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 ūüźÖ). 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.

US Soft Power Reassessed

Joseph Nye’s recent piece, American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, picks up on the key themes of his previous foundational work on soft power and acknowledges some of the problems America’s image abroad is facing in the Trump era. Even just a few months into the Trump presidency, Pew global attitudes surveys were showing steep declines in U.S. favorability ratings around the world. When asked to rate their “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs”, 31 of the 37 countries surveyed had double-digit declines between Obama and Trump:

From: Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter and Janell Fetterolf, U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership, Pew Research Center, 26 June 2017, p. 4

It’s interesting, too, to note that Russia reported a huge improvement: Only 11% had confidence in Obama, while 53% have confidence in Trump–a 42 point increase. Fifteen countries had that kind of dramatic reversal in opinion (more than 41 point decreases), but Russia was the only country that had it in that direction.

Without using the phrase itself, Nye picks up on the dangers of Trump’s “America First” policies. Blatantly telling the world that we’re putting our interests above anyone else’s needs, or even above the common good, is clearly detrimental to our image abroad and certainly undermines American soft power.

“Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others‚Äô views, or based on a narrow conception of national interest can undermine soft power. For example, there was a steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 . In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and America‚Äôs global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy.”

From: Joseph S. Nye, Jr., American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, Project Syndicate, 6 May 2019

Nye ends his piece on a somewhat optimistic note–America’s image abroad has recovered before and it will recover again–but personally, I think it’s still very much endangered. If Trump gets re-elected in 2020, the world will think the American people support him (not an unreasonable conclusion), and that America is accurately described by those qualities in Nye’s list–hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, and promoting policies that are based on a narrow conception of national interest.

I’ve been following a few of the 2020 candidates on the Democratic side on social media, and the comment sections are very worrying. So much abuse and animosity from Trump supporters, and any Democratic supporter who comments with anything positive faces abuse, as well. Whether they are real people or trolls (or real trolls?), it is concerning. These social media platforms are not a space for discussion of the issues, which is a shame–they should be able to function as a sounding board for candidates to elicit voters’ views on policies and to figure out what issues matter most to voters. Instead, these spaces become littered with insults, abuse, swearing, American flag emojis, and hashtags like #Trump2020.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the 2020 election is an important factor in our consideration of U.S. soft power, and its future resurrection or continued decline.

The soft power of children’s literature

I’ve just come back from a long weekend in the Lake District, visiting Beatrix Potter’s beloved home Hill Top Farm and the sights of Hawkshead and Bowness-on-Windermere. It was lovely, but very touristy–apparently we weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting the Lake District in the springtime.

On her writing desk was a copy of the original Peter Rabbit story–she wrote it in a letter to her former governess’s son, then borrowed back the letter to make a copy. She wasn’t able to find a publisher, so she self-published 250 copies–when they sold out, Frederick Warne & Co. (who had rejected her) reconsidered and offered to publish it, if she would re-illustrate it in colour.
Her doll house, used as the setting for The Tale of Two Bad Mice.

One thing that surprised me was the number of Japanese tourists being dropped off from coaches on the narrow country lanes of Near Sawrey, outside the gates of Hill Top. I found this BBC article from a few years ago about the popularity of Peter Rabbit in Japan. Apparently the book is used by English learners, and loved not just for the characters but also for its depictions of the English countryside. There’s even a Beatrix Potter reference library housed in a replica Hill Top (1.5x size), complete with farm animals at a children’s zoo in Japan.

Dual language signage in Hill Top. The guide in the room said “Mind the step,
Suteppu o ki ni shite kudasai,” and laughed, “It’s the only Japanese I know!”
Early hedgehog sketches–her pet hedgehog was the model for Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle

My friend Amber Pouliot organised a conference on literary tourism a few years ago, Placing the Author. It focused on 19th century authors, including the Brontes (Haworth also has signs in Japanese, by the way), Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth (I didn’t visit Dove Cottage, but I did see his grammar school in Hawkshead), and Jane Austen. I thought of her and the conference when I was planning my Easter teaching break–unintentionally, it was full of literary tourism. In addition to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top, I also visited the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden recently and loved it.

