China’s hard task with soft power

China has a swagger in its step. Its rise both economically and geopolitically has steadily built momentum over the past 30 years. But behind its confidence and national pride lies an insecurity holding it back.

It recently claimed another scalp by leapfrogging Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.

More than 35,000 Chinese citizens in Libya (mostly workers in the construction and oil industries and their families) arrived back in Beijing in euphoric scenes. This achievement especially is nothing short of remarkable. Some waved tiny national flags, some hugged bouquets of flowers, and some choked back tears as they thanked the party and country with Cold War-esque language like “I love my motherland” (我爱我祖国).

HEADING HOME: 35,860 Chinese were evacuated from Libya.

China has gone all out to improve its image abroad with a promotional video shown in New York’s Times Square. The clip includes various celebrities including NBA superstar Yao Ming as well as ordinary people. It’s goal differs from other country promotional campaigns in that it doesn’t seek to drive tourism, rather respect and a better cultural understanding. All this makes up a concept known as “soft power” – a term I’m still trying to get my head around. My understanding is that like propaganda, it shares the goal of influencing opinion, albeit favoring attraction over coercion. Think along the lines of “winning hearts and minds”.

As old China hand and astute cultural commentator Kaiser Kuo put it on CCTV News (see 15’00), China is “going to the gym, it’s trying to quit smoking, it’s dressing better, it’s earning good money”. But he points out its shortfall lies in lacking a sense of humor, that self-effacing approach that invites you to take the piss out of yourself. This isn’t endemic of China’s laobaixing (老百姓)or ordinary people who have wit to rival any in the world. But it isn’t part of China’s image abroad, perhaps unsurprisingly given many of the country’s leadership grew up during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution when there was little to kid around about.

It’s all well and good to be the clean-living, well-dressed, articulate guy sipping your soda at the bar. But sometimes it’s better to roll up your sleeves, get a pint of draft and throw darts with the other lads if you want to fit in with the crowd. Who knows, you might even enjoy yourself.

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Top 10 gripes of living in China

So you’ve been reeled in and you’re the metaphoric fish out of water living in another country with a culture to its own. The surroundings are different and no matter how hard you try to ditch the comfort zone there’s only so much you can take.

1. Spitting – hock it up baby, the streets are lined with juicy dollops of Beijing honey. Spitting is a daily ritual for most Chinese. Navigating footpaths requires all the cunning of a sharp-eyed sniper eyeing his target to avoid the phlegm-filled pockets of saliva. There’s nothing more unnerving than standing at the urinal doing your business than hearing the piercing “hwaaaaaaak” of someone clearing their larynx of the day’s dose of pollution and cigarettes. The worst experience is hearing it on a bus or subway from the seat behind you followed by the squishing of a boot toe on the floor.

UNLIKELY: Get used to spitting.

2. Pollution – welcome to smog city where the population is you and the victim is your lungs. The thick haze swallows the city most days, leaving the skyline an eerie twilight zone most hours that allows for the odd, ironically picturesque sunset with rays blending into somewhere where the clouds begin. On good days you can see a clear blue sky, but sadly they’re often preceded by the authorities’ cloud-seeding rockets the previous night to ensure a postcard-perfect military parade.

HAZY HAZARD: Pollution is a major problem.

3. Banking – you’ll never complain about banking or retail experiences until you live in China. Need to transfer some money to an overseas account? Sure, visit your local bank. Oh, queued for hours and didn’t realize as a foreigner your passport was required for a rudimentary transaction? No worries, come back tomorrow. Oh, someone skipped the queue ahead of you before being asked you needed an obscure “swift code” of your bank that could be obtained in seconds on the teller’s computer – but is your responsibility? Come back tomorrow. The bureaucracy is mind-swimming.

