own cultural influence must be mobilised against the contempt of the Western world.

Soft power has become strategically important for China because cultural productivity and influence are now regarded as important components of comprehensive national power, or zōnghé guólì (综合国力), China’s own indexible measure of general nation-state power.

6 aspects of comprehensive national power
Six lanterns hang on a pole labeled “comprehensive national power.” The lanterns represent six aspects: national behaviour (国民素质); cultural image (文化形象); cultural industry (文化产业); cultural resources (文化资源); cultural innovation (文化创新); and the knowledge economy (知识经济). From wenming.cn, a website dedicated to China’s cultural diplomacy efforts.

While China’s notion of soft power encompasses both the economic and the cultural, the chief emphasis in recent years has been culture, and discussions often center on what is referred to as “cultural soft power,” or wénhuà ruǎnshílì (文化软实力). The “enhancing” of China’s “cultural soft power” was the subject of the twelfth collective study session of the Chinese Communist Party’s politburo on December 31, 2013, where the agenda was captured with a two-part phrase: “Building a socialist cultural strong nation; prioritising the enhancement of national cultural soft power.”

What did President Xi Jinping have to say at that time about this important national priority?

Xi Jinping emphasised that [we] must pay attention to the shaping of our country’s national image, focusing on bringing out the richness and profundity of Chinese history, the diversity in unity of our various peoples, the image of a great and civilised nation with a rich and harmonious culture . . . the image of a great nation contributing to humankind, and the image of a great socialist nation more open to the outside, of greater affinity, full of hope, and full of vitality.

Xi Jinping pointed out that the enhancement of national cultural soft power must work toward raising international discourse power (国际话语权). [We] must strengthen the building of international transmission capacity . . . utilising the capacity of newly-emerging media to raise the creative strength (创造力), charisma (感召力) and credibility (公信力) of our external discourse, telling Chinese stories well, transmitting China’s voice (中国声音) well, interpreting Chinese characteristics (中国特色) well. We must strengthen the intensity of positive propaganda on the excellent culture and glorious history of the Chinese people, enhancing patriotic education, collectivism and socialist education through education, theoretical research, historical research, films and works of literature — leading the people of our nation to establish and maintain correct historical views, ethnic views, national views and cultural views, increasing their integrity and confidence in being Chinese people.

Appropriately, Xi Jinping’s language in this last passage — the final one of the original Xinhua News Agency explication — ends at a point of emotional insecurity. It assumes a chronic lack of confidence, that Chinese feel (or worse, that they have been made to feel) deeply insecure about themselves. Indeed, the discourse of soft power in China goes hand-in-hand with the language of shaken confidence.

The rhetorical trap here is that the Chinese people require the Chinese Communist Party to pull them out of the quagmire of cultural insecurity. And this is where, tragically, culture gets lost.

Once it is conceived as merely a mined resource of comprehensive national power, culture is limited by the priorities of the leadership. It must have “Chinese characteristics” — whatever those are. It must foster “patriotism” — whatever that is. It must manifest “correct historical views” — everyone knows what those are. And it must be heralded with “positive propaganda.”

“China’s voice,” the supposed substance of its soft power, is pre-recorded in a hermetic sound-room of Party precepts before it is finally exported to the world. The problem with this narrow conception of “soft power,” which assumes robust controls on cultural creativity, is that it tends to create what historian Yuan Weishi called “ideological trash.”

And trash isn’t attractive.

Now, this does not mean that China’s centralised soft power push has not paid dividends. Some observers argue that it certainly has, particularly in Africa. But wouldn’t China benefit by a softer, less rigid, less government managed, approach to soft power?

That is exactly the argument made last week in the Party’s official People’s Daily by Zhou Hong (周虹), the director of the Cultural Division of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council.

Zhou is someone who has been closely involved with China’s public diplomacy efforts over the years — for example, here, here and here — and it is refreshing to hear a bit of soul searching (in the Party’s flagship newspaper, no less) about the limitations of soft power as a micro-managed state project.

zhou
Zhou Hong addresses a forum on overseas Chinese affairs in December 2012. Zhou recently wrote about China’s soft power push in the People’s Daily.

Among Zhou’s arguments in the page-five People’s Daily piece, which follows, is that the “government tint” of China’s soft power push must be mitigated. He also suggested that the preponderance of “arts troupes” in China’s going-out cultural programs gave a kind of circus quality to Chinese culture as it is perceived elsewhere in the world.

“The habitual reliance on government planning and financing, and the one-side pursuit of larger scales, instant [impact] and sensational effects,” Zhou wrote, “all with a surfeit of public money and a thick government tint — even leads to greater suspicion and resentment [about the events].”

