China Tries to Export Culture as Influence Increases China faces the challenge of ensuring that its growing influence around the world is viewed in a favorable light. The country hopes to accomplish this goal by using the "soft power" of culture and language.
NPR logo

China Tries to Export Culture as Influence Increases

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89306145/89318774" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
China Tries to Export Culture as Influence Increases

China Tries to Export Culture as Influence Increases

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89306145/89318774" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

China is expanding its influence around the world using its economic clout and using diplomacy. Also, China wields what's called soft power. This week, we're examining China's global reach.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on China's efforts to spread its culture around the world.

(Soundbite of gong clanging)

ANTHONY KUHN: Every year, officials and family members gather in front of the grand halls and ancient cypress trees of Confucius' home to celebrate the philosopher's birth 2,558 years ago. Attendants in embroidered robes do ritual prostrations, and students recite Confucian text.

During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, Confucian statues and books were smashed and burned. But today, Confucius is again a source of pride and his 77th-generation descendant, Kong Deyong, is a busy man. He spoke in his car on the way to the ceremony.

Mr. KONG DEYONG (Confucius' Descendant): (Through translator) Even if Chinese people haven't entirely understood Confucianism, it has been a part of their entire system of thought for thousands of years. That's why we say it's the essence of our national culture.

KUHN: Confucianism was at the heart of what made China the soft-power powerhouse of Asia for centuries. Most of the time, China was unable to physically conquer its neighbors - Japan, Korea and Vietnam. But these nations willingly adopted Confucian culture and Chinese forms of government, art and literature.

(Soundbite of children singing)

PALCA: Now, Confucius has become a sort of Chinese brand. Since 2002, China has opened more than 200 Confucius Institutes in about 60 countries to teach Chinese language and culture.

In 2006, President Hu Jintao visited this Confucius Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and sang along with its first graduating class.

Unidentified Female: (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: President Hu, can I ask you a question, says one of the Kenyan students after the singing. Sure, Hu says. Did we sing well, she asks.

President HU JINTAO (China): (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: Yes, you did, Hu replies. That folk song is from my hometown. You sang it well and with Chinese flavor.

The girl says that she wants to come to China to study and work, and President Hu welcomes her.

Chinese state television broadcast this episode. The message was clear: Foreigners are respectful of China and its culture. But China is careful to point out that the Confucius Institutes aren't pushing any ideological agenda.

Zhao Guocheng is an education ministry official in charge of the Confucius Institutes.

Mr. ZHAO GUOCHENG (Education Ministry Official, Confucius Institutes): (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: Confucius Institutes don't teach Confucianism. They don't promote any particular values. They're just an introduction to Chinese culture, and they're established at the invitation of foreign people who want to understand China.

But in a major speech last year, President Hu, for the first time, specifically pointed the soft power as a national goal.

Pres. HU: (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: We must enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country, he said, to better guarantee the people's basic cultural rights and interests.

Sports are the ultimate soft-power competition, and China is betting that hosting the Beijing Olympics this summer will be an unprecedented opportunity to wow the world. Of course, China has been successful in exporting some parts of its culture without any effort on Beijing's part.

(Soundbite of movie clip)

KUHN: Like Kung-Fu flicks, basketball star Yao Ming or moo shi pork.

Ge Jianxiong is a historian at Shanghai's Fudan University. He says that exporting values is much harder than exporting, say, moo shi pork, because there isn't really that much difference among nations' values.

Dr. GE JIANXIONG (Historian, Fudan University Shanghai): (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: Some here say, since ancient times, the Chinese people have been industrious, brave, and caring towards the old and the young. I ask them, what nation on earth is not brave, industrious and caring towards the old and young?

In its official propaganda, China's leaders espouse a harmonious society at home and abroad. Critics scoff at this as an awkward and unconvincing shibboleth. China's leadership developed the harmonious society idea, they say, to paper over the simmering unrest in Chinese society caused by autocratic government, corruption, and a yawning gap between rich and poor.

Ding Xueliang is a researcher with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Dr. DING XUELIANG (Researcher, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): (Through translator) What kind of ideas and values will China promote to get the world's support? China is poor in this respect. It's not that the Chinese are stupid or lacked potential. it's that its government propaganda system is incapable of producing concepts that are attractive to societies with freedom of expression.

KUHN: Opinion polls suggest that China's public image has recently taken a bruising, particularly in the West. A February poll by Gallup showed that 42 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, compared to 55 percent who have an unfavorable one. Last year, the two groups were roughly even.

But the situation is different in Asia, where Gallup found a median of 46 percent of respondents approved of China's leadership, compared to 34 percent approval of U.S. leadership. Some people argue that China's rapid economic growth is a model worth emulating.

Ding Xueliang disagrees.

Dr. XUELIANG: (Through translator) All you have to do is to look at the cost. It's extremely high. The reason there are all these social protests, all this pollution, is because economic growth is the sole objective while costs have been ignored.

KUHN: Some pundits talk of a Beijing consensus to be emulated by other countries. It's a combination of economic reform, pragmatic diplomacy and undemocratic government. But Beijing itself hasn't backed this idea.

Wu Jianmin, president of China's Foreign Affairs University, says the formula makes him uncomfortable.

Mr. WU JIANMIN (President, Foreign Affairs University, China): (Through translator) We're still trying to find our own way. To speak of a Beijing consensus or a Washington consensus is too simplistic. They may be some good aspects to Beijing's way, but they may only be suited to China's situation.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: Chinese students recite a Confucian rule: Don't do unto others what you wouldn't wish upon yourself. Confucius' message on soft power was clear: Lead by moral authority, not by force. Keep your own house in order, and others will follow your example.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.