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Cultural power and the ‘Digital Silk Road’

The chapter so far has considered problems facing China’s media and cultural industries as they attempt to break into global markets. In the past, success in Western markets has been much sought after. While Ang Lee has tasted success in Hollywood, an academy award for a ‘Chinese film’ would be a great soft power achievement for Beijing. The Great Wall was touted as a contender; yet the prize now seems so far away. Southeast Asian markets like Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia are likewise hard to conquer, thanks to the popularity there of South Korean and Japanese media.

The solution, however, may be closer to home. Digital platforms, while having a global reach, are creating opportunities in Africa and Central Asia. Chinese media penetration in Africa has been the subject of a number of recent studies and reports (Marsh, 2018; Lim and Bergin,2018; Xiang, 2018), although no clear or compelling evidence is available to show a deep yearning across Africa for Chinese narrative content. Vivien Marsh (2018) has looked at the challenges of CGTN English language news services in Africa and the concept of promoting ‘constructive journalism’. China’s intervention endeavours to show a more positive light on African development, reflecting a Chinese traditional model of governance known as ‘tianxia’ - all under heaven. Similarly, the expansion of CGTN into Africa disseminates stories approved by Beijing that resonate with the image of a benevolent China.

Established in 2016, CGTN is free in many parts of Africa thanks to a distribution deal with StarTimes, a Chinese digital media provider with strong links to the state (Lim and Bergin, 2018). In May 2017, a news report published in both the People’s Daily and the English language China Daily quoted the CEO of StarTimes, Zhang Junqi, who was addressing an audience in Beijing attending the 7th Africa Digital Television Seminar. Zhang spoke of African people’s love of Chinese television dramas.The same news report even quoted a local Tanzanian villager who said ‘that without the help of Chinese enterprises, he and his fellow villagers couldn’t afford to watch all the programmes they enjoy’ (China Daily, 2017). The report noted that StarTimes had accrued ten million subscribers in Africa since 2007. While a significant number, it’s somewhat difficult to equate availability of content with engagement. The same credibility problem bedevils the China Daily, between 200,000 and 900,000 copies of this mouthpiece of the CCP are distributed globally (Hartig, 2018).

When one considers nations situated on China’s periphery, there is potential to build audiences. China’s ambitious development project, the BRI, was unveiled in 2013 in Kazakhstan by Xi Jinping. The BRI aims to connect Asia, Europe and Africa along five routes. The Silk Road Economic Belt focuses on linking China to Europe through Central Asia and Russia, connecting China with the Middle East through Central Asia, and bringing together China and Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The twenty-first century Maritime Silk Road, meanwhile, focuses on using Chinese coastal ports to link China with Europe through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, and connect China with the South Pacific

Ocean through the South China Sea.The BRI now embraces nearly 100 countries; many of these nation-states are located in central Asia. While ideas travelled along the Silk Road for centuries, broadband now connects people. Digital devices offer ways to consume film, television, and online media. Chinese companies, including Huawei and ZTE, Xiaomi, Alibaba and Tencent are moving westwards, providing the connections that are needed. The so-called Digital Silk Roads thus provides China with a way to extend its influence.

In March 2018, Alibaba sponsored an 11-day training programme in Hangzhou for 37 young entrepreneurs from seven BRI countries (Malaysia,Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam) on e-commerce, technological and business innovations (Bai, 2018). Similar efforts were taken by another Chinese tech giant, Huawei, in November 2017, when it sponsored the First Central Asian Innovation Day in Astana, Kazakhstan, announcing the theme ‘Explore the New Digital Silk Road’. The conjecture is that if more people in this region use communication platforms or services that are owned, controlled, serviced, or invested in by Chinese companies, China’s cultural power can be extended. The region is strategic and culture is therefore a strategic force. A large film and television production centre has been established in the new city of Horgos, situated in China’s Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, close to the border of Kazakhstan and thousands of production companies have set up business there.

China’s ambitions in the BRI are strategic and economic. However, as noted by Marsh in the case of Africa, once again we see the traditional concept of‘all under heaven’ (fiu/ixirt) embodied in the extension of cultural power. Xi Jinping has called for the ‘construction’ of a ‘community of shared destiny’ (renleimingyungongtongti) in the region. What this entails is unclear and there are risks in imposing a secular Chinese model of social governance in a region where religions and cultures have collided for centuries. Ostensibly packaged as a form of cosmopolitanism for our age, the ‘community of shared future’ is reflected in films like IMof Warrior 2, where Chinese heroes save African brothers and sisters, and television dramas such as Legends of the Silk Roads (2015), where Uighurs and Han Chinese interact peacefully. The propagation of Chinese content is therefore intended to espouse Chinese values of standing up against the imperial powers, helping others in developed countries and ‘nationalities’ living harmoniously. Is China succeeding in its public relation’s campaign? In examining the CCP’s attempts to improve China’s image around the world since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, a new volume, Soft Power with Chinese Characteristics: China’s Campaign for Hearts and Minds (Edney, Rosen and Zhu, 2020) paints a picture of a Chinese leadership that is often struggling to convert material resources into genuine international affections.

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