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Power and glory: the great rejuvenation

While Chinese culture is going to the world, thanks largely to the money being poured into the cause by the Chinese government, its reception is muted in the ‘liberal’West. Despite the efforts of China’s propagandists to garner positive coverage in overseas media, to promote what the state now calls Chinese ‘discourse power’ and, in doing so, to extend the idea that China is a harmonious open society, Chinese film and television industries have not‘gone global’. In fact, Chinese media content has achieved limited success in most international markets due mainly to perceptions that its narratives are tainted by its authoritarian political system and diminished by the spectre of censorship. China thus encounters what has been called a ‘cultural trade deficit’ (Keane, 2007) in areas that are conspicuous to mostly younger audiences, namely the content industries. In other words, the attraction of foreign media in China is greater than the consumption of Chinese media outside China. Rectifying this imbalance remains a problem.

Before engaging with the fate of the content industries, however, let us briefly consider a ‘new world order’, one in which China plays a leading role. There has been no shortage of opinion on this topic, with the Singaporean ex-diplomat Kishore Mahbubani a prominent critic of Western hubris (Mahbubani, 2018). Certainly, with Donald Trump’s retreat from a rules-based world order enshrined in neoliberalism, the US’s global role - and its global presence - is undergoing revision. Meanwhile, in the sphere of power and influence, China has stepped up to the plate. Power - and changing perceptions of national power - is the currency of today’s world, and as we will show, this theme is reflected in big-budget blockbusters.

Xi Jinping’s presence as a powerful leader is enhanced by China’s massive economic growth since the nation opened its doors to foreign investment in 1978. China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, then the world’s largest trade cartel. While China was always a large landmass, it has also become a ‘big nation’ (dagud), part of the global community. China accepted the condition of market opening for the trade-off of greater access to foreign technologies and know-how. During Hu Jintao’s tenure as leader (2002-2012), national rejuvenation, a theme initially articulated during the economic reform era, moved centre stage among Beijing’s policy elites. China’s ‘peaceful rise’ was unveiled in the early 2000s as a counterpoint to Western colonialism and hegemony.

Already the concept of‘great power’ had produced a range of scholarly treatises (Kennedy, 1987; Layne, 1993; Iriye, 1995). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European ‘great powers’ colonized the New World and propagated ideas, many of them about Christianity, in the global South and then in East Asia. In 2004, a major CCTV documentary was commissioned, the ‘rise of the great powers’ (Zhu, 2012). Lessons could be learnt from history and China would now advance, showing the world the wonders of its great civilization, albeit without imposing a religious tradition. In the rhetoric emanating from Beijing, China would advance a ‘community of shared destiny’ (renlei mingyun gongtongti).

Most prominent of all power slogans emanating from Beijing, however, is the ‘great rejuvenation’ (weidafuxing), coincidentally the name of a book authored by Xi Jinping, which is readily available for foreigners, translated into English on Amazon, com. More than just a ‘big nation’ China intends to be a strong nation (qianggud) (Zheng, 2005). Xi’s think tanks have opted for ‘cultural empowerment’ (wenhua qianggud). The cultural empowerment discourse contains a number of elements, which will become evident in this chapter. The most relevant theme for our discussion, however, pertains to ‘going out’ (zou chuqu), specifically the internationalization of China’s culture and ideas. In the words of Xi Jinping, China needs to ‘tell its story well’ (Bandurski, 2017). In the sphere of journalism, China’s message is going out; it is reaching the eyes and ears of audiences in places where China has provided substantial economic aid, and where governments are reluctant to criticize China.The question remains as to how engaged these audiences are, how they view China’s influence, and how they might respond to a ‘community of shared destiny’.

China has an unprecedented presence globally: China-made products abound and Chinese tourists can be observed in increasing numbers all over the world. Despite its economic presence and its considerable political clout in the United Nations, expert opinion is divided as to the reality of China’s global power. Susan Shirk (2008) has called China a ‘fragile superpower’; David Shambaugh opts for ‘partial power’ (Shambaugh, 2013). Writing about China’s rise to power, Jae Ho Chung (2015) notes three positions: the Confident School (China’s rise is irreversible); the Pessimist School (China’s rise is likely to falter); and the Not yet/ Uncertain School (too early to say). Many agree on the inter-dependence between hard power, which arises from military and economic power, and soft power.

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