Can the Chinese government manufacture a pop-star, and ensure her success?
According to her promotional website, Chinese vocalist Jia Ruhan is a rising international star whose voice is featured not only on a Grammy Award-winning album, but also on the 2008 Beijing Olympics BBC theme track. Despite the long list of accolades listed on www.ruhanjia.com, most outside China have never heard her name. In fact it’s quite likely that most inhabitants of her home city of Shijiazhuang haven’t heard of her either, despite the fact that her record company is part of the Chinese government’s five-year economic plan.
Outside of the middle kingdom, an interest in contemporary Chinese music is often limited to niche audiences – those with a particular interest in China or an affinity for Asian pop. Whilst internet-borne Korean pop-star ‘Psy’ courted the attention of millions on YouTube with his hit ‘Gangnam Style’ (1.96 billion views to date), it was the catchy tune and comical video clip which triggered the viral response. Without some intense form of ‘wow factor’, it may be difficult to for Jia to attain this level of celebrity based on talent and training alone.
Efforts to improve ‘cultural marketing’ have been driven by China’s ambitions to boost its international profile outside of the economic sector. The open door policy may have emancipated China’s economy, but decades later China is still trying to integrate with the rest of the world culturally. Essentially, China is seeking to increase its scope of soft power, an intangible and dynamic concept that in this case, alludes simply to a boost in international popularity by getting the world on board with its contemporary culture.
Classically trained, Jia is starkly conservative in comparison to many of her international equivalents (for example the US artist Ke$ha, whom she regularly listens to for inspiration). Jia is a self-proclaimed embodiment of CCP values, stating in a BBC interview that she is “in line with the image of the Chinese Government”, espousing its rather tenuous message of “sunshine”. This here, may be the downfall of China’s soft power initiative. Laowai (foreigners), especially those amongst the sceptical and politically cynical West, are likely to perceive China’s top-down schemes as propaganda, and consequently, become less receptive to inauthentic art and media. This effect is further compounded by domestic access restrictions to websites such as Facebook and Youtube, which have acted as platforms in assisting other Asian groups to ‘go viral’. Chinese equivalents such as Weibo and Youku are notoriously difficult for the Chinese illiterate to navigate. This creates a rather insuperable barrier, preventing China’s diplomatic partners from relating to China on the cultural wavelength that countries – like Korea and Japan – are tuning into. This implies a difficult long-term policy direction for China. Whilst the Chinese state may be equipped to influence many outcomes, it appears that the international music-market falls outside of its reach. Perhaps a testament to this, Jia’s international album sales have been disappointingly weak.
Aside from state endorsed popular musicians, a prime example of this increased push for soft power can be seen in the rapid introduction of Confucius Institutes worldwide. According to www.confuciusinstitute.net, over 327 institutes in 93 different countries and regions have been opened, most of which have materialised rapidly in recent years. Whilst the majority of these ‘institutes’ are relatively perfunctory and have shown nominal progress in boosting China’s cultural popularity, many have accumulated extensive member bases, providing a wide range of opportunities for the sino-curious to learn about Chinese language and culture.
As a student living in Perth (one of the world’s most isolated cities), Beijing is a ‘mere’ 10-hour flight away. Operating in the same time zone, China is a major proponent of West Australia’s resource based economy, and in terms of hard power, boasts a formidable presence. However, subtle effects of China’s cultural marketing campaign can also be felt here. Independent Chinese culture and language organisations are abundant, as are bilateral government scholarship opportunities, encouraging students to take the time to understand their Chinese neighbour, both at home and abroad. Perhaps conditioned by the presence of a vast Chinese diaspora, which exploded during the decade between 2001 and 2011, growing 210% , students here may be subconsciously more receptive to China’s cultural marketing schemes. Whilst Jia Ruhan has not yet made it onto our local music charts, China’s pursuit of cultural popularity is gaining undeniable traction.by