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Chinese film and the declining fortunes of “the Boss”

Written by Peter Hitchcock.

Spare a thought for the poor old Chinese Boss. Regularly charged with corruption and vilified on Chinese social networks like Weibo, corporate heads in China cannot seem to catch a break. Surely the captains of industry who are leading China on the road to becoming the world’s largest economy should be considered heroes, with every million and billion of yuan going into their accounts, at home or in Panama, celebrated as triumphantly serving the people? Nobody should begrudge the Boss getting wealthy—“to get rich is glorious” is central to modernization. Sure there’s income inequality, but that’s the name of the game if you want to compete globally. Isn’t it embarrassing that the Abu Dhabi Rolls Royce dealership is outselling the one in Shenyang? And why should the Boss’s children have to live in Vancouver to get a decently priced Lamborghini? If the workers of the world cannot unite at least Bosses in China should get together and urge culture to express that piling up the cash is the only way to get peasant migrant worker average wages above 3000 yuan a month (2016 figures). Is Chinese cinema showing the world who’s the Boss? Continue reading “Chinese film and the declining fortunes of “the Boss””

The Digital Humanities as an Emerging Field in China

Written by Lik Hang Tsui.

The “digital humanities” (usually translated as shuzi renwen 数字人文 in mainland China and shuwei renwen 數位人文 in Taiwan) have recently received a lot of attention in Chinese academic circles, even though it took a long time for the concept to come to the attention of mainland China universities. The first digital humanities centre in China was established by Wuhan University in 2011. It remains the only mainland Chinese member of centerNet, an international network of digital humanities research centres. Continue reading “The Digital Humanities as an Emerging Field in China”

Collaborative Innovation and the Chinese (Digital) Humanities

Written by Hilde De Weerdt.

The datafication of everything we do while we are online, carry our phones, fill out forms, make payments, or simply pass by traffic or security cameras is reshaping how governments and businesses make decisions and how all aspects of our lives including health care, education, sports, and housing are organized. These changes did not come about as a result of digitization or the mere conversion of analogue information into binary code. They are now becoming visible and debatable as the outcome of new uses of, often individually generated and personal, data gathered by different organizations and of new ways of combining and analyzing such data. Continue reading “Collaborative Innovation and the Chinese (Digital) Humanities”

All that Glitters is Not Gold: The Limits of China’s Soft Power

Written by Shogo Suzuki.

China’s soft power offensive has garnered a lot of attention in recent years. In line with the ubiquitous narratives worrying about the West’s (inevitable) decline and the corresponding ‘rise of China’, many commentators have stated that the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) ‘charm offensive’ is the latest form of the ‘China threat’.

There are allegedly many aspects to this ‘soft power threat’ emanating from Beijing. Firstly, there are claims that China’s ‘authoritarian development’—also known as the ‘Beijing Consensus’ (Ramo 2004)—provides an attractive model for other autocratic leaders to make their respective countries prosperous without undertaking democratisation (Kurlantzick 2008; Halper 2012). Conventional theories of democratisation have argued that economic development gives rise to a middle class that agitates for greater political rights, which eventually culminates in democratisation. Critics fear that the PRC’s trajectory of development is turning this well-established orthodoxy on its head, stifling the emergence of prosperous democracies across the world.

Secondly, China’s promotion of Chinese language and culture via the Confucius Institute are seen as an attempt to create a group of more ‘pro-Beijing’ individuals. The use of Mainland Chinese textbooks that use simplified characters is therefore seen as motivated by a desire to marginalise Taiwan’s influence in the international community (Gill and Huang 2006: 18).

As I have written elsewhere (Suzuki 2009), much of these fears of China’s so-called ‘soft power offensive’ is motivated by myopic thinking that looks for ‘enemies’, or the latest threat to Western dominance. It overestimates the strength of Chinese soft power as a result. First, it overlooks the fact that there is actually no consensus in the PRC about what exactly the so-called ‘Beijing Consensus’ is. Furthermore, there are plenty of individuals within China who are highly critical of the environmental degradation, corruption, and growing poverty gap that has accompanied China’s ‘economic miracle’. With regard to the effect that the Confucius Institutes have on the minds of the people, critics often treat individuals in the West as mindless, empty vessels whose minds are waiting to be filled with Chinese propaganda.

There is another factor, however, that has come increasingly to the forefront of the PRC’s so-called ‘charm offensive’—that is, the simple fact that Beijing is very bad at promoting its soft power. The main reason for this is perhaps because the promotion of soft power is largely state-led, rather than devolved to non-state actors to develop organically. This is not to say that all state-led efforts to promote its soft power are doomed to fail.

