Scholars studying international relations and rising powers are paying increasing attention to cultural studies. They ask, what can culture tell us about rising powers? How can cultural works drive a nation’s identity as a rising power?
The Chinese reality show “Produce Camp 2021” – or Chuang 2021 is a prime example. Produce Camp 2021 is a boy band elimination show launched by Tencent Video which brought together a total of 90 contestants from the Chinese mainland and overseas for nearly four months of training and competition. In June 2021, the show’s finalists formed the band INTO1. The band is diverse, composing of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Thai-German, Chinese-American, and Japanese-American performers.
Having attracted a global audience, Produce Camp 2021 is in line with China’s aspiration to be a strong player on the international stage. The show represents cultural diplomacy in practice, and has constructed a culturally powerful, influential, and inclusive Chinese national image, one of the goals of “the Chinese Dream.” It proves that China can be the center of global cultural exchange and mitigates concerns over China’s expanding economic-political influence by promoting people-to-people communications.
China’s idol economy and fan culture have grown rapidly since 2018, with the broadcast of Idol Producer. The Produce Camp series – which began as a Chinese version of South Korea’s Produce 101 – has become one of the most popular domestic talent shows. Compared to the previous three seasons, Produce Camp 2021 has changed dramatically: Many foreign contestants from the United States, Russia, Japan, and Thailand were invited to participate, making it the first international Chinese boy band survival show in recent years. The program is broadcast by Tencent Video, WETV (the international version of Tencent Video), YouTube, and other platforms, and is targeted at both domestic and foreign audiences. With a record-breaking 4.77 billion views, Produce Camp 2021 has sparked heated engagement on social media in China and abroad.
Produce Camp 2021 did not come out of the blue. It emerged during a period of international expansion by Chinese enterprise, and during a boom of Chinese cultural diplomacy. Tencent Video – a subsidiary of the influential Chinese company Tencent – can be seen as a mechanism of Chinese soft power. Tencent has expanded internationally through a large number of online games, independent films, TV series, and variety shows. While benefiting economically, Tencent has also exported Chinese aesthetics, values, and portrayals of the ordinary lives of Chinese people abroad. The Chinese government’s support for Tencent has accelerated this process, making Tencent a non-governmental actor in the country’s cultural diplomacy. As a result, Tencent is at the forefront of promoting Chinese soft power, and functions as a model company in the industry. Its success could encourage the production of other shows similar to Produce Camp 2021, which, as I will elaborate later, depicts China as a peaceful, culturally influential power and a host of global cultural exchange. We will likely see further entertainment that projects the favorable image of China as a rising power.
Realizing “the Chinese Dream”
Produce Camp 2021 promotes the image of China as a culturally influential and friendly country. It expresses China’s assertions of global engagement — part of the Chinese Dream.
The concept of a “Chinese dream” was proposed by President Xi Jinping when he took office in 2013. It aims to provide “the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” as a part of “the greatest dream of the Chinese nation in modern times.” The Chinese Dream envisions China as a modern power with economic growth, strong military power, and a thriving culture. It also sets forth a new world order, with China as a friendly, responsible and reliable partner on the global stage. The dream recognizes competition among major powers, but supports a “new type of major power relations” – no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. In addition, China wishes to position itself as a peaceful, wise leader that is different from the West. Benjamin Ho describes this “Chinese exceptionalism” as the belief that China’s ethical system, such as Confucianism, and its peace-loving worldview can provide solutions to the world’s problems.
Since 2013, the Chinese Dream has guided Chinese cultural diplomacy. This can be divided into three parts: first, the promotion of Chinese culture and soft power. According to a 2015 study by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, Chinese leaders are increasingly aware that cultural and public diplomacy are important mechanisms for strengthening the country’s position on the world stage. Through national branding, bilateral cultural exchanges, and the establishment of institutions such as the China Public Diplomacy Association, China aims to “tell a good story of China.”
Second, culture plays an important role in building a new type of major country relations. At the 2019 Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations (CDAC), Xi claimed that the CDAC “creates a new platform for civilizations in Asia and beyond to engage in dialogue and exchanges on an equal footing to facilitate mutual learning… China today is more than the country itself; it is very much a part of Asia and the world. It is hoped that we will create an even better tomorrow for civilizations in Asia and beyond.” By facilitating multilateral cultural exchanges, China has shaped itself not only as a peaceful power advocating a for a “community with a shared future for mankind” but also as the cultural leader of Asia.
Third, China’s cultural diplomacy is aimed at mitigating external doubts about its rise. Through its diverse cultural activities abroad, China tries to send the message that Chinese culture is harmonious rather than aggressive.
Efforts to realize this Chinese Dream have not been met with ideal results. Many countries and individuals remain hostile to China, suspicious of cultural projects as geopolitical expansion and propaganda. China’s credibility and reliability remain low, and the neutrality of its cultural practices is constantly questioned. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey, COVID-19 led to a further decrease in China’s international reputation. Strict government regulation, cultural obstacles, and a difference in the political system all lead to misunderstanding, prejudice, and dissent from people in the West. The lack of public channels of communication resulted in the intensification of cultural conflicts between China and neighboring countries, challenging the uniqueness and identifiability of Chinese culture.
An urgent task lies ahead for the ambitious Chinese state: As its economic, political, and military influence rises, the positive influence of culture must be brought into the equation. Produce Camp 2021 embodied this aspiration. The show consistently put China’s core values at the center of its soft power. The principles of “no conflict, no confrontation, and mutual respect” were showcased, as contestants from all countries lived together in harmony and became good friends. Unlike the tension and conflict shown in other Chinese reality shows – often played up for ratings – Produce Camp 2021 is less confrontational and more entertaining.
Despite its multicultural nature, China remains at the core of the show – it is China that brings the world’s youth together, and Chinese culture is shown to be appreciated. The show praises traditional Chinese aesthetics and values: Contestants from various countries appreciated and performed traditional Chinese songs and dances, with the Chinese-American contestant introducing traditional Chinese culture to other overseas participants. Produce Camp 2021 is evidence that China can act as a new global leader, building a culturally harmonious and peaceful world. As an entertaining TV program, Produce Camp 2021 can potentially charm audiences with Chinese culture and diplomacy better than many state-led programs. It is also worth mentioning that the contestants in the show have become intercultural communicators of China’s national image.
Reflection and Conclusion
If Produce Camp 2021 is a tangible manifestation of China’s desire to become a global power, it also represents the dilemma that has impeded the Chinese Dream: domestic nationalist sentiments. Chinese audiences boycotted foreign participants throughout the season, echoing a phenomenon of China’s cultural diplomacy where preferential treatment of outsiders leads to domestic resentment.
The show faces further challenges surrounding international politics; in early July, the debut group INTO1 performed a patriotic song, “ShanHeTu” (literally, “a picture of mountains and rivers.”) Sung by both Chinese and international performers, the track has been harnessed by the Chinese government to promote patriotic rhetoric. It is unclear how this will be received by both domestic and global audiences. There are many examples of transnational cultural exchanges dissolving due to politics and state intervention. These are the concerns that policymakers in China and other emerging countries need to consider as they formulate their state cultural projects.
In 2021, the Chinese Dream faces unprecedented challenges. The pandemic has not yet ended and China’s international credibility has declined as never before. Is it possible for China to realize its dream as embodied in Produce Camp 2021?