Promoted as a well-received commercial that better let Americans understand China by the Chinese media, this ad sparked a lot of debate in both countries. While it might have passed on positive feelings to some Americans, more than a few online commentators referred to it as China giving the US "the finger." While I agree that the ad might not had the effect intended by the Chinese gov't when it was originally designed, the actual act of making the ad forecasts a strong step forward in China's pursuit of soft power.
China has had a PR problem for some time now. I first noticed it in the Spring of 2009 on a week-long trip to Ghana. My mother was analyzing China's investment and influence in Africa with Ghana as a case study with a fellow professor who was from Ghana. I tagged along as it was a great opportunity to go better understand Africa.
During our visit to the Chinese consulate, we talked to 3 officers who discussed the threats and opportunities of Chinese companies in Ghana. While trading companies were booming in importing a lot of consumer goods from China to Ghana (much from Shenzhen), Chinese companies had made very little headway in the mining and coco industries. These were all dominated by European companies who had been here for a long time.
We were also fortunate enough to visit a hydro-electric dam currently under construction a couple of hours outside of Kumasi - in the central part of Ghana.
In all of our visits and conversations with both local Ghanaians and Chinese workers and managers, there seemed like a communication disconnect between the two groups. Locals often complained about the bad practices of Chinese companies. The Chinese complained about the laziness of the locals and their not appreciating what the Chinese were doing for them.
As stated from the Chinese perspective, whenever there were any disagreements or individual problems with workers, those isolated people would immediately be given to the media and then pieced together to show how bad and manipulative the Chinese were. The people at the consulate felt that they were being portrayed unfairly and tried to do their best in better publicizing their investments and contributions to the local community in their newly established press office. Needless to say short articles stuck in the local news section of the newspaper didn't have much effect on the problem.
After my Ghana trip, I realized a few things:
- the PR industry in China will only grow in the future
- anytime a report on how bad Chinese investors are in Africa, S. America and other parts of the world shows up, it has a good likelihood of being created from the already established political discourse on China. (see this video from CNBC for more)
- any real progress in soft power will happen from efforts of individual companies and people - not from a coordinated central government agenda
The Chinese government has really tried make a coordinated effort to improve soft power in the world. Even before the NYC Times Square ad, China has tried to rebrand itself. In the past few years, it has promoted Confucius Institutes in the world, established a CNN-style news network (creating it out of CCTV-9), created a Reuters/AP type organization within CCTV to sell comprehensive English reports to news outlets all over the world (my mom's college friend is a editor there), and even rolled out a Confucius statue in Tiananmen Square.
However, all of these government measures hasnt changed the fact that any mention of the Dali Lama will go directly to China's bad human right's record, and any event on Tiananmen Square will mention the riots of 1989. These government initiatives dont work as well as the indirect effects of individual companies. My friend in Beijing has tried to market Chinese indie films all around the world for the past few years. Her efforts to show a foreign audience an alternative side of China is an example of how small companies are contributing to Chinese soft power in various culture fields.
The best recent example of an ad that (I believe) is great is an Li-ning shoes commercial in the US. It came out around the same time as the NYC Times Square video, but definitely hits it out of the park in helping create a new understanding of China and Chinese people to the American audience. Only with commercials like these over a long period of time will any real soft power be created.