4. Foreigner fatigue – China is an ethnocentric culture. Take public transport in most Western countries and you won’t bat an eyelid at your fellow passengers from various ethnicities. Granted, the chances are they are as native as you are – perhaps even more. But as a foreigner in China you stick out as a sore thumb. Kids informing their parents of the laowai (foreigner) standing near the subway door shouldn’t be met with uncomfortable feelings. Rather, I’m bemused by the attention. But when Chinese girls from “Xi’an” corner you in Wangfujing (a popular Beijing shopping street) begging you to buy their authentic “artworks” for exhoribitant prices – yes. Yes, I wish I could be just another face in the crowd treated appropriately.

5. Language – I feel this is a doubled-edged sword. In all, I love China for its fierce pride in sticking to its language and not selling out – for want of a better term – like Cambodia, where every conversation in Khmer would result in locals smiling, effusively complimenting, then answering in English. But there are situations where English, as an international language, should be spoken at some attempt in China. Airports, hospitals, banks, and, well, anywhere people in China who aren’t Chinese are likely to visit. When I was in Kyoto, Japan, a hard-hat wearing construction worker advised me in brave, broken English how to get to my hostel. Complete fluke, I know. Nevertheless, such a situation is a pipedream in China.

6. Crowds – get used to it. Lots of people, everywhere, all the time. There’s a wistful romance to walking down the street by yourself for a few hundred meters, seeing a stranger and politely saying hello and nodding your head. In China, it’s every man for himself. Get used to being pushed into a subway carriage packed well beyond capacity and pressing your cheek against the door window until the next stop where you must grip anything you can hold onto to save falling out.

ALL ABOARD: Subway rush-hour is manic.

7. Toilets – I’m no stranger to the squat job. I did my fair share in Cambodia in some nasty digs after terrible green curries. But when I go to a McDonalds, train station, shopping mall or even work, I want a nice john to sit on to read my China Daily. Granted, I have a much fairer deal as a male than the fairer sex. But still, is it too much to expect a marathon train ride without packing pocket Kleenexs and some strengthened quad muscles?

SQUAT'S THE MATTER?: The classic Chinese crapper.

8. Smoking – China in 2011 is like the US in 1931. You can spark up a fag everywhere from shopping malls to maternity wards. The best way to illustrate China’s addiction to nicotine is not through my ramblings, but statistics from the World Health Organization. Over two-thirds of Chinese men are smokers (more than the entire US population) – women stand commendably at 4%. About 3,000 people die daily in China due to tobacco-related illnesses. Suffice to say, smoking is everywhere. The Chinese government has a virtual monopoly on cigarette companies, making for a steady hit of revenue. There’s a lot to be admired in Australia’s tobacco laws despite the complaints of smokers. We have harsh visual images on packages, an expensive cost barrier (the cost of an Australian packet of cigarettes is almost exactly ten-times compared to China) and tight advertising restrictions.

REAL DRAG: Smokers can feel free to light in most places.

9. Queue jumping – it’s the most popular national sport, behind ping pong and synchronized spitting. Unsurprising, given the competition among a population topping 1.4 billion. Whether you’re in line to buy a cheeseburger from McDonalds or a train ticket to Tianjin, be on your guard. That space between you and the person in front is hot real estate.

RIGHT ON CUE: People will push ahead at any chance.

10. Great Firewall of China – when I first arrived in Beijing I was upset I couldn’t watch Youtube videos. When I returned to Australia, I felt like I needed a good hot shower to cleanse my soul for checking my Facebook wall without a virtual private network, or VPN as known to the swathe of China expats. Online freedom is hardly a constitutional right. Along with Facebook and Youtube, Twitter and certain articles from BBC, CNN and Twitter are off limits. Most recently, LinkedIn was blocked. The Great Firewall is easily scaled for people like me who don’t mind shelling out US$10 per month on a reliable VPN, but it’s nevertheless a hassle that something like the internet that has the potential to bring the world closer together, remains so tightly guarded in China.

NET LOSS: The Internet is strictly regulated.

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Facing the music

On the issue of copyright, China’s hottest male pop-rock duo of 2010 Xuriyanggang (旭日阳刚) have found themselves in hot water for copyright infringement. The pair’s rapid rise to fame culminated with a prized, yet obviously nervous gig on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala.

