April 29, 2016, by Tony Hong
Embodying Soft Power
By Frazer Worboy,
BA in Contemporary Chinese Studies.
Soft Power and a reputation of a Nation are a hard thing to grasp. Where I’m from in Britain, the soft power is huge. With top quality universities, high wages and free healthcare, it’s a pretty attractive place to live. Add to that a thriving arts scene in London, Liverpool, Manchester, and probably even Skegness, or some other equally oddly named place. China has struggled with this. The CCP has tried developing a truly positive image to those who have no idea of China, however the image is often sour. Shanghai has never struggled, however the rest of China wrongly has a bad stigma attached to it. But now, I feel the young people are making their own international image of China, which seems pretty parallel to what the government is looking to show the world.
The government constantly suggests that they are looking for a culture which is modern yet with Chinese characteristics. David Shambaugh has literally written a book (China Goes Global: The Partial Power) on what they are looking for, with CCTV stations (ironically named) popping up all over the world. They desperately crave to be accepted by the west, take some of our customs and mélange them with the Chinese traditions, and have a rich international background. But as much as they try, it never quite gets there; it always comes across as forced.
One event in particular from Shambaugh’s book stood out: the Chinese were doing an event on art in China, and one scholar attending pointed out that it seemed forced and almost as if they were using propaganda in the west. It’s unfortunate in my mind, as they have such a diverse nation considering its very recent opening up. Expat communities are thriving; Shanghai is one of the most diverse and interesting cities I know.
But despite Shanghai and various other cities, they’ve had something staring them in the face for quite a long time: Chinese young people (nianqing) are, in their own right, uniquely cool.
I hate to draw comparisons with Taiwan and Japan because I know it probably pisses off both sides as much as each other. But these countries have let their young generation shape its international image, mixed with the old traditions that the kids obviously follow. Think Japan, Hello Kitty, cameras. Think Taiwan, cool glasses, Taipei 101 (probably just me).
These stereotypical images may not be good, or may not be to your taste, but they are interesting. They bring you to learn more. When you do learn more inevitably you’re looking at young trends. Furthermore you’re looking at the coolest trends, and the future image of the country by looking at the young people. We see young people doing incredible things, and we think it’s impressive. It’s not endearing to the nation though. Torvill and Dean are impressive, but not endearing. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are endearing, and way more representative of a nation. The USA winning all the medals isn’t them – that’s a product of a large population with a high level of competition in sports.
The USA electing Trump is actually representative. This is ultimately what the government do not understand; China is endearing, and has a huge, interesting, unique culture. But, we’re not shown it, and it’s unfortunate, because as you’ll see throughout this issue of Focus, there are so many unique humans in China.
Why am I saying all this? Well, I got lucky enough to have a photoshoot with the most interesting group at UNNC, and got to see what these soft power delivering young people are like. I hope I represent them in the right light, and you can decide for yourself if the government are putting their best foot forward.
I was fortunate enough to meet Monkey through a friend. Monkey is an unassuming guy – he does not strike me as the artsy type that I soon found him to be. After following him for weeks on WeChat Moments, I saw his talent. His photos are in such a unique style, screaming out quality and edginess, but still touching base with his Chinese origins with a whole host of vibrant colours that dominate the photos. I eventually got too impatient to just be looking at these photos to not get involved. I decided to ask him to do a shoot with me and my friends for Focus.
I met with Monkey beforehand with his JAEZ crew. The JAEZ crew are a self-organised, non-university affiliated society focusing on fashion shoots and design. It is mainly organised by two lovely girls called Angelica and Judy. I wasn’t expecting a lot from an unaffiliated society. Generally the organisation with 18-21 year olds isn’t completely up to par. But looking at the photos, I didn’t care.
In chatting to Monkey before, I assumed that we would be outside in Yinzhou Park, or in some underground cellar. All the settings of previous shoots looked like they were shot in outer space, or at least not a UNNC teaching building. But lo and behold, we were in a corridor. The feeling of “this is majorly out of our league” suddenly faded and we were obviously more relaxed. We were laughing, joking around and having fun with it. But one of the internationals, Christian, instantly saw through this self-envisioned façade, and pointed out that Monkey, Judy, Angelica and JAEZ have probably always done it in places like this. They’re just that good. I was suddenly taken aback, and realised these guys meant business.
Now I don’t want to go into too much detail about the shoot itself, as the photos in the magazine do a better job describing it than I do. However I do want to go into why I find all of this so interesting, and why this is the image of China that should be portrayed across the world.
The photos and the JAEZ crew accurately sum up what Chinese young culture is today; variety. It is rare that you have such a large number of young people condensed into one country. The variety of people involved with a project such a JAEZ was striking. You have people like Monkey who aren’t evidently striking as uber chic and street, but are super techy. Then you have Angelica and Judy completely juxtaposing him, designing clothes and arranging rather promiscuous photo shoots.
In the UK, it’s probably normal to know one or two people who are really into their photography for example. On my campus, in China, I can count about 5 off the top of my head. I probably know about 3 or 4 coders too, which isn’t necessarily a normal thing to do. In Europe this vast range isn’t possible, because a) we don’t try hard enough, and b) we just don’t have such a high population. One doesn’t know more than a handful of people who do exactly the same job. In China, I do, and each of them brings their own unique spin on it.
Not only have Asian countries enhanced and shown their image to the Western World, but they’ve shown the world up. Recently a K-pop boy band has made it into the running to be on Time’s 100 most influential list. A Chinese singer from Shanghai is trying to make it in the States. Asia is cooler than the Hipster-overrun Europe. Even the fashion of Asia is reaching over to Europe. The bomber jacket has been a staple in Asia for a while, and now we see the likes of whichever Jenner kid is currently cool wearing it. Asian young culture has swept through the world, and more Chinese people are now slowly seeping into my culture.
This is why the young people like Monkey are accurately indicating what China has developed so well over the last few years; a large, varied, hard-working population determined to succeed. They may be forced to be bankers and earn money for their parent’s keep sake, however more and more are defining themselves personally through the arts. Asian culture is evidently already coming through. It’s only a matter of time before this second-wave Chinese culture seeps through, and the government can finally get what they want. It just may not be the image they envisioned. I really hope this is the case, as this is the China which has me in a secure vice, finding a way to stick around this summer.