The Shanghai Ballet: A Model for Chinese Cultural Diplomacy?

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The Shanghai Ballet: A Model for Chinese Cultural Diplomacy?

A successful U.K. debut may have some useful lessons for Beijing.

In August 2013, the Shanghai Ballet Company made its U.K. debut in London with a contemporary performance based on Jane Eyre, a Victorian novel by English writer Charlotte Brontë. Attending the opening event, the Chinese ambassador to London congratulated the dancers, observing that their performance “…shows that broadening and deepening cultural exchanges between China and Britain will increase our mutual understanding, respect, trust and friendship.” For his part, London Mayor Boris Johnson welcomed the Shanghai Ballet with a special message: “The fact that we have the Shanghai Ballet company performing a contemporary ballet based on a novel by one of our greatest writers from the early part of the 19th century is a fantastic example of how we are growing ever closer as we share the best elements of our cultures – long may it continue.”

Given the concerns and suspicions that China’s economic and military ascendancy is causing in many Western countries, such warm words are a welcome—and much needed—attempt to improve perceptions of China among foreign publics. Indeed, as shown by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, China tends to be regarded negatively in many European and North American societies, with the lowest ratings received in Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and the United States. As Joshua Cooper Ramo put it in 2007, “China’s greatest strategic threat today is its national image.” To what extent could the Shanghai Ballet’s visit to London serve as a model for Chinese “cultural diplomacy,” aimed at improving attitudes toward China in Western societies?

Public Diplomacy, Cultural Diplomacy and Soft Power

In its classical sense, diplomacy is confined to the realm of official relations between governments and major multilateral organizations. In contrast, “public diplomacy” campaigns are deliberately targeted at general publics abroad. In this connection, “cultural diplomacy” is often seen as one dimension or branch of public diplomacy, encompassing a range of instruments such as arts, education, language, sports and religion. The concept was famously defined by political scientist Milton Cummings as “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding.” Today, public and cultural diplomacy alike are seen as important elements in the arsenal of “soft power.” The term, which was coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, can best be understood as “the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment,” with the latter being characteristics of hard—economic and military—power. In short, soft power is “attractive power.”

Promoting China’s Peaceful Development

Concepts such as public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and soft power now figure prominently on the Chinese government’s agenda. For example, at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, then Chinese president Hu Jintao stressed the need to promote the attractiveness of Chinese culture as a way of enhancing the country’s “soft power.” The China Public Diplomacy Association was founded in Beijing on December 31, 2012. Peng Liyuan, wife of the current President Xi Jinping, has received growing attention as adding a soft touch for China thanks to her role in public diplomacy during presidential visits abroad. As concerns over China’s economic and military power mount in some parts of the world, the Chinese government is thus showing greater awareness of the importance of communicating with foreign publics.

To promote a more favorable image of China in the world and facilitate the country’s “peaceful development,” the Chinese leadership seems to have relied on three main strategies. First, it has been active in releasing White Papers to make Chinese policy more transparent and easier to understand for English-speaking audiences. To date, such papers have covered a broad range of topics, including energy policy, climate change, human rights, the rule of law, foreign trade, national defense, arms control and disarmament, space activities and foreign aid. Second, China is encouraging the establishment of Confucius Institutes on university campuses all over the world to further the study of Chinese language and culture. Since the creation of the first Confucius Institute in Seoul in 2004, the total number of institutes worldwide has risen considerably. At present, there are 324 Confucius Institutes in countries and regions across the world – more than twice as many as the German Goethe Institut and more than four times the number of the Spanish Instituto Cervantes. Third, China recently hosted cultural mega-events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Both events were major platforms for the Chinese government to showcase the country’s achievements and provided opportunities to increase its international recognition and status.

Although some of these initiatives have been credited with success, it can be argued that China’s current approach to public-cultural diplomacy suffers from at least two weaknesses. These relate to government orchestration on the one hand, and magnitude on the other. Most notably, in the case of the Confucius Institutes, concerns have been raised about their use as government propaganda tools as well as about interference with academic research and teaching. Such concerns are particularly salient in light of the fact that the institutes receive teaching materials and initial funding from the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban), which is affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. In terms of magnitude, some commentators have described the Chinese push to set up Confucius Institutes as too aggressive and fast-paced, conveying the perception of attempts at global dominance. With respect to recent cultural mega-events in China, it has been argued that the 2008 Olympic Games in particular were used to transmit officially constructed messages about Chinese cultural identities. While the government was actively promoting the “China Brand,” economic inequalities and widespread “social cleansing” and displacement in Beijing’s urban areas were largely covered up.

The Shanghai Ballet Model

Considering these weaknesses, the Shanghai Ballet’s performance in London could serve as a model for future Chinese efforts at winning foreign hearts and minds. In contrast with systematically planned, large-scale policies in higher education and sports, the Shanghai Ballet’s presentation of Jane Eyre communicated an impression that was not politicized but associated with authenticity as well as artistic quality and finesse. True to the motto “less is more,” the ballet gave only five performances at one of London’s largest and most prestigious theatres. The high standard and exquisite venue of the show notwithstanding, tickets were available at affordable rates and thus attracted a wide and diversified audience.

Moreover, by bringing a popular English novel to the stage, the Shanghai Ballet showed a high level of sensitivity to the local context, while at the same time illustrating how Chinese and British cultures can be combined in an outstanding artistic symbiosis. Lastly, the team behind the performance was truly international. While the ballet dancers and playwright were from China originally, the performance was put together by a German-born choreographer, and the set and costumes were created by a French designer. Overall, such intercultural cooperation indirectly conveys powerful messages to foreign audiences. Most importantly, it demonstrates a willingness on the part of the Shanghai Ballet—and ultimately also of China—to learn from other cultures and work together for the greater good.

Given its size and growing international influence, it is understandable that China wishes to improve its image in the world. Consequently, the government’s recent interest in public and cultural diplomacy is a reasonable—and also a welcome—development. However, if China’s communication with Western publics is to succeed, the government would do well to adopt some of the elements of the Shanghai Ballet model. Particularly, strategies could be devised that combine controversial large-scale approaches with less politicized, smaller-scale and culturally sensitive initiatives. Based on a stronger commitment to international responsibility and domestic artistic freedom, such an approach to cultural diplomacy could eventually help China win the approval of foreign audiences as a major player on the world stage.

Andrea Beck is a postgraduate student in International Peace and Security (M.A.) at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She previously worked for the German Development Service (DED) in Malawi and was a guest contributor to The Diplomatic Courier.