Chinese cultural brands have gained global recognition

By Ivica Bakota / 04-13-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

There are quite many examples of employing one country’s historical and cultural “capital” in, for instance, building national identity and self-confidence, or in helping to shape its positive image in the world. In this context, “British parliamentary system,” “Italian Renaissance,” “German (classical) idealism,” “Haitian Revolution,” even “Bhutan happiness index” or “Tunisia’s (ancient) Carthage heritage,” etc., can all be regarded as “products” of nation-building as well as nation-branding narratives. Both are manifestations of various ways a country’s history and culture interact with each other. The “nation-branding” as its external projection is maybe also a concept more tuned to a current global competitive environment where different countries adopt market-like strategies to project their basic values abroad. This should not be simply mistaken for external propaganda activities, but also not limited to “public diplomacy,” i.e. using one country`s historical and cultural “competitive advantages” to pursue one’s own interests on the international stage. 

To a certain extent nation-branding overlaps with Nye’ s concept of “soft power,” but it is not only national reputation, attraction power and other less “weaponized” features that represent one country in international relations. Branding a nation, just as building a nation, means actively reinventing and reproducing “cosmopolitan added values” by sourcing competitive advantages found in historical, cultural, ideological, political, economic or other “pools” of its own nation. From this perspective, China, with its multi-millennial history, admirable civilization, authentic political thought, and unique political system, has a strong prospect to rebrand its history and culture and reinvent its international reputation in way that would fit its size and the impact in the world. 

The forces of culture and civilization can address two “epochal” questions in the present day global world: Are we heading towards more interdependent and mutually assured development and security? Or maintaining current, not particularly fair nor equitable status quo? Do we define global relations in terms of cooperation, openness, multilateralism? Or by decoupling, protectionism, friend-shoring, and consequently, a divisive world? These issues not only became prevalent during the pandemic, but were also intensified with the “globalization” of the Ukrainian crisis and generally more confrontative, black and white world outlook over the past months.

In such a situation, only by taking a broader cultural perspective can the world leadership focus on issues that are screened off the radar but are important to building responsibility for the global world. Because every time a crisis or confrontation knocks on the door, the weakest and poorest people have to pay the heaviest price. Culture also helps a country to position itself as an international actor consistently and unswervingly being committed to global interests, common development, and common security, and not to easily trade these commitments with various “my country-first” goals or building some exclusive clubs in international relations.

The “internationalization” of Chinese cultural “superstructure” is undergoing a major two-fold transformation: from content side, values pertaining to national culture and civilization are increasingly prevailing over those representing simply the political system; from formal side, its “external promotion” campaign and policies conform more to the “post-ideological” world of national reputation “brand” management. The 2008 Olympic Games, the launch of many Confucius Institutes in various parts of the world in the past decade, more active collaboration with Hollywood in producing favorable “Chinese stories”, China’s diplomatic initiatives in launching various global or regional cooperation mechanisms can all prove this. 

In the past decade or so, China has “branded” many cultural products that have been popularized and have gained global recognition through this process. The next stage may be to transform these globalized “brands” into familiarized, everyday products. Just like martial arts, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and Chinese cuisine have become familiar products in the “post-ideological” world, China can dig up many new products from the deep pool of its history and culture.

However, the emphasis on post-ideological and cultural brands does not mean abandoning the importance of systemic and institutional values in international relations. Starting from the concept of “soft power” or maybe “noopolitik,” as the updated version of the former, China should also emphasize its cosmopolitan values on international platforms, i.e. respecting each other’s sovereignty, peaceful coexistence, among others.

Ivica Bakota is an associate professor from the Institute of Global and Area Studies at Capital Normal University. 

Edited by BAI LE