Tea Leaf Nation

Why Is China So … Uncool?

The country's got all the right stuff to be a soft-power giant. But Beijing won't get out of its own way.

BEIJING - OCTOBER 02: Chinese teenager attend a rock-and-roll festival to mark Chinese National Day on October 2, 2005 in Beijing, China. Various activities are being held in China to mark the National Day.  (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)
BEIJING - OCTOBER 02: Chinese teenager attend a rock-and-roll festival to mark Chinese National Day on October 2, 2005 in Beijing, China. Various activities are being held in China to mark the National Day. (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)

There’s been much talk in recent weeks about China’s potential role as world leader, during a time when Trump’s America is erecting walls. China has nearly all the characteristics to lead effectively, with its willingness to engage in global trade and its promises to fight climate change, all backed by its economic and military gravitas. Despite all this, China still isn’t beloved abroad, at least not to the extent that America is. China’s music, movies, and fashions are relatively unpopular. Put another way, China is not seen as cool; its pop culture and pop stars lack global swagger. The question is why, and whether that matters.

The quest for cool is key to a country’s so-called soft power. Unlike hard power, which is the ability to get what one wants through coercion or payment, soft power usually comes in the form of seduction — via culture, political values, or foreign policies that have moral authority. It’s this power that China, unlike the United States, lacks.

The consequences of being uncool are real, and often political. Take Hong Kong: The Chinese city-state was handed over to Great Britain in 1842 after military defeat. Even though the territory was the United Kingdom’s spoil of war, people from the mainland migrated there in droves during China’s more tumultuous years. Hong Kong was returned to China two decades ago, yet many Hong Kongers today continue to embrace the democratic values of free elections and free speech the UK inculcated, and residents made these values known during the Umbrella Movement.

By contrast, pop culture contributed to America’s victory during the Cold War. According to Joseph Nye, a Harvard scholar and father of the “soft power” term, “Soviet state-run propaganda and culture programs could not keep pace with the influence of America’s commercial popular culture in flexibility or attraction. Long before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it had been pierced by television and movies.” Today, if people in Eurasia were all fans of Chinese pop music or television dramas, or had a more positive image of China, it might be easier for their governments to partner with Beijing on “win-win” initiatives like One Belt One Road.

While China’s political model is unpopular in Europe and the United States, its command-and-control economic model is admired across the developing world, where China also invests in infrastructure projects and sometimes provides aid. China’s willingness to engage with emerging markets has likely improved its image in those regions. While only 38 percent of Americans and 41 percent of Europeans view China favorably, more than half of Africans (70 percent) and Latin Americans (57 percent) see China in a positive light, according to 2015 Pew Research Center surveys.

Yet few people in those developing nations have fallen in love with China the way they might fall in love with the United States. This is largely because China’s pop culture lacks emotional, artistic, or sex appeal. A 2013 Pew survey found that just 25 percent of Latin Americans and 34 percent of Africans have favorable opinions of Chinese music, movies, or television, while more than half view U.S. cultural products favorably.

China’s soft power deficiency has been the subject of considerable personal angst. I grew up as a minority in suburban New Jersey, a place where I have never been considered cool, despite going through all the required motions: playing the guitar, trying to skateboard, and driving a fast car. I can’t fully blame my Chinese ethnicity for my lack of coolness — part of it is rooted in anti-Chinese sentiments throughout U.S. history — but being an immigrant from the mainland certainly did not help.

I wasn’t cool in the United States, and I’m usually not cool in China, where I live now — at least not until people find out that I grew up Stateside. Then people here look at me with new eyes. They start to admire the clothes I wear, the music I listen to, and the books I read. This fawning is doubled for my white American friends. In much of China today, telling people that you’re from the United States can transform you into a minor celebrity.

Despite high levels of nationalism and rising income in China, people there still turn to the United States, Europe, South Korea, and even erstwhile wartime enemy Japan for entertainment. (Pop culture from Taiwan and Hong Kong, with relatively tiny populations, is also considered much cooler than that from the mainland.) When my Chinese friends share WeChat posts, they like to show that they traveled to non-Chinese locations, and they like to write their status updates in non-Chinese languages. For as long as I can remember, the more a Chinese person travels abroad, the more socially attractive he or she becomes.