The reconstructed writing hut where Roald Dahl worked
They had a brilliant way to experience it–a reconstruction of the original behind glass, and then a touchable replica version for kids (and grown-up kids) to play with

I also went on the Harry Potter Studio Tour over the break, which was amazing and packed with tourists from all over the world. It’s so incredible to think of the size of the HP fandom, and that it all revolves around reading (unusually long) books, and that Rowling was the first person to make $1 billion from writing books. Taking these three visits together, it got me thinking about British children’s literature and how it’s been such a massive source of soft power for the UK. In the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, children’s literature featured prominently. J.K. Rowling read an excerpt from Peter Pan,and the dream sequence included villains from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Harry Potter and 101 Dalmatians, ultimately defeated by Mary Poppins(es). Then there’s Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Robin Hood, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Paddington–so much of the American/Disney cultural imperialism is rooted in British cultural imperialism. Just about the only British children’s stories that didn’t cross the pond are Watership Down (super weird story with violent rabbits), and Enid Blyton, which is just too twee for America (they did make it to Australia/NZ/Canada, though).

Why does children’s literature have such a significant soft power element? I think it’s the nostalgia we have for the stories we read as children–especially memories of being read to, by parents or teachers or other caregivers. The act of reading together is an act of love, of quality time. When you move onto independent reading, too, there’s the joy of discovery–of escapism, of encountering new ideas and vicarious experiences.

Children’s bookshop owner Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail

If children’s literature has this power to influence its readers, it can also shape the way they think about its country of origin.

Confucius Institutes

Inside Higher Ed recently mentioned a provision in the current U.S. defense spending bill that restricts funding for Chinese language instruction provided by a Confucius Institute. The headline made it sound like U.S. universities with Confucius Institutes were being punished, but it’s really just a measure to limit the CI, because universities can waive the limitation and still receive funding if they certify that CI instructors won’t be involved in the university’s Chinese language program.

I quite liked the author’s succinct summary of why CIs are controversial:

“Critics say the institutes spread Chinese Communist Party propaganda and allow an entity of the Chinese government undue control over instruction and curriculum in U.S. universities, while supporters say the institutes are vehicles for cultural and educational exchange and provide much-needed funds for Chinese language instruction.”¬†

There has been quite a lot of public diplomacy scholarship on Confucius Institutes and China’s soft power strategy in general in recent years–Falk Hartig’s¬†Chinese Public Diplomacy: the Rise of the Confucius Institute (2015), articles in Journal of Contemporary China¬†(2016),¬†Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education (2016), and Journalism Practice¬†(2016), to name a few.

There’s no real consensus on whether CIs are “propaganda” or cultural exchange–but therein lies the difficulty in defining exchange diplomacy. It depends on perspective, us vs. them. When “they” do it, it’s propaganda but when “we” do it, it’s just information.

So what do CIs do? There are 500 around the world, so of course there’s going to be some variance. As an example, here’s an infographic on Scotland’s CIs and an advert for a CI event at the University of Aberdeen:

confucius institute scotlandconfucius institute

These sound like the kinds of things “we” do–the U.S. and Britain promote English language courses, the¬†Alliance Fran√ßaise¬†offers French classes and film screenings, the Instituto Cervantes has Spanish classes and guitar lessons–but when a CI hosts Chinese New Year celebrations, it’s propaganda…

Again, I’m not an expert on CIs, but when the Inside Higher Ed article mentioned that Marco Rubio was one of the critics, it made me think CIs must not be all that bad!



For those who are interested in further detail: Section 1091 contains the prohibition, limitation, and the terms under which the limitation can be waived.Confucius InstitutesFull text of the bill available here.