At the beginning of this year, Chinese premier Hu Jintao wrote an essay in which he pronounced: “The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.”
Hu was referring to ‘soft power,’ a term coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye to describe the value of attractiveness. US soft power sees the world gobble up Hollywood films and pop culture, generating a positive view of the country. Now China is engaged in a multi-billion dollar push to increase its own soft power.
Global events such as the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo have provided an opportunity for China to show to the world a new face, and big investments in the developing world have seen China’s image improve among the Africans and South Americans.
The Chinese government has also launched an ambitious media expansion program to broadcast its version of events to the world. The state-run CCTV network earlier this year launched an English-language channel in the US aimed at American audiences, which has received some plaudits for its reporting. China’s English-language radio station, China Radio International, broadcasts in English 24 hours a day, and its Xinhua news agency has recently increased its number of international bureaus from 100 to 186.
Education is another key area of soft power development. China has created hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world to teach the Mandarin language and culture, named after the sage who lived 2,500 years ago and is promoted as “a kind of Father Christmas without the undignified jolliness,” according to the Economist. Meanwhile the number of foreign students studying in China increased from 36,000 a decade ago to 240,000 in 2010.
Money is also pouring into the ‘culture industry,’ which the government would like to see double in size, to 5 percent of GDP. This year, China overtook Japan as the world’s second-biggest cinema market, worth $2.7 billion. The number of cinema screens in China more than doubled between 2006 and 2011 to 10,700. In May, the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda bought AMC for $2.6 billion, creating the world’s biggest cinema chain.
“Last year, China added on average eight screens in a single day. No nation in the world grew at that pace,” said Mike Ellis, Asia-Pacific president of the Motion Picture Association of America, according to the China Daily newspaper.
Yet some both within and outside China question whether the country has so far had much of a return on its investment. The influential young Chinese blogger Han Han argued last December that “the restriction on cultural activities makes it impossible for China to influence literature and cinema on a global basis or for us culturati to raise our heads up proud.”
But Martin Jacques, author of the book ‘When China Rules the World,’ argued at a recent book talk in Beijing that few countries had succeeded in projecting soft power before they had achieved a high level of economic development. China’s PR play–and the vast business development it entails–have only just begun.