What you need to know
Much-loved foreign celebrities are helping the country project its soft power more authentically than state-sponsored charm offensives.
This July, as world leaders prepared to descend on Hamburg, Germany for the 2017 G-20 Summit, a German man named Thomas Derksen sat in his Shanghai apartment and penned a letter home.
His purpose was specific: He thought Germany could learn from China and become a largely cashless society, and he wanted Chancellor Angela Merkel to know it. So Derksen — popularly known as Afu Thomas to the 5 million fans of his videos across Chinese social media — wrote his letter, shared it online, and watched it go viral. In the following days, stories about his letter appeared in both Chinese and German media.
Derksen’s celebrity status — drawn largely from his talent for creating humorous social media videos in virtually flawless Chinese — allowed him to capitalize on an international diplomatic event as a chance to build cross-cultural understanding. Through the German media, Derksen helped his countrymen understand one aspect of life in China. And in the same stroke, he gave his Chinese fans an example of what civic engagement looks like in his home country.
Only a few of China’s famous foreigners have forayed into the political realm. Besides Derksen, Mark Rowswell is perhaps the highest-profile example: The Canadian comedian’s “Dashan” character earned him a reputation as “China’s most famous foreigner.” He is well-known for his comedy, but has also been named Canada’s goodwill ambassador to China, served as Canada’s representative at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, and participated in every Canadian prime ministerial visit to China since 1994.
These famous foreigners are building soft power for both China and their home countries — a valuable and worthwhile undertaking. Soft power is, in the words of American sinologist David Shambaugh, “like a magnet that pulls and draws others to a nation simply because of its powerful appeal by example.”
In his 1990 book “Bound to Lead,” Joseph Nye — the American political scientist who coined “soft power” — argued that the term springs from a country’s culture, political values, and foreign policy. The United States derives soft power from Hollywood and Harvard because they communicate American values to the world and help win hearts in support of the so-called American dream. Meanwhile, the “China dream” is communicated abroad through things like Confucius Institutes, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the 2,000 Chinese New Year events that the Chinese government sponsored this year in 140 foreign countries. Projects and institutions like these help a country spread their culture and expand their influence abroad, creating a positive foundation that future diplomatic initiatives can build upon as needed.
Investments in soft power are notoriously hard to quantify, but according to David Shambaugh, China invests an annual US$10 billion in their global image. The returns on that investment are just as opaque. Pew Research Center findings suggest that while China’s soft power investments in Africa and Latin America are helping the country cultivate a positive image in those regions, a majority of citizens in Derksen’s Germany, Rowswell’s Canada, and other Western democracies appear impervious to these investments, as they continue to hold an unfavorable view of China.
It is usually assumed that the only group impacted by negative public attitudes toward China within Western democracies is China itself, but this is short-sighted. Indeed, when the citizens they represent hold negative views of China, Western diplomats who are keen to engage with China might find their options circumscribed.
In 1967, a year before his election as president of the United States, Richard Nixon wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs, “There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation,” suggesting that he was prepared to lead America toward a détente with China. But public opinion was not on Nixon’s side, and so — even as the president of the United States — his actions were constrained. In April 1971, he commented over the phone to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger: “Now on the China thing what we have to realize, Henry, is that in terms of American public opinion, it is still against Communist China [...] So we are not making any votes with this.” This call precipitated a complicated and covert diplomatic process that culminated in the Jan. 1, 1979, establishment of official diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China. It is hard not to wonder how this process might have been expedited had American and Chinese citizens held more favorable views of one another.
China’s famous foreigners are in a position to help develop these favorable views. When they take the time to study Chinese language and culture, their reputation as a “friend of China” helps them bolster their home country’s reputation within China’s borders. And when they take their experience in China home with them — as Derksen did with his letter, or as Rowswell does when he performs in Canada and shares his experiences in China with the Canadian press — they provide a positive perspective that counterbalances the sense of fear and distrust that many Westerners often feel toward China.
The positive contribution famous foreigners can bring to cross-cultural understanding is especially valuable because it is not easily replicated. When Chinese media tries to use foreigners to attract foreign audiences — say, with videos of foreign students fawning over the Chinese leader or adorable children singing the praises of the Belt and Road Initiative — the result usually rings hollow. By seriously engaging with Chinese culture, Derksen’s and Rowswell’s audiences have come to trust them as authentic and authoritative voices. It is this trust alone that gives famous foreigners the incidental benefit of impacting the bilateral relationships between China and their home countries — and no diplomat or government department can hope to emulate this trust.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.