China Soft-Power Watch: Looking on the Bright Side

A few days ago I argued that the forced, government-funded efforts to glorify China's "image" often backfired, whereas simply allowing outsiders to be part of the drama, comedy,  excitement, and vivid humanity of current Chinese life dependably created more friends than enemies. And, obviously, the same is true of America and most other countries too. One reader writes:

I surmise that Lang Lang has done more for soft power of China than the entire Chinese propaganda department or CCTV.

Here he is performing at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and some sour grapes from a British pianist:

Interestingly, even the gripe from the British pianist-reviewer -- who is mainly upset that there weren't more British performers on the Jubilee program -- is quite respectful of Lang Lang's talent and his overall charm and appeal. (For background of the improbable circumstances in which my wife ended up sitting next to Lang Lang at dinner, see this. And you can never go wrong with this video of him playing with Herbie Hancock at the White House last year.)


I suggest you ask readers and friends to come up with their three best examples of China's soft power.
My three are:
1.       Szechuan food
2.       Kung Fu
3.       Pandas

Or maybe Tsingtao Beer. [JF note: No way on this last item.]
My point being that much of their soft power is the way they are becoming part of the fabric of everyday life in ways that are hardly worth noticing. 

A few years ago I would have added Yao Ming and Wu Tang Klan.  I will never forget the day I saw that a Chinese beer company was paying for the signage around the Rockets' scorer's table in Houston so that viewers in PRC would see their beer in American setting. 

Finally, for some of the Chinese perspective on the PM 2.5 contretemps, see this item in Shanghaiist. I don't agree with everything it says*, but it does help explain why the Chinese officials are annoyed.
* The part I don't agree with is that @BeijingAir was part of a deliberate U.S. campaign to make Chinese officials lose face. On the contrary: the Twitter feed of pollution readings was launched with no publicity -- and at least at the start, the U.S. embassy officials were at pains that the location of the air pollution sensor, on the roof of the embassy in Beijing, not be publicized. Also, for reasons too obscure to go into, once the U.S. embassy started collecting this info for the benefit of its own employees, it was obliged by policy to make it available to other U.S. citizens living in the same area. Still it is worth reading the item to see the episode from the Chinese perspective. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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