History and culture not enough to drive China’s soft power efforts

By Nicholas Dynon Source:Global Times Published: 2013-10-15 20:23:01

Some commentators have criticized China's State-led efforts to strengthen the country's "soft power." Joseph Nye, to whom the soft power concept is credited, observed that the China just "doesn't get soft power."

Big state-funded initiatives, such as the global roll-out of Confucius Institutes and investments in CCTV and Xinhua, have headlined China's culture-heavy public relations drive. But perhaps the grandest singular statement of this appeal to culture came in the form of the 2008 Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony, a sweeping cultural expose highlighting the achievements of Chinese civilization.

Culture has emerged as the cornerstone of China's government policies to develop soft power, enshrined in the concept of "national cultural soft power."

The emerging marketing science of "nation branding," however, suggests that global audiences already have a high regard for China's culture and that maybe they are more than ready to hear something new about the China story.

The 2011 Anholt-Gfk Roper Nations Brands Index, which annually measures the image of 50 nations, ranked an impressive China third in global terms for its "culture/heritage" brand.

Countries with long histories and rich cultural resources tend to do well in terms of this branding attribute. It's no wonder then that we tend to see France and Italy topping the culture rankings, and countries such as Spain and Russia doing well relative to other branding attributes.

No one doubts the massive brand equity to be found in Chinese culture. China's rich philosophical traditions, such as Confucianism and Taoism are widely recognized. Its cuisine is everywhere; its historical monuments are iconic.

Besides, the pop culture factories of Hong Kong and Hollywood have made its martial art forms legendary. Chinese culture is, as far as cultures go, a well-recognized and massively successful brand.

China's cultural pull is nowhere more evident than in its meteoric rise as an international tourist destination. The number of international tourist arrivals in China was reported as 55.66 million in 2010, ranking of third behind France and the US.

But apart from culture/heritage, how does brand China perform more broadly?

Out of the 50 countries listed in the Reputation Institute's 2012 Country Rep Trak overall rankings, China ranked 43rd, below the likes of Egypt (39th) and Ukraine (42nd) and just above Colombia (44th) and Nigeria (47th).This is a sorry picture.

Perhaps the world needs to hear more about the many other elements that make up the China story.

China's reform and opening-up policies, for example, have cultivated so many new elements for soft power to showcase, from innovation and technological breakthroughs to developments in public transport infrastructure and the tackling of urbanization and environmental challenges.

By introducing new elements into its soft power programming, China would provide international audiences with a more circumspect and three-dimensional view of its multifaceted story.

This may well serve to push China up in the overall nation brand rankings to a position worthy of its grand historical achievements.

The author is a former diplomat and doctoral candidate at Macquarie University, Sydney. nicholas.dynon@students.mq.edu.au

Posted in: Viewpoint

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