China’s Cultural Diplomacy Offensive

The growth of Chinese “soft power” in the modern era is one of the great stories of our day.  Why?  Because it inspires fear!

This short clip from the popular American television show “South Park” describes young Eric Cartman’s nightmare of a Chinese-dominated world, a dream which stems from his having watched the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

South Park
South Park

So what if the Chinese are just hearkening back to drumming traditions of the diverse — far from totalitarian — Warring States period?

Meanwhile, ostensible successor to Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping, is in Europe for the next two weeks.  He begins in Brussels, where he helps to kick off an immense cultural festival called Europalia, set to run until the Chinese New Year hits on February 14, 2010.

Unfortunately, the exhibition looks fairly stodgy — there are Chinese avant-garde artists teeming in Francophone Europe, but instead we get Qianlong’s scrolls.  Great?  To be sure.  But to be a truly magnificent cultural power, China really needs to hold up its innovators and its diversity.  Perhaps far, far too much to ask of the CCP, whose idea of innovation is to stage Turandot in the Bird’s Nest while beating up the architect.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (2nd, L) and Belgian King Albert II (2nd, R) watch exhibits during Europalia China art festival in Brussels, capital of Belgium, Oct. 8, 2009. (Xinhua/Lan Hongguang)
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (2nd, L) and Belgian King Albert II (2nd, R) watch exhibits during Europalia China art festival in Brussels, capital of Belgium, Oct. 8, 2009. (Xinhua/Lan Hongguang)

Europalia’s official site explains that this is the first time the festival has focused on China.  Japan won the honor in 1989; today that program is just a grainy scan on a website as China ascends soaring over even Oe Kenzaburo, honored that year.  Today, naturally, there is a performance Xinjiang song and dance ensemble, in which one gets to implicitly celebrate China’s control over that vast region under the warm cloak of the Silk Road.   (Europalia’s mission is available here, in French.)Europa-2007-3

Meanwhile, the royal family of Brussels can rub elbows with the CCP travelling elite and sing the praises of China.

And Barack Obama wins the Nobel Prize!  Is this man the harbinger of an American cultural counter-offensive in East Asia?  Not if the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Francais (and now the Cervantes Institute!) continue their dominance astride the cultural quarter in Chaoyang!

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