This wasn’t always the case. For millennia, Chinese culture was a thing of envy and imitation. China produced cultural icons like poet Li Bai and philosopher Confucius. The Tang Dynasty’s designs were the basis of Japanese architectural aesthetics, and elements of Confucian teachings became core tenets of the Korean social order. China expected tributary payments from other countries, so much so that officials misinterpreted the items that England’s King George III fatefully presented to open up trade as homages to the Yellow Emperor.

China’s golden age was so admirable that, even today, China’s propaganda department peddles its ancient cultural products abroad — in part because it has nothing else, really, to offer. The fact that a country invented gunpowder brings it only so much social capital. “That’s like if your girlfriend’s family asks if you are wealthy, and you tell them that your ancestors are wealthy,” noted popular Chinese blogger Han Han. “It is useless.”

After China lost the Opium War, it adopted a strategy known as zhong ti xi yong (中体西用), meaning, “adopting Western knowledge for its practical uses while keeping Chinese values as the core.” These methods are evident today in the Chinese government’s use of pop music and Hollywood. More often than not, the results are wooden.

It’s an old maxim that trying too hard to be cool backfires. Just look at the Chinese Communist Party, which has been flummoxed by the question of how to improve its cultural image. China’s top-down efforts to expand soft power gained momentum in 2007, when the Party’s then-General Secretary Hu Jintao announced that China needed to “vigorously develop the cultural industry” and to “enhance the industry’s international competitiveness.” In June 2016, Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, criticized the nation’s propaganda bureau for failing to reach younger audiences and called on them to be more innovative

The Party’s soft power failures are especially visible in the music industry. One of China’s most cringe-worthy efforts is a hip hop music video aimed at millennials abroad entitled “This is China,” produced by China’s Communist Youth League and the rap group Chengdu Revolution. The video promotes China with rambling lyrics like, “First things first, we all know that China is a developing country. It has large population and it is really hard to manage,” and the gem, “As for scientific achievement, we have [Nobel prize winner] Tu Youyou, who discovered Astemisinin.” The only way Chinese state media could out-do itself on this one is if it were to, say, promote a rap song praising Karl Marx.

In music, China nurses the notion that it can factory-produce the next big global pop celebrity, much the way China produced basketball star Yao Ming, a 7 foot 6 inch, 300-pound outlier. In 2011, the state-sponsored Shanghai Synergy record label signed the singer Ruhan Jia, with the explicit goal of transforming her into an international sensation. In her Shanghai studio, she practices English, studies Eminem, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson, and cultivates her squeaky-clean image. She made her American debut nearly five years ago in The Ran Tea House in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, according to a 2012 Bloomberg report. But today, few in the U.S. or even China have ever heard of her.

It’s not that Chinese artists lack creativity, style, or taste; they also have to overcome both an overweening state and the expectations and stereotypes of older Chinese, and of Western audiences.

Michael Pettis, a widely cited professor of finance at Beijing University, is also founder of Maybe Mars, one of China’s largest independent record companies. Pettis told Foreign Policy that exciting happenings in China’s music scene go largely unnoticed, because people around the world often can’t see past negative Chinese stereotypes: from smart students who eat together and never talk to tourists who defecate on the street. “It’s an unfair image because there is this developing cool within China,” said Pettis, who has signed pioneering bands like Carsick Cars and P.K. 14 to his label.

Another reason that quality music gets overlooked is that there is a generation gap within China between the government officials, parents, and teachers in charge, and China’s younger creative class. Authority figures were scarred by the Cultural Revolution, while the latter grew up under rapid urbanization and economic change. The most creative Chinese people lead lives similar to taste-making urbanites elsewhere; they are young, travel via subway, hang out in cafes and clubs, and are often on their computers or smart phones even more than Americans or Europeans. Pettis is impatient with those who search for their own idea of “authentic” Chinese culture, a situation exacerbated by government promos. “Whatever [Chinese youth] end up doing, it’s not going to sound like Mongolian horseman, or Xinjiangese farmers, or peasants in Yunnan province, which is sort of what [consumers] are looking for,” he said.