However, its success depends largely on the regime’s international reputation and the degree to which it tolerates dissent. For instance, despite the frequent assertions of American greatness, the United States (US) has a chequered past in international politics, and its foreign policies frequently attract criticism. However, American soft power, which is often said to include its popular culture (such as Hollywood films), is not dominated by the state, and frequently contains biting commentary that lampoons the US government. It is not full of wholesome praise for America. This can help give the impression of a vibrant, free society.

Chinese projections of soft power naturally do not share these characteristics. In the PRC, the Communist Party still holds the ultimate monopoly of the ‘truth’, which means that Chinese soft power is dominated by the state, with no space for alternative thought. This usually results in blatant propaganda that is easily spotted by most people, and this is ultimately off-putting, rather than attractive. For instance, an article celebrating traditional Tibetan clothing notes the ‘large red satin embroidered with the five blessings and longevity pattern’, which makes the Tibetan woman who wears it look ‘just like a Tibetan princess.’

The article then goes on to indulge in shameless praise of the Communist regime’s governance of Tibet, stating: ‘In Old Tibet, women weren’t able to choose their own clothes. Clothes are a sign of distinction between high and low classes. As a common woman, even if you are relatively wealthy you still can’t wear clothes that aristocratic women wear in public, such as silk clothes; and serf class women have no rights at all in terms of what they can wear. “Today, Tibetan women can freely choose what they wear in their quest for beauty”’ (Tibet.cn 2016). Yet, Beijing’s systematic and brutal repression of Tibet and its culture is well known, and such propaganda rings hollow—and in the case of Tibetan matters, Chinese soft power faces stiff competition from the Nobel Laureate, the Dalai Lama.

The limitation of Beijing’s blundering attempts at promoting its soft power was further exposed more recently when the programmes of the 2014 European Association of Chinese Studies conference were seized by local Confucius Institute officials. The programme had incurred the displeasure of Xu Lin, head of the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (also known as the Hanban), because it contained an advertisement for the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation based in Taiwan. The programmes were eventually returned, but not before the offending pages had been torn out by Confucius Institute officials (Redden 2014). Rather than represent the ‘soft’ side of Beijing, this incident only served to deepen the impression that Confucius Institutes were nothing but a blunt policy tool of Beijing.

All of this has resulted in China’s much-trumpeted ‘charm offensive’ losing much of its shine in recent years. In 2014, the University of Chicago refused to renew its partnership with the Confucius Institute, and other universities have followed (The Wall Street Journal 2014). China’s ‘rise’ may seem unstoppable, but all that glitters is not gold: the PRC still remains limited in its ability to use its soft power, let alone enhance it—and this is likely to remain the case until the Communist Party relinquishes some of its jealously-guarded monopoly on culture and truth.

Shogo Suzuki is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester. Image credit: CC by University of Central Arkansas/Flickr.

Bibliography

Gill, Bates and Huang, Yanzhong (2006) ‘Sources and Limits of Chinese “Soft Power”’, Survival, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 17—36.
Halper, Stefan (2012) The Beijing Consensus: Legitimizing Authoritarianism in Our Time. New York: Basic Books.
Kurlantzick, Joshua (2008) Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Ramo, Joshua Cooper (2004) The Beijing Consensus. London: Foreign Policy Centre.
Renmin wang (2016) ‘Pin zhongguo wei guo chengdu nian, waiguo youren tiyan duocai minsu’, 15 February.
Suzuki, Shogo (2009) ‘Chinese Soft Power, Insecurity Studies, Myopia and Fantasy’, Third World Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 779—793.

Confucius Institutes and the limits of attraction

Written by Falk Hartig.

By late 2015, 500 Confucius Institutes (hereafter CIs) had been established around the world and the number of Confucius Classrooms at primary and secondary schools has reached 1,000. While one has to treat those official numbers with some caution (apparently not all institutes counted in Beijing may already be in operation and others are much more a one-wo/man undertaking), these figures are remarkable, especially when compared to other cultural institutes abroad.

Not least because of the astonishing growth rate (the whole enterprise only started in 2004), it is safe to describe Confucius Institutes as the most prominent and most controversial tool of China’s public diplomacy to generate soft power, or more precisely to communicate certain images and narratives about China to the world (Barry Buzan and others have discussed the necessary distinction between soft power and public diplomacy: Buzan, 2016; Shambaugh, 2013; Rawnsley, 2012).

