Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Headlines

China Ponders This Royal Business

Antoaneta Becker

BEIJING, May 17 2011 (IPS) - The glamour of the UK royal wedding is slowly disappearing from China’s photo spreads, but it seems to have opened the door to a debate on the allure of old Britain’s soft power and what makes an aspiring China lacking of it.

White bridal lace and the full array of British royal regalia seem an unlikely starting point for soul- searching by a nation living in the fast speed lane and striving for recognition as a superpower in the Internet age.

In blogs and articles the Chinese have written admiringly about the numbers of television viewers that the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton attracted (2.4 billion, and reportedly many of them Chinese). They have written about the ability of British businesses to translate the fascination with the young royal couple’s marriage into an array of collectibles, souvenirs, tourist revenues and, most importantly, a lingering spot in the global limelight.

“I was glued to the TV and to my computer for the day,” says Maggie Wu, a real estate agent who always dreamed of studying in the UK. “It was just like in those Taiwanese soaps that we watched in university night after night where the common girl gets the son of the tycoon. But this was real.” Maggie says the savings from her commissions will be spent on her first trip abroad, and not surprisingly this would be to the UK.

China Times wrote in length about the “royal wedding economy”. China Business Journal invited experts to appraise the effect of the royal wedding as “commercial driving force for the digital era.”

“Apart from being an occasion for the royal family to promote its name abroad, what a great opportunity for the UK to show that there is more to it than Harry Potter,” noted the women’s magazine Femina.

More daring media probed further. The Life weekly devoted a ten-page report on the enduring soft power of the “old empire”, delving back in history and trying to shed light on the reasons behind the undying interest in the royal family.

On just one of the Chinese Internet sites which had set up a royal wedding page, Kaixin net, there were more than 1.6 million visits on the day of the marriage, and some 110,000 comments.

“I think it made so much impression on Chinese people because it showed that the British embraced both past and future and were equally proud of both,” suggests Li Guangdou who comments on Chinese celebrities and what he terms the “China national brand”.

The UK’s royal wedding came at a time when China is attempting to magnify its own soft power. But it appears uncertain what image it wants to project. Earlier this year China launched a massive PR blitz running a promotional film on six huge, billboard-size screen in New York’s Times Square.

The beaming images presented the ancient nation through portraits of 50 modern Chinese celebrities – largely unknown overseas, ranging from rocket scientists to TV presenters. Visibly missing were the faces of Chinese artists like Ai Weiwei who have been recognised for their talents in the West but have irked the Chinese communist leaders with advocacy of human rights in the mainland.

Beijing is also in two minds about the role history should play in its charm offensive to win hearts and minds.

A recent attempt to give China’s ancient sage Confucius a place along with modern China’s communist founding fathers was quickly shelved. A colossal statue of Confucius which appeared in January in Tiananmen Square – the political heart of Beijing where the body of chairman Mao Zedong lays embalmed – disappeared in April.

It is unclear if the statue was removed as a result of public backlash to the idea of China as a Confucian state or as a consequence of an internal debate among the communist circles after scores of people were seen day after day kowtowing to the statue in reverence.

According to the Global Times newspaper, 70 percent of 220,000 people questioned in an online media poll by declared themselves opposed to the statue.

Asked if the statue should return to the square, Yi Dong, a web designer who was there with his family to enjoy the May celebrations, was quick to disagree.

“Confucius belongs to his temple, he is a sage and people should contemplate his teachings in peace and quiet. I don’t think his statue can represent what modern China is all about,” Yi says.

Overseas, the outreach of China’s new soft power, which began in earnest before the 2008 Olympic Games, is gathering speed. Chinese performing art and drama are featuring prominently in two of the UK’s prestigious arts festival this year – in Edinburgh and Salisbury. China is also the theme of the London Book Fair next year.

Speaking at the China Association in London last month, the Chief Executive of the British Council, Martin Davidson, reckoned that in terms of budgets and human resources involved, China’s efforts to project soft power have already matched and even surpassed those of the UK.

The British Council, which has been promoting the teaching of English language and the popularisation of the UK’s finest cultural traditions since the late 1930s, now has teaching centres in some 42 countries. In just seven years since its creation, its Chinese equivalent – the Confucian Institute, has opened branches and teaching rooms in more than 80 countries.

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