SMOKIN' HOT: Wu Xu, one half of migrant worker music duo Xuriyanggang

Xuriyanggang couldn’t be further from the stereotype of Mandopop’s male stars with long-tinted hair, diamond-earrings and velvet vocals. Rather, they are migrant workers Wu Xu (无需) and Liu Gang (刘刚) – both most likely from China’s northeast given their accents.

They shot to fame in 2010 for their heart-wrenching rendition of Beijing singer Wang Feng’s (汪峰) pop ballad In Spring (春天里). Now, Wang Feng has (quite fairly) banned the duo for singing the song he penned. The irony of a Chinese singer getting upset over copyright infringement is not lost, yet no doubt Wang Feng is at least slightly bitter that Xuriyanggang achieved more critical acclaim than he did singing his own song – similar to when Aussie singer Shannon Noll catapulted to fame using Moving Pictures’ What About Me?

To borrow a Chinese idiom, Xuriyanggang’s version is baitingbuyan (百听不厌), or could be listened to a hundred times without tiring. It’s raw, emotion-charged stuff from two guys working far from home to support their families. The song opens with Liu Gang (a former soldier-turned-migrant worker) on guitar before crossing over to 44-year-old, cigarette-holding Wu Xu and his gravel-treked vocals. The simple setting of a guitar, microphones, a few Beijing Snowflake (雪花) beers inside a shoebox-sized dwelling gives some insight to what life is like for migrant workers.

In homage to the talented Wang Feng, here is his original version of the song. I’ll leave you to decide which one is better.

For those curious of the song, here are the lyrics imperfectly translated:

还记得许多年前的春天 Remember spring many years ago

那时的我还没剪去长发 When I didn’t cut my hair

没有信用卡没有她 No credit card, no girlfriend

没有24小时热水的家 No hot water at home 24 hours a day

可当初的我是那么快乐 虽然只有一把破木吉他 在街上

I was so happy, just busking with my crappy guitar

在桥下 在田野中 In the fields, under the bridge

唱着那无人问津的歌谣 Singing songs to no one in particular

如果有一天 我老无所依 (Chorus) If one day I’m an old man

请把我留在 在那时光里 Please keep me in your life

如果有一天 我悄然离去 If one day I’m not with you

请把我埋在 这春天里 Please remember me in spring

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The problem of piracy

Differences between English and Chinese definitions for copyright.


Copyright: (n)  The exclusive right to make and dispose of copies of a literary, musical, or artistic work.


Copyright: (v)  I have something that’s not mine. I can copy, right?

Intellectual property rights are a double-edged sword in China and an issue of which I have mixed feelings. I am, in the eyes of many of my friends, a sucker.

I’m the guy who pays $1.69 at the iTunes store to download the song he likes. I’m the guy who pays legitimately for every app on his iPad, even though the device is jailbroken and could be downloaded or free.

But I’m also the guy who wears the fake Nike runners with the rock hard artificial “air bubble” in the sole like its real cousin. I’m also the guy who was sweating at Sydney International Airport three weeks ago wondering if that sniffer dog could smell the 150 pirate DVDs in the backpack.

I’m all for artistic types from George Gershwin to Lady Gaga getting their dues for their work. But when retailers ask $US30 for a movie or album, forget about it.

Pirate DVDs and online file-sharing programs have brought the wonder of Hollywood (plus, at times, hilarious subtitle translations) to flickering TV sets in dank migrant worker dorms and university students’ worn-laptops across China. These movies are, beyond entertainment, are great way to learn English. They provide insight into Western culture for people who have neither the means nor luxury to travel abroad. Furthermore, foreign films must compete to be included among the Chinese government’s permitted annual quota of 20 as enforced since 2002.

