Beijing uses Chinese New Year to push China's soft power

China sees Lunar New Year as vehicle to boost its soft power

Americans tuning in to Friday's Golden State Warriors game might be surprised to find the California team sporting new uniforms. The jerseys will feature Chinese characters on the chest, a Great Wall motif running up the sides, and a goat on the sleeve.

No, the pro basketball team hasn't been bought by some Beijing billionaire. The special new outfits are part of extensive plans by the NBA to mark Chinese New Year, which begins Thursday and ushers in the Year of the Goat.

Once confined to the streets of Chinatowns and the homes of immigrants, Chinese New Year has made inroads into the American mainstream, from New York's Lincoln Center to the streets of Hollywood. The celebration is now noted in sports broadcasts and even beverage packaging.

Much of the activity is motivated by commercial concerns: the desire to connect with consumers in China and to attract Chinese customers to the United States during China's longest and most important holiday of the year.

But the corporate opportunism also coincides with — and is being multiplied by — a campaign by the Chinese Communist Party to tout Chinese New Year around the globe as a vehicle for bolstering the country's still-limited soft power.

Since 2010, the country's Ministry of Culture has poured manpower into organizing myriad Chinese New Year events worldwide, in partnership with overseas business entities and cultural organizations.

Under President Xi Jinping, who took power in late 2012, those efforts have taken on even greater urgency. Last year, Xi exhorted cadres to work on enhancing China's soft power.

"The stories of China should be well told, voices of China well spread, and characteristics of China well explained," Xi said, adding that China should be portrayed as a civilized country with a "rich history, ethnic unity and cultural diversity."

Corporate America appears to be listening. Budweiser's 2015 Chinese New Year's campaign, "Toast to Dreams," echoes Xi's "China Dream." Budweiser's efforts include sending models in go-go boots to tout special red and gold bottles in Times Square.

The NBA, meanwhile, is making a full-court press. Besides the new duds, the league is airing 56 games live in the Middle Kingdom in the coming weeks and even sending L.A. Laker Jeremy Lin and three other players to pay a surprise visit to a Chinese family to watch a game together.

The Ministry of Culture's "Happy Chinese New Year" program is a prime example of China's soft-power push, also exemplified by the global growth of Confucius Institutes, government-sponsored programs to promote Chinese language and culture.

Under the rubric of the New Year campaign this year, authorities have undertaken such eclectic efforts as helping to stage a Chinese cultural knowledge quiz in Suva, Fiji, and sending a puppet troupe from Shaanxi province to Missoula, Mont.

They are helping to arrange performances by the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra in Stanford, San Diego and San Jose, and for the second year in a row have arranged to illuminate the Empire State Building with red and gold lights. On Tuesday, a major Chinese New Year fireworks show was held over the Hudson River, choreographed to music by the China National Symphony Orchestra.

The ministry refused to disclose how much it has spent on its efforts, but the number of events has soared. In 2010, authorities said they organized 65 activities in 42 countries; this year, the government tallied 900 events in 119 nations.

Two years ago, the ministry even launched an app to allow iPhone users to keep track of all the "Happy Chinese New Year" events, and it has a website devoted to publicizing its activities. The campaign was deemed such a success that China's National Museum arranged an exhibit on it last year.

"'Happy Chinese New Year' has the potential to become a major project in the government's efforts to promote Chinese culture abroad," ministry officials said at a news briefing this month.

Zhang Chunhe, a professor at the Culture Development Institute of the Communication University of China, said the government wants broader respect internationally and sees "Happy Chinese New Year" as a critical tool.

"The whole world recognizes China's economic success, but they have much less of an understanding of, or appreciation for, Chinese culture," Zhang said. "In the future, I expect China will be exporting more culture and reversing the tide we've seen with so much foreign culture, like Christmas, pouring into China. This is an effort to give that a little boost."

So far, though, the approach has been rather rigid, he said. "The results have not been very good so far. We have not been able to get our message through to the rest of the world," he said.

In China, the New Year's celebration is somewhat akin to Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one: a family-centric holiday that prompts hundreds of millions of people to cram planes, trains and automobiles for long journeys to distant hometowns.

Once home, it is customary to set off fireworks, eat dumplings, give gifts of cash in red envelopes and watch the annual New Year Gala variety show on state-run CCTV.

Though the hours-long TV program has been widely panned in recent years as stodgy and dull — this year's theme is "Family Harmony Yields Success" — propaganda officials have big dreams of taking the show global.

For the first time, CCTV is making rights available to foreign broadcasters and says the show will be aired by two dozen overseas outlets in languages including English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and German. Propaganda officials also plan to compile "greatest hits" from past shows, such as the top Peking opera performances, and tout them on Twitter, Google+ and YouTube, which are all blocked in China.

But how much of a "soft power" dividend Chinese authorities will reap from the increasingly high profile of Chinese New Year is unclear.

Surveys suggest that China has some work cut out for it. A poll conducted by Gallup around Chinese New Year last year showed that 53% of Americans had a "very" or "mostly" unfavorable view of China, even though 52% said they believed China was the "world's leading economic power." (In fact, China's economy is only about 60% as big as the United States', which is No. 1.)

And in the 2013 Country Rep Track survey by the Reputation Institute, China ranked 44th, ahead of countries such as Iraq, Russia and Iran. The U.S. ranked 22nd. (Canada was No. 1.)

Nicholas Dynon, an Australian academic who studies Chinese soft power and propaganda, is skeptical that Beijing's approach can succeed on the world stage, which may not ultimately be the point.

"The audiences that Beijing is most keen to impress with its international cultural promotion drive are not international, but are rather domestic Chinese audiences," he said. "It is important internally for Beijing to be able to project to its people that it is placing China front and center on the world cultural stage along with its economic rise."

julie.makinen@latimes.com

Tommy Yang, Nicole Liu and Sean Silbert of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report

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