Cultural diplomacy best wins hearts, minds

09:02, September 21, 2010      

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Earlier this year at the National People's Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao stated in his government work report that China will attach more importance to cultural development to enhance the international influence of Chinese culture.

This is just the latest confirmation that China recognizes that it has to enhance its global image by the exercise of soft power.

Soft power is what a nation can exercise to make itself loved, as opposed to hard power, which is about making itself feared, think military. The concept was first developed in 1990 by Joseph Nye, a former Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago.

Reports in the Chinese press suggest that a major salvo in China's soft power initiative is about to be launched at any moment. China has asked a group of 50 Chinese opinion leaders including the omnipresent Yao Ming, Lang Lang and Jackie Chan, to make 30-second image commercials, together with one 15-minute commercial to, according to the State Council, present an image of "prosperity, democracy, openness, peace and harmony" as a counterweight to neutralize negative stereotypes coming from foreign media.
These may be good to show in embassy waiting rooms and at public events, but as a media campaign they will have about the same effect as the recent "Made in China" campaign, which barely made a ripple worldwide. In any case, they are worth a try.

I also think that the massive spending in upgrading CCTV News and CRI will bear little fruit as most of the public see them as sources of propaganda, rather than information. Maybe 10 years ago this might have been an investment well made but in today's world of unlimited Internet, there are so many other news sources that are more trusted. Xinhua News may however have a better shot at being successful. With their vast resources, they have the possibility of being as effective as, say, Russia Today or Al-Jazeera if they are seen as reporting the news objectively.

I believe that cultural diplomacy will best win hearts and minds. Take the Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an who are serving China better today as softpower ambassadors than they ever served the first emperor of China,Qin Shihuang, as hard power soldiers in the afterlife 2,300 years ago. They have conquered record-breaking crowds and created positive buzz everywhere they have marched.

In 2007, they caused a sensation at the British Museum. Despite staying open until almost midnight, the museum had to lock its gates and turn away overflow crowds. When the warriors returned home the following spring, they had drawn a record 850,000 visitors.

I remember going to the National Gallery of Art in 1976 in Washington and seeing the exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun which amassed an audience of 836,000 people over 117 days. This phenomenon was nothing new. When the King Tut relics went on display in the 1920s, they caused a sensation and even upended the fashion world in Europe and North America.

Another tool that will pay huge dividends are Chinese film productions and co-productions.
Hollywood loves one thing: other people's money. And in China there is lots of it. In turn Hollywood can share its century of successful production, marketing and distribution.

Other elements of cultural diplomacy that I believe will be successful are the ever-growing number of Confucius Institutes worldwide. Care, however, must be exercised in academic settings where some may charge that they are propaganda sources, not learning tools.

Also, audiences love live performances, including superstars like Lang Lang. This includes wushu from the Shaolin Temple and elsewhere, Chinese acrobats, circus performers and gymnasts. I believe audiences would thrill to master classes, lessons and just meeting these ambassadors of good will if they could be scheduled accordingly.

Finally, though it's decidedly low cost and low tech, good old fashioned pen pals via Internet or snail mail can make a huge impact. I remember the excitement of having a pen pal in Sweden and in the Congo, as well as the frustration of waiting months for a reply.

Now replies travel at the speed of light.

The author is former director and vice president at ABC Television. [email protected]

By Harvey Dzodin Source: Global Times


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