The Soft Power of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year celebrations in London–Photo by Lalitphat Phunchuang on Unsplash

A few years ago, when I started my Twitter analysis, I was surprised to see that most of the US Congress members posted about Chinese New Year. Some broadened it out to Lunar New Year, but most called the holiday Chinese New Year, and most indicated which year it was in the zodiac (i.e. Happy Year of the Tiger, complete with a tiger emoji 🐅). It’s been a bigger thing in the West more generally in recent years–noticeably in terms of marketing, as the supermarkets advertise Chinese takeaway meals with “Chinese New Year” labels. M&S goes as far as indicating that it’s the Year of the Tiger on its packaging. It’s an annual Google doodle. My son’s primary school class celebrates it every year, with arts & crafts (paper lanterns, dragons) and stories about China. While I think I was vaguely aware of it as a kid, maybe through Sesame Street, it seems that the holiday is an increasingly recognisable and well-regarded part of Chinese culture in the West, extending beyond the Chinese diaspora.

The names “Chinese New Year” and “Lunar New Year” are used interchangeably in the West, with the latter being used to acknowledge that it’s celebrated by other countries in East and Southeast Asia, such as Korea and Malaysia. The name “Chinese New Year” dominates in terms of usage, however–a Google search for Lunar New Year produces 2.4 billion results, while Chinese New Year produces 4.2 billion. #ChineseNewYear trends over #LunarNewYear on Twitter, and of course the use of English and the platform Twitter indicate that these are generally not Chinese people talking about it. The association of the holiday with China specifically, rather than Lunar New Year more generally, makes it part of the nation’s soft power–it’s a cultural resource that makes China attractive to the rest of the world.

Chinese New Year presents an opportunity for China to showcase a range of different cultural aspects–its history, traditional folklore, food, music, dance, etc. Confucius Institutes around the world take advantage of increased interest in the holiday to share Chinese culture and traditions.

Do events like Chinese New Year actually influence people’s perceptions of China, though? This post on Modern Diplomacy from 2018 emphasises the positive aspects of Chinese New Year as a cultural showcase, but some of its arguments reveal the limitations of one-sided celebrations of culture as a soft power tool. It suggested the emphasis on pandas and harmony with nature in Chinese culture was evidence of the country’s eco-friendly credentials. The authors claimed “the rise of China would not be completed at the cost of the ecological environment like many other countries did in history.” This has been shown to be untrue, as China’s development has generated huge amounts of pollution. According to a piece on Statista, “China released 10.67 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2020, making it by far the largest world’s largest polluter that year. While most countries experienced dramatic emission reductions in 2020 due to COVID-19, China was one of only a handful of countries where emissions increased.” It’s still nowhere near the overall levels of pollution from the US, but these figures contradict the above statement about China’s rise being eco-friendly.

In addition to the environmental concerns, there is the matter of human rights abuses in China, from silencing journalists and activists to the genocide of China’s Muslim minority, the Uyghurs. No amount of celebrating cultural traditions can counteract the negative impact of its human rights abuses and climate destruction. It’s like expecting American-style Christmas traditions to make up for U.S. military aggression and drone strikes in the Middle East, or making up for colonial legacies in Africa (i.e. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”). Soft power without policy substance is ineffective.

So, we had our dumplings and egg fried rice and fortune cookies (an American invention), and George showed us his lantern and dragon crafts from school, and we looked up our horoscopes for the Year of the Tiger. But we can balance this celebration of Chinese culture with an acknowledgement that China’s government is responsible for some terrible things. It’s what many people around the world have done with the West for decades–they can enjoy Western films and television, eat Western foods and wear jeans, and love and respect individual American/British/French etc. people, while condemning some of the actions of Western governments and militaries. It’s a very grown-up, nuanced way of looking at the world, and something that exchange diplomacy can promote, by giving people that blend of policy and cultural knowledge.