Chinese audiences will pay for entertainment when its warranted. There’s no better evidence of this than when Avatar hit screens in 2009. People paid 150RMB (US$22.50) for the privilege of a 3D screening. When cinemas were still inundated, they put the price up to 200RMB (US$30). Still, they kept coming.

The answer lies in getting the balance right. If China was fair dinkum about eradicating piracy and protecting IPR, it would do more than just air the obligatory news story every six months about some shipment of illegal materials getting busted (cue: footage of DVDs being shredded by the hundreds, clothes vendors being shut down). Likewise, I’m sure Hollywood stars could keep living in their Beverley Hills mansions as they drop off their adopted third-world orphans to school on the way to Pilates class if a new DVD cost $5 or $10 instead of $30. Shoppers would have a better conscious, too.

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Why the Arab World uprising won’t spill over to China

Surf’s up. What started out as a ripple of unrest has now strengthened into a tidal wave sweeping the Arab world. Protesters have taken a stand to overthrow governments past their used by date in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Libya and now Morocco, albeit with varying degrees of success.

TAHRIR, NOT TIAN'ANMEN: Unrest is unlikely in China.

Western media outlets predictably cast their gaze from the Middle East to the Far East, hoping to eye a similar groundswell in China. But that headline will have to remain on hold for now.

There was some hype of the Jasmine Revolution sprouting at Beijing’s popular pedestrian shopping street in Wangfujing, But with well anticipated tighter public security and the bulk of the gathering more curious than revolutionary, it was a spectacular non-event.

GROUNDED: The Jasmine Revolution was never going to take off.

There are many reasons such demonstrations are unlikely to be seen in China anytime soon, some good and some bad. Here are my thoughts on what separates China from the countries gripped by unrest:

  • Economic stability – perhaps the single greatest motivator for an uprising. China recently leapfrogged Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. A country’s economic prosperity means nothing unless its people can share in it, and wealth distribution remains grossly out of whack in China. But people, by-in-large, are much better off today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Chances are they will again be better off again in another few years’ time. There’s noticeable improvement.
  • Strong employment – China’s unemployment in 2010 was 4.1%, compared to Tunisia (13.3%), Egypt (9.12%) and Libya (30%).
  • Strict social media – An Egyptian father named his daughter Facebook in homage to the social networking site’s role in the country’s revolution. Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are all blocked on mainland China. But the forbidden fruit is available to Chinese in the form of Renren, Weibo and Youku respectively. All can be used at a much faster speed than on the other side of the Great Firewall of China, but they’re also strictly monitored.
  • Internet censorship – Chinese search engine Baidu (far more popular than Google) screened entries containing “jasmine” (茉莉) following rumblings of the proposed revolution.
  • Media’s message – a free press shares diverse ideas and opinions with its audience. Read any Western newspaper and you’ll be bombarded with hundreds of ideas about how society would be better run. This politician’s good, this one’s a rat bag, the economy is improving, we’re all in the toilet. There are some brilliant Chinese journalists and commentators who often present interesting ideas that make you re-examine your world. Problem is they’re few and far between in a largely undiluted state media.
  • Food security – in 2011, famine is unlikely to threaten China like it has among some Arab countries. China’s inflation hit 4.9% in January with increasing food costs a major factor. But for the bulk of people, the pain in the hip pocket when shopping for daily necessities is unwanted, but bearable.
  • On guard – the presence can, at times, be enough to stifle any non-mainstream thought. No where is public security more visible than in China’s own pocket of the Arab World in Xinjiang. When I visited Kashgar in 2010, a city more Beirut than Beijing, there were columns of soldiers and riot police running through their motions in the city’s People’s Square (人民广场). Granted Xinjiang is a more volatile region given its own unrest in 2009, but the message was clear: be on your best behavior.

But China isn’t immune to the uprising epidemic. It shares some traits with its Arab cousins that could be tinder for unrest, including government corruption, human rights violations, inflation, poverty and calls for democracy. I’m not sure China would be a better or stronger country with happier people if it followed in the footsteps of Egypt. All I know is this is one wave that won’t be ridden anytime soon.

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