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China's Soft Power in the Making: Mega Events, Governance, and Peaceful Rise in Chinese Politics

Roundtable on China's Soft Power

Thursday, January 27, 2011
2:00 PM - 5:30 PM
Kerckhoff Grand Salon
Los Angeles, CA 90095

Registration begins at 1:30

Focusing on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2009 National Day Ceremony, and 2010 Shanghai World Expo, this roundtable aims to unpack China's intent, strategies, and practices in promoting a new national image on the global stage and establishing a new model of governance in a fast-changing society through mega events. To what extent China has achieved these goals? Can China's push to project its soft power match success in the economic arena? What are the international and domestic implications of these mega events in particular and the making of soft power in general?

Three distinguished speakers will address these questions and others from a range of perspectives. SUSAN BROWNELL, a cultural anthropologist, observed the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo from the inside as a so-called "foreign expert" consulted by the Chinese hosts. She will share her analysis of why -- in these two events -- the Chinese were ineffective in achiveing their goal of "foreign communication" -- that is, impressing the outside world. JEFF WASSERSTROM, a cultural historian who regularly writes about contemporary affairs and spent time at both the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair and the 2010 Shanghai Expo, will assess how history came into the spectacles themselves and discussions of them. HAIYAN LEE, a literary scholar from Stanford University, offers a close reading of the 2009 National Day Parade and a related television serial, arguing that the People's Liberation Army plays a central role in domestic politics and social imagination. The roundtable will be moderated by CHRISTINA LARSON, freelance writer and contributing editor to Foreign Policy magazine.

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Major Topics: 

1. China's national image in the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo

Susan Brownell

There was a common perception domestically and abroad that the Chinese government had pinpointed the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo as opportunities to promote a better image of China to the outside world, and that this was part of its pursuit of "soft power."  Susan Brownell was in a position to observe from the inside some of the efforts at "foreign communication" for both the Olympics and Expo based on discussions with academics in the relevant government thinktanks, as well as her own involvement in the 2008 "Olympic China National Image Ad" and in the drafting of the Shanghai Declaration read out at the Expo closing ceremony.  Based on her insider observations of the groups actually engaged in effort to construct a national image, she discusses the complex challenges they faced and the resulting ineffectiveness of their efforts. 

Position statement:  The ineffectiveness of the government-led foreign communication effort results both from the limits placed on free expression by the domestic political structure and from the limits placed on thought by the overbearing weight of the West in global culture.  The two are related. The West should correctly recognize that China's lack of "discursive power" in the world is partly responsible for the restrictions on free expression inside China. 

2. “Never Let Go, Never Give up”; or, Why the World Should Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the PLA

Haiyan Lee

Teaser question: Should the world worry about a rising power whose citizens become feverish fans of an all-male cast soap opera about a bunch of servicemen training hard, bonding hard, and never thinking of women?

The 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1, 2009 did not garner as much limelight overseas as did the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo. But keen observers did hone in on the unprecedented display of advanced weaponry in the military parade. Some were left wondering how this new emphasis on military hardware could be squared with the official cant of China’s “peaceful rise” and the government’s well-publicized “soft power” offensive. While the parade was certainly intended to awe domestic and international spectators alike, particularly those who might challenge China’s sovereignty claims, the aggressive pursuit of military modernization cannot be treated solely as an international relations or security issue, but needs to be placed within a larger political culture in which the PLA is a central player. A recent hit television serial, Soldiers Sortie, can help us make sense of the PLA’s special place in the Chinese social imaginary.

Position statement: The PLA has always been instrumental not only to the Communist Party’s grip on power, but also to its political hegemony. In the reform era, the workers and the peasants of the socialist holy trinity have lost their ideological halo, leaving soldiers to shoulder the burden of exemplifying what it means to be Chinese. The message? Forget Lei Feng; we are a nation of Forrest Gumps. 

3. Getting History Wrong: The Politics of the Past in China's Surge Toward the Future

Jeff Wasserstrom 

The Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo each made use of futuristic settings (such as the Bird's Nest Stadium) and state-of-the-art forms of display (such as 3D and "4D" films shown at some national pavilions), yet also made many nods to history.  This befits a country whose rise is being framed by its leaders as a Confucian traditions meet high-tech phenomenon, an approach that shapes China's presentation of itself as the "Guest of Honor" at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, where its exhibit focused on traditional arts and early literary developments and then fast-forwarded up to digital publishing, with little time for anything in between.  In addition, in foreign commentary on Chinese spectacles such as the Olympics, we often find the Western press alternating between stories that look forward and stories that dwell on particular moments in the past.  This was clearest at the time of the Beijing Games when reports about the space age seeding of rain clouds to clear the skies of the capital competed for attention with references to alleged parallels between the 2008 Olympics and either the Nazi ones of 1936 (seen as legitimating Hitler) or the Seoul ones of 1988 (seen as contributing to South Korea's liberalization).  

Position statement: Inside and outside of China, the past has often been invoked in deeply problematic ways.  A skewed sense of continuities and discontinuities between today's China and that of earlier periods is offered up by PRC authorities, while foreign analysts often ignore the most illuminating historical analogies for recent Chinese developments.  

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1:30: Registration

2:00: Opening remarks 

2:05 - 3:35: Session I: International Intent and Implications

Presentations on the Olympics, the Shanghai World Expo, and the National Day Parade

Keywords: China’s image, soft power, peaceful rise, cross-cultural communication, Western cultural hegemony and China’s reactions, the influence and the revoking of history…

2:05 - 2:35: Position statements from three speakers

2:35 - 3:00: Roundtable discussion, moderated by Christina Larson

3:00 - 3:35: Open-floor discussion 

3:35 - 3:50: Coffee Break

3:50-5:20: Session II: Domestic Intent and Implications 

Presentations on the National Day Parade, the Shanghai World Expo, and the Olympics

Keywords: national pride, harmonious society, new strategies of governance, the transformation of the CCP, the making of the image of splendid time in Chinese history (sheng shi)…

3:50 - 4:10: Position statements from the three speakers

4:10 - 4:40: Roundtable discussion moderated by Christina Larson

4:40 - 5:20: Open-floor discussion 

5:20 - 5:30: Closing remarks

5:30 - 7:00: Reception

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