Even though there is an increasing academic interest in CIs, one can still find some myths about them. Having done some research on Confucius Institutes myself (Hartig, 2016), I’d like to add my take on some of these assumptions. For one, there is the understanding that the distribution patterns of Confucius Institutes (a huge number in the US and Europe, less CIs in Africa and none in North Korea, for example) “reflects both the importance of diplomatic relations and strong interests that China places in different countries” (Zhou & Luk, 2016:8).

While it is clear that China does not treat all countries diplomatically equal, this argument misses one crucial point and that is the very fact that officially international partners have to apply to establish a Confucius Institute and it is therefore somewhat misleading to describe CIs as an “aggressive cultural” initiative by the Chinese government (Zhou & Luk, 2016:14).

One reason, in my understanding, for this very uneven distribution is the simple fact that international partners have to contribute to CIs, which are most often joint ventures, as well. The CI Headquarters in Beijing provides free teaching materials and is supposed to dispatch teachers and provide parts of the funding. With regard to teachers, for example, the reality is somewhat clouded, because due to the enormous demand, there is a considerable lack of teachers in certain parts of the world, especially in the not so attractive parts of the world.

And yes, “Confucius Institutes are popular with university administrations because of generous Chinese government funding” (Scotton, 2015). The crucial point here, however, is that the funding is not that generous compared to what an international partner can get out of the deal. Yes, an international university may get several hundred thousand dollars a year. But it has to provide half of the budget (or even more), it has to provide local staff and the premises for the institute.

Overall, Confucius Institutes are not really a “cash cow” for international partners, a hope that was clearly in the minds of foreigners, especially in the early years. And here we only talk about the financial side of the deal and leave out the issues of contentual limitations which – depending on how progressive and conservative individual CIs do handle these – may have a negative effect on the reputation of international host organizations.

Another often made statement, both by CI people and some observers, is that there is an increasing degree of diversification and specialization within the CI-family. I may be wrong here, but I think this is simply not the case. There are claims that certain CIs are “research-oriented” while others are “cultural-orientated” (Zhou & Luk, 2016:4), or that some focus on food and cooking while others deal with Sports (Scotton, 2015).

It is undeniable that there is a tendency to establish “special interest” CIs: one can find CIs for Traditional Chinese Medicine (in London and Melbourne), a CI of Chinese Opera (in Binghamton, NY, USA), a CI for Dance and Performance (London), or a Tourism Confucius Institute (in Brisbane, Australia). Except for the name, I do not see a real diversification because most of those topics are addressed by many more CIs as well. Those institutes may focus on a specific topic, but I doubt that they do something unique that other CIs are not doing in one way or the other as well.

The reason for this development, in my understanding, is the simple but crucial fact that there are so many institutes (in one country, in one region, at times even in one city) so that individual CIs simply have to brand themselves as being unique. Not only to attract visitors, but apparently also to attract the attention, and therefore more or special funding, from the Headquarters.

The increasing need to attract visitors points to another and more fundamental aspect of Confucius Institutes and that is the question how successful they can be with regards to China’s soft power generation. One can, of course, question the validity of the whole idea of soft power as such. Interestingly enough, people in charge of CIs and in the Hanban tend to distance themselves from the very term (Paradise, 2009), but the senior leadership frequently refers to the term and apparently misses the point (Buzan, 2016; Shambaugh, 2013). But if we stick to the concept for a moment and understand it as the power of attraction, the question is how successful CIs can be in this regard. Some observers – without considering the conceptual issues – direct and straight forward note that CIs “fail to increase the soft power of China” (Zhou & Luk, 2016:1).

While this is a rather predicable argument, it misses two points. First, we need empirical evidence what CI visitors actually think about China. It is undeniable that more and more people are exposed to China, or a certain version of China, through Confucius Institutes. By the end of 2015 the total number of students has reached 1.9 million. Anecdotal evidence suggests that quite a number of visitors are actually impressed by traditional culture, are fascinated by Chinese language, and are actually attracted.

Those “soft power failure”-arguments furthermore ignore a more fundamental aspect altogether. In order to be attracted by China, one has to be exposed to China. In the case of Confucius Institutes this means one has to go there. This might sound simple, and maybe even naïve, but this is a crucial precondition for any public diplomacy to work. The message has to reach the audience. And this, in my understanding, is the fundamental obstacle or the “hurdle of the last three feet”, as I would term it in reference to Edward R. Murrow, the doyen of U.S. public diplomacy. Murrow noted: “It has always seemed to me the real art in [public diplomacy] is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation” (quoted in Snyder, 2013:2).

