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China’s cultural power reconnects with the world

China’s so-called ‘going global’ strategy has evolved over the past two decades, from dispatching state-sanctioned messages via official domestic media organizations towards what is now a diverse multi-platform strategy, which makes use of commercial digital platforms. One key part of the ‘going global’ strategy is taking Chinese enterprise, investment and technology' to the world, including the Asia-Pacific, Africa and, notably, to countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s outward-bound blueprint. A second part is a cultural strategy: to connect overseas audiences of non-Chinese origin in these countries to China’s tradition and history. Residing among the overseas audiences are many persons of Chinese heritage. Thanks to the ubiquity of online platforms, the Chinese diaspora can be ‘reconnected’ with the homeland.

In this chapter, we look at the role played by digital media platforms to connect and, in many cases, reconnect audiences to the latest narrative of China’s rise. We examine examples of Chinese media content that offer a new narrative of China, while challenging its effectiveness. The China that the Chinese diaspora now sees from the newly burnished online images is a prosperous modern nation with global cultural and economic ambition, under the control of a relatively stable one-party state. We contrast the success of China’s outward-bound media industries in the global diaspora to its attempts to gain a strong cultural positioning in new territories.

The rise to power of Xi Jinping as paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2012 came somewhat unexpectedly for many in the international community. Xi was one of several candidates positioned to run for the nation’s top job, following the end of the Hu Jintao stewardship. That Xi was annointed should not come as a total surprise in hindsight, given his Communist Party blue blood lineage. His father was a leading general in the People’s Liberation Army during the Communist Revolution. Xi’s own cultivation of a cohort of followers while climbing the party ladder also helped his cause.

Following his appointment, Xi wasted little time creating and embellishing the profile of a charismatic and strong leader, which in part entailed the downgrading of the successes of his two immediate predecessors and linking his status with Mao Zedong (1949-1976). In fact, Xi’s standing was elevated above that ofDeng Xiaoping in political campaigns commemorating the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up. Though he initiated China’s ‘reform and opening-up’ policy in the late 1970s, Deng is conspicuously absent from campaigns promoting Xi’s thoughts: in effect, Deng’s more liberal model for China is at odds with the current regime. Deng’s achievements, notably with respect to depoliticizing everyday life, institutionalizing political succession, shunning leadership personality cults and setting an active but non-confrontational external stance, have all been reversed by Xi.

The chapter begins with a brief discussion of elements of power. While typologies of power, including hard, soft and smart power, contribute to public diplomacy (Nye, 2011), international relations, image management and public relations (see Kurlanitz, 2007; Creemers 2015; d’Hooghe, 2015; Hartig, 2016), an evaluation of this literature is beyond the scope of this chapter. Our focus in this chapter is on communications media and for this reason we discuss cultural soft power and, recognizing that cultural dissemination and consumption happens mostly online, we draw attention to ‘digital power’.

In the first section, the chapter considers consumption of Chinese narrative content. Using the reception of Chinese cinema as a case in point, we argue that Chinese films are mostly playing to the already converted, to domestic audiences and those in the diaspora with access to online platforms. We look at the qualified success of two Chinese blockbusters, one a co-production, The Great Wall (directed by Zhang Yimou, 2016), and the other a propaganda-laden action movie, Wolf Warrior 2 (directed by Jing Wu, 2017). The discussion also examines the uptake of Chinese television in the Asia-Pacific, a region where there are large Chinesespeaking audiences.

The chapter then turns to the question of digital power, how it changes the image of China globally and how digital platforms allow China to rapidly disseminate narrative content.The final section looks at where Chinese culture might venture next, asking if Eurasia, now increasingly mentioned within Chinese media and policy discourses under the auspices of the BRI, might constitute a new frontier.

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