Zhou, it seems, is not entirely free of the notion of state agency. He talks at one point about creating attractive and saleable products and then “hiding culture in these products (在产品中蕴藏文化), which smacks unnecessarily of conspiracy. But here, in any case, is our translation:

How Can Chinese Culture Better ‘Go Out’?” (中华文化如何更好“走出去”)
Zhou Hong (周虹)
People’s Daily
January 22, 2015, page 5

Whether or not Chinese culture can overcome barriers and stride out [into the world] depends to a great extent on whether or not we can sell our own outstanding cultural products to the outside world.

Along with the continued increasing of China’s comprehensive national power, and the constant deepening of economic globalization, the overseas transmission of Chinese culture has in recent years made great strides. But insufficiencies still remain.

On the field of overseas cultural transmission the following point of awkwardness often pertains: owing to barriers of language and culture, “going out” is often caught up in superficialities, and products that offer an in-depth introduction to Chinese history, or that portray China’s current state in positive terms, are woefully lacking. Those who come to cultural events where foreigners are the targeted audience are generally “familiar faces” there because they already support [Chinese culture], so that external cultural dialogue changes into a matter of personal amusement (对外文化交流演变成自娱自乐). The belief that culture equals the arts means that overseas performances are almost without exception arts troupes — giving foreigners the impression that Chinese culture is all about singing and dancing. The habitual reliance on government planning and financing, and the one-side pursuit of larger scales, instant [impact] and sensational effects — all with a surfeit of public money and a thick government tint — even leads to greater suspicion and resentment [about the events].

PD page 5 cultural diplomacy

The above-mentioned issues have their reasons in both history and present fact. Since the Opium War [in the 19th century], perhaps every Chinese individual has hankered for the prosperity of the country, for national rejuvenation. Today, when we are closer than we have ever in history been to reaching this goal, it is natural to feel anxious in our hearts that others will accept us. As such a time, we must take both historical and international views in order to seek out new ways of thinking, finding experience and sustenance within the history of cultural exchange between China and the outside world, abandoning our impatience and impulsiveness.

First of all, we should take things as they come (顺其自然). Cultural transmission is something that should come naturally and be a gradual process. The history of China and the world instructs us that the prosperity of a nation goes hand-in-hand with the greater external influence of its culture. The influence in Chinese history during vibrant dynasties [like the Tang] was not an intended outcome, but rather a necessary outcome of the favorable development of the nation and society. Therefore, so long as we maintain the momentum of our development, turning our energies to our own work, there should be a qualitative leap in the international influence of Chinese culture.

Next, we must rely on trade. The transmission of culture has never been an independent form of social conduct, but rather has attended commerce and other activities. It was over the Silk Road and across the sea channels that much foreign culture, including the three great religions, entered China, and traditional Chinese philosophy as well as technologies such as paper-making and printing were conveyed to the world along with silk, ceramics and tea. Today, as the German “Benz” and “BMW,” and the American film industry and “Apple,” profit through commercial activities [in China], they carry the “German influence” of rigor and pragmatism and the “American value” of the pursuit of novelty with them.

These examples tell us that relying on such things as providing free reading materials, or creating free cultural spectacles, is not a long-term and sustainable way [of transmitting Chinese culture]. China must create more quality works that the world can enjoy — hiding culture in these products (在产品中蕴藏文化), and transmitting [China’s cultural] spirit through business. In this sense, the question of whether or not Chinese culture can overcome barriers and stride out [into the world] depends to a great extent on whether or not we can sell our own outstanding cultural products to the outside world.

Third, the people must be our foothold. The root and the spirit of Chinese culture lies in the masses of ordinary people, and without the broad participation of the people, the external propagation of culture not only loses its meaning, but also loses its intrinsic energy. Limiting government participation, and lessening the official tint [of cultural events], is now the dominant trend in the field of international cultural exchange. It is also generally the method used to lessen the misunderstanding of other countries. Government departments should further transition their roles, prioritising the removal, in terms of the system and mechanisms, of fetters and barriers on cultural development — fully harnessing the energy of the Chinese public and of overseas Chinese, and allowing the talent and force of the people to fully unleash their capacity in international competition.

Fourth, [we] must create respect. The peoples of various countries around the world have their own unique traditions and cultures, and these have together created the rich diversity we have in human civilisation today. Chinese culture must use its on unique means to obtain the same result, having an attitude of tolerance, respecting the traditions and cultures of each country, encouraging “going out” and “inviting in” together, avoiding the impression that Chinese culture is being forced out unidirectionally. Modesty is a Chinese traditional value praised highly by many of our foreign friends. Against the backdrop of increasing national power, we must be particularly careful not to rise straight from abasement into lofty arrogance. In this way, Chinese culture can be welcome and attractive, so that Chinese culture travels farther and smoother overseas.

(The author is director of the Cultural Division of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council).