With regards to Confucius Institutes that means that people have to go there. They have to make an active decision: not going to the latest DiCaprio movie, not watching FC Barcelona or the London Philharmonic Orchestra, they have to go to a Confucius Institute, because the institute – other than the China Central Television (CCTV) for example – cannot come to the people. And normally, but this is also only based on anecdotal evidence, people go there who already have a certain positive interest in China or are at least open-minded enough to go there.

Someone who – for whatever reason – perceives China as the evil empire will normally not visit a Confucius Institute and change his or her mind. In a sense Confucius Institutes, and other public diplomacy initiatives as well, are mainly preaching to the converted.

Falk Hartig is a postdoctoral researcher at Goethe University, Frankfurt and author of Chinese Public Diplomacy: The Rise of the Confucius Institute (Routledge, 2016). Image credit: CC by UCL Institute of Education/Flickr.

References

Paradise, James (2009) ‘China and International Harmony: The Role of Confucius Institutes in Bolstering Beijing’s Soft Power’, Asian Survey 49(4): 647–669.
Rawnsley, Gary (2012) ‘Approaches to Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in China and Taiwan’, Journal of International Communication 18(2): 121–35.
Shambaugh, David (2013) China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Snyder, James (2013) The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Zhou Ying and Luk, Sabrina (2016) ‘Establishing Confucius Institutes: a tool for promoting China’s soft power?’, Journal of Contemporary China, online first.

 

Buyer Beware! Art Market and Fakes in China

Written by James C. S. Lin.

In the past decade China has become the second largest economy in the world. The number of Chinese billionaires is increasing rapidly. Chinese invest heavily in the art market, their purchases regularly breaking records; it is very difficult to ignore this kind of news. Property, the stock market and antiques are three major areas for investment in China. However, the government has strict rules about property purchase and the stock market in China is unstable at the moment. Therefore, investment in the art market has become a major activity in China. Treasure hunting has become a national pastime because many people harbour a fantasy that spending a few pounds will lead to enormous treasure. Antiques Road Show-style programmes are frequently shown on TV, but are much exaggerated and more dramatic.

Antiques are used for investment, money laundering and sometimes bribes. This high demand has led to a burgeoning market for fake antiques. Chinese have a long history of making forgeries which are produced on production lines in workshops. In ancient times, they used images from woodblock prints as inspiration and dyed the resulting artworks with tea or acid to make them look old. In the early 20th century they copied excavated objects, sold the forgeries to foreigner treasure hunters. In more recent years they turned to academic research results and made use of modern technology to create replicas. In addition, in order to convince buyers, the forgers create fake provenances, produce books that support their claims to authenticity, or even advertise their objects in well-known magazines. Some have even presented their objects to museums as gifts or loans in order to add some credibility. Perhaps more dangerous are those people that purchase genuine objects from famous auction houses only to sell on reproductions back to market some years later. For all of these reasons, the Chinese art market is in chaos. Some auction houses in China sells fake objects as a way of laundering money. Some collectors claim to be experts, but have collections that are all fake too.

So, how easy is it to separate the fake from the genuine and who are the real experts in this field? Art reflects politics, religion and the economy, so each period has its own style and features, ie, shape and motifs, materials that were employed and how they were produced. Clearly, knowledge of art history is essential. Later copies might mimic the shape and decoration but it is hard to copy the original materials and skills. Scientific tests can only help to identify fake from genuine with certain degree of accuracy. For example, when verifying ceramics the area that a sample will be taken for the test is usually at the base of an object. Chinese have collected shards from abandoned kiln sites, including complete base sections. It is possible to create a whole object around the genuine artifact, so that the test result will genuine, although the rest of the object is fake. It is unlikely that any collector would allow anyone to drill a hole into the main body of an expensive vase that they have purchased.

I have visited many rich collectors but it can be very embarrassing when you are invited to examine their collection. Top collectors always have a team of experts working for them. The majority of rich people purchase for their own pleasure. They are often enthusiastic rather than knowledgeable, finding it difficult to admit that they do not have a trained eye. However, finding a good adviser will save your money and face, so the next question is where are the experts? It has to be someone who has a sound knowledge of art history with handing experience of both genuine and fake objects. This is definitely an area where one should remember that old adage: “Buyer beware”.

James C S Lin is responsible for the Asian art collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum. He organises exhibitions, publishes academic research, teaches, gives lectures to the public. As a scholar he has published articles on jades and painting. Image Credit: CC by Paul Hudson/Flickr. 

 

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