New Year, New China?

Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival has been celebrated for thousands of years, with the earliest record dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1766 BC-1122 BC). Since then however, what started as a small-scale event mainly celebrated by the Chinese population, has dramatically evolved into a global phenomenon. A little less than a month ago, the Lunar New Year ushered in the year of goat, marked by extravagant celebrations all over the world. Thousands of people attended the Chinese New Year’s parade in San Francisco and across the Atlantic, in London, the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall made an appearance at the official opening ceremony of Chinese New Year in Trafalgar Square. China has a long and distinguished cultural heritage, one it is increasingly employing as a tool to enhance its relationships with foreign governments. Since 2010, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has actively ‘exported’ Spring Festival abroad, and this year’s celebration has left little doubt that the CCP has high hopes it can harness the appeal of these festivities and ensure the Spring Festival becomes the latest addition to China’s soft power arsenal and part of China’s ‘charm offensive’.

Image courtesy of Carlos Pinho, © 2014, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Carlos Pinho, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Since the early 1990s, China has transformed from an isolated country to a key player on the global stage. Ever since the Dengist socio-economic reforms were introduced in the 1970’s, China’s influence has rapidly increased, and is now visible in a variety of realms; ranging from her economic growth, expanding military capability to increased engagement in multilateral organisations to name a few. Western countries, in particular the United States and Japan have seen this ‘rise’ as a precursor to an inevitable threat to international peace, stability and security. Thus the ‘China threat’ theory was born; a particular paradigm that China has actively sought to eliminate, namely through numerous soft power policies that are, now key to her national strategy.

First coined and defined by Joseph Nye in his book “Bound to Lead” in 1990, to this day there is no global consensus on a comprehensive definition of soft power. According to Nye, from a purely theoretical standpoint, the term describes the ability to get what you want and to “shape the preference of others” through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment.. In attempting to undermine the legitimacy of this ‘China threat’ argument, soft power has become China’s weapon of choice. President Hu Jintao was the first to address the issue of China’s deteriorating public image, by announcing at the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007 that it was crucial for China to step up her investment in soft power strategies in order to reconstruct her global image and weaken the Western fabricated ‘China threat’ imagery.

Since President Hu identified soft power as a policy priority, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has spent billions of dollars on soft power. These efforts have ranged from establishing hundreds of Confucius Institutes abroad, to aid programmes in Africa and Latin America, to name but a few. Soft power has become a staple of Chinese foreign policy, and according to Tao Xie, professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, what started as a rather cautious and low-key approach has since dramatically transformed and become much more aggressive.. Nearly all aspects of Chinese culture have been co-opted towards the aim of refuting China’s ‘threatening’ image, and even the traditional celebration of Spring Festival has become, what the Beijing Youth Daily describes as highly ‘internationalised’ and a platform from which to enhance China’s image.

The Spring Festival and year of goat have been equally celebrated in China as well as Chinese communities across the world. For the first time in history, the annual Chinese Lunar New Year Gala was broadcasted abroad as China Central Television (CCTV) made the rights available to foreign broadcasters. In addition to being available in languages such as English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and German,, the show was also rebroadcasted on a billboard in Times Square at the heart of New York City. With regards to the latter example, the case can however be made that New York City authorities have been all too happy to embrace the Chinese New Year in attempts to attract Chinese consumers. The Spring Festival is China’s longest and most important holiday, and it has been estimated more than 5 million Chinese rung in the year of the sheep by travelling abroad. The question then becomes: is the CCP the only entity attempting to capitalize on the soft power benefits of the Spring Festival?

Tens of millions more celebrated this year’s annual Spring Festival all around the world, with: traditional lion dances in Yokohama in Japan; parades in London and San Francisco; and traditional entertainment, dance and acrobatics in Manila, amongst many others. That being said, the success of these events can in part be attributed to the long established Chinese communities in these places, dating as far back as the 19th century in the case of San Francisco, and definitely pre-dating any attempts by the CCP to benefit from the soft power potential of Chinese culture.

Although the Chinese zodiac, yang in Mandarin, directly translated into ‘horned animal’ (goat, ram and sheep), represents progress, overall, the CCP has reaped limited returns from its soft power initiatives. In spite of the billions of dollars poured into soft power policies, general perceptions of China remain overall negative in the West, India, South Korea and Japan.. Despite China’s best attempts to project a rich cultural narrative and appease fears over her global ambitions, she has not managed to overcome or distract from the reality of her numerous human rights transgressions and geopolitical manoeuvres in the South China Sea. This is where the nuances and complexities of soft power become evident, positive association made with Chinese culture do not necessarily equal approval of the CCP; a strong inclination towards dim-sum can exist independently from a strong inclination towards the CCP’s South China Sea antics.


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