Advertising and the art of diplomacy

When China looked to exercise some ‘soft power’ during the recent state visit to the US, it chose a very American method to do so

On January 19, Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in the US for an official visit, his first since 2006. As Hu and President Obama talked in Washington, the Chinese state was also making its presence felt further north via a 60-second commercial running 300 times a day in New York’s Times Square.

The commercial, created by the China State Information Council Office and Lintas Shanghai (stills shown right), featured 50 leading Chinese in the fields of arts, science and business and is intended as the centrepiece of a major international advertising campaign urging the world to ‘Experience China’.

Viewers were introduced to representatives of ‘Thought-provoking Chinese
scholarship’, ‘Thrilling Chinese athletes’ and ‘Inspiring Chinese bravery’ as internationally recognised figures such as pianist Lang Lang, basketball player Yao Ming and film director John Woo lined up, beaming with nationalistic pride.

The message was explicit – China is a modern, thriving country making a contribution to the world in every important sphere of human endeavour. ‘We’re just like you. Except there’s more of us, obviously,’ it seemed to be saying.

But there’s another, implicit message that the current waves of anti-Chinese paranoia that are gathering momentum in the US may make harder to digest. In the 2010 congressional election campaign, a group called Citizens Against Government Waste articulated this paranoia via another commercial, an alarmist effort in which, 20 years hence, a sneering Chinese history professor lectures his students about the recent collapse of the American Empire. “Of course we owned most of their debt so now they work for us,” he laughs cruelly. As New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman has observed, Americans used to fear China for its communism. Now Americans fear China for its capitalism. Hu’s visit came at a time when ‘status anxiety’ is rife.

Americans see China as siphoning off thousands of American manufacturing jobs, buying up the US factories its cheap labour has closed down and shipping them east wholesale. China may only be the world’s second largest economy today but it’s beginning to breathe down America’s neck. Hard.

And it’s not only competing in economic terms. The commercial that ran over and over in Times Square can be seen as an example of the exertion of ‘soft power’ – the non-military factors (often cultural and social) that contribute to a nation’s standing in the world. Its line-up of intellectual, artistic and athletic firepower could be read not just as a friendly ‘here we are’ but as a challenge to perceived US superiority. ‘You want culture? Take a look at this lot. Astronauts? Here’s half a dozen. Basketball players? Entrepreneurs? Musicians? Supermodels even? We’ve got them all and there’s plenty more where they came from.’

It was a Chinese stake in the ground, right in the centre of America’s biggest city. Showing 300 times a day. And to add insult to injury, delivered via a medium, the commercial, that the US invented.

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Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency