BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
China’s National Day extravaganza has come and gone, but certain after-images linger. I think of the daytime march and nighttime gala as the yang and yin of China’s power, hard power by day, soft power by night.
Who can forget the crisp, robotic efficiency of marching soldiers, the grinding rumble of tanks, the show of sleek and deadly new rocketry? Jets flying overhead, perilously close to the ground in a downtown unaccustomed to seeing any air traffic at all.
China’s military flex was on ample display in the harsh midday light of the slightly polluted air for all to ogle and admire.
Come night, the atmosphere softened considerably. The gala march and fireworks display coordinated by film director Zhang Yimou, one of China’s most feted artists, was not lacking in song, dance or interplay of illumination and shadow.
There was an impressive, unprecedented light show with human marchers carrying computer-coordinated light shields to creating rainbow-hued displays, none more impressive that a simulated tree in the treeless square which seemed to take root and grow in a time-lapse display.
If some of the acts on parade looked like amateur hour, it was in the best sense of the word, for the enthusiasm of civilian invitees to the gala was palpable, and their reaction to being on mass display only human, forever slightly of step, waving little flags, beaming big smiles.
I know from years of talking on the China TV talk show circuit that the concepts of “soft power” and “hard power” is taken seriously by scholars and policymakers alike. Call it soft power, or just call it culture, but China possesses it in spades. China has long possessed the ability to charm and mesmerize its own people, and sometimes its neighbors, through its vibrant cultural tropes.
Hard-power can win battles, but only soft-power can win the war.
In this sense, China wins even when it loses, philosophically speaking, for in defeat it finds the seeds of victory. The cultural currents for survival, resourcefulness and practicality, never dormant for long, run deep. What is the essence of China but that resilient, renewable cultural resource persistent enough to endure war, famine, rapine rule and decadent peace, generation after generation, through the rise and fall of dynasties and dynastic interregnum alike?
So, there’s no denying that China knows a thing or two about soft power.
There were glimpses of this on National Day; haunting music from the hinterland, folksongs and ancient tunes, and there was a perfunctory nod to cultural diversity in the variety of costume and dance. The dazzling fireworks show, a moral, soft power equivalent of hard power rocketry, was suitably impressive, turning the sky into artist sketchpad and easel.
And yet, just a few days after this magisterial show of how soft power can be effectively deployed, indeed coopted and celebrated by the ruling party, China’s nationalists scored an embarrassing own goal by trying to belittle one of America’s great soft power success stories: basketball, and more importantly, the bedrock cultural belief in free speech.
It was if a rogue basketball bounced off the laminated court and rolled into the DMZ of public opinion, triggering virulent reactions on all sides, arousing the ire of millions of basketball fans in China and the US alike. No government taking aim at the sport should assume that ball fans are always going to choose the former over the latter.
What happened to China’s fabled gift of getting soft power right? The manager of a US sports team types a short tweet in support of dissidents in Hong Kong. The response of Chinese netizens and officials is rapid and unforgiving. An apology is demanded, a prominent athlete, for no fault of his own, steps in front of the camera to apologize. An Alibaba billionaire who owns another team in the same league invokes several centuries of Chinese history to quell discussion, only igniting a new fire. The original tweet in question is scrubbed, but further apologies are not forthcoming.
Who was hurt and how? The purported victim in this incendiary cross-Pacific kerfuffle was the oft-invoked, but never quantified, justified or defined mythical aura known as, “the injured pride of the Chinese people.”
This phrase is problematic; who speaks for the Chinese people? Even if the voice is a governmental source, how can a bureaucrat or autocrat so quickly assume the hubris to speak on behalf of more than a billion individuals?
To paint China as the victim of egregious hurt, is to hijack the conversation, for apologies demanded put the demander in control, and no easy apology is likely to suffice.
The rogue tweet, though fully in keeping with US free speech norms, was pounced upon by Beijing’s state-directed media. An act of soft power, it aroused the ire of netizens in a way that was like releasing a genie from a bottle; hard to control where it would go next.
Indeed, the vitriolic activity on the internet quickly veered away from feeling hurt to desiring revenge, as if trashing everything remotely associated with American basketball was the only possible response to the alleged insult.
What followed was a textbook case of demonization. If the individual was wrong, then so was his team, if his team was wrong then so was the entire league, if the league was wrong, then the US as a whole was culpable; this at a time when China and the US are already at tenterhooks due to a gratuitous and ruinous trade.
After the investment of so time and effort to project lofty symbolic grandeur on National Day, how could China act so weak, thin-skinned and petty?
It would be funny if it weren’t so serious, that the two most powerful nations in the world should suddenly find their already tense and troubled relationship in stomach-churning freefall because of stray shots from men whose careers are embedded in the business of a bouncing ball.
The soft-power flare up also illustrates the paradoxical butterfly effect but with a twist; a killer typhoon threatening billions of dollars of damage was inadvertently launched by the flutter of fingers crossing a keyboard to type a tweet.
In the yin-yang struggle of two great powers, the potency of soft power is ignored at one’s peril.
The good news is that the storm is showing signs of being calmed, if only because boycotting a mutually lucrative sports franchise for no good reason was a lose-lose proposition, especially with China’s Winter Olympics in the picture.
Initially, People’s Daily and Global Times fanned the flames of discord with scripted over-reactions but then they were ordered to cool it. This speaks volumes about what passes for journalistic integrity in Beijing today, but dropping the hot potato topic did allow for some introspection, and the exhibition games in Shanghai were permitted to go forward.
Although NBA posters were torn down, team jerseys were banned and CCTV petulantly refused to cover the event, the Shanghai arena was packed and the local fans remarkably well-behaved. The game between the Nets and the Lakers was a close game, a well-played game, and love of the game helped restore a semblance of normalcy in the gyre of the controversy.