The clashing expectations of older Chinese, younger Chinese, Beijing censors, and the West can make it hard to create widely resonant works. Hollywood and state-backed Chinese studios recently coproduced a $150 million movie, “The Great Wall.” The ambitious film somehow managed to receive criticism for both whitewashing (it starred Matt Damon) and pandering to China (Matt Damon becomes humbled by Chinese virtues). It flopped in its opening weekend in the United States.

In another instance, director Lu Chuan (known for “City of Life and Death”) agreed to produce an animated film in 2006 for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. But he quickly found that the government had inflexible demands on how the film should promote Chinese culture. “Under such pressure, my co-workers and I really felt stifled,” Lu wrote in China Daily. “The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity.”

And when the China Film Directors Guild awarded the 2013 director of the year award to Feng Xiaogang, often called the Spielberg of China, Feng gave an acceptance speech lamenting the censorship that Chinese directors must overcome. “Are Hollywood directors tormented the same way?” Feng asked. “To get approval, I have to cut my films in a way that makes them bad.” His speech went viral on Chinese social media.

Some counter that the lack of Chinese cool is rooted in China’s traditions; that while the West values individuality, China values the group, so much so that the Chinese would rather conform to the masses than explore new paths. Others blame Chinese students’ educational development, especially during the hellish year leading up to Gaokao exams, when many do almost nothing but study and sleep.

William C. Kirby, a professor of China Studies at Harvard who has also taught in China, cautions against assuming “that because of their educational experience the Americans are problem-solving innovators as a birth right and the Chinese are rote memorizers with no independence of thought.” Kirby told FP he is more worried about the government’s ideological purity campaign, which has recently made its way onto college campuses. Xi, for example, has tightened the Party’s grip over lesson plans, with visions to turn colleges into strongholds that obey Party leadership.

“Great universities in China, one could fear, would end up with two types of graduates,” Kirby said. “The large majority being cynical of what they are being taught, which is never a good thing; and a small minority being opportunists, who say whatever they need to say to get ahead.”

China needs to rethink some of its soft power strategies and political values, and in the process rebrand itself — if not for its image abroad, then for its own people at home. China has the world’s largest middle class, as well as the world’s largest population of billionaires. These facts suggest that Chinese consumers should be world’s new tastemakers. But their current tastes in entertainment and fashion are largely sourced from outside the country.

One trend that must be particularly baffling to Chinese bureaucrats is how comparatively tiny South Korea has reaped the economic and social benefits of hallyu, meaning the flow of South Korean culture abroad. As in China, the Korean government invests heavily in its domestic entertainment industry, with the ultimate goal of exporting its cultural products. It seems to work in Korea, while China, with more than 20 times as many potential pop artists to nurture, flails.

Today, China’s soft power goals contain an inherent contradiction: the country wants to use media as a tool to guide public values in the Leninist tradition, and at the same time hopes to create entertainment products that are well received worldwide. In liberal democracies, art and culture — which often emerge from society’s fringes — tell us something about life, occasionally shaping national priorities in the process. But in China, it’s national priorities that shape art.

It’s not out of the question that U.S. President Donald Trump’s antics and policies — his Muslim ban, or his promised wall building, or his sexism — will leave a soft-power vacuum around the world that China can try to fill. It may become less cool to be, or act like, an American. If Xi provides enough space for China’s creative class to grow, then China’s cultural products will have a much better chance of succeeding worldwide, and the Chinese could emerge from the Trump era in a much more positive light.

But Beijing still fails to grasp that soft power arises when individuals have room to create and grow — without fear of censorship or the need to conform to a government agenda. Popular culture becomes popular because, somewhere along the way, it pushes the boundaries of what is socially acceptable or recognized. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a world where donning a backwards red cap with yellow stars is in vogue, where the viral songs are sung in Mandarin, and where the Chinese heroes get the glory. That won’t happen until the Communist Party quits cramping China’s style.

Guang Niu/Getty Images

George Gao is a masters student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is currently studying at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in China. His writing has been published by Guernica Magazine, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.