Can Chinese pop music’s soft power push ever match K-pop’s success?

[Professor Xuenan CAO was interviewed by South China Morning Post on 30 January 2023]

By Cyril Ip

China’s entertainment industry has put Chinese popular music – or C-pop – on the international stage, but observers say that whether it can help expand the country’s soft power – as K-pop has done for South Korea – remains in doubt due to rising anti-China sentiment in the West.

Many successful C-pop festivals, packed with fans from the Chinese diaspora and beyond, have been staged in the US in the past five years in a sign that Chinese artists are going global on an unprecedented scale. However the genre remains unfamiliar to most Americans, and its soft power potential is equally unexplored.

Last year, China ranked fourth overall and 12th in terms of media and communications on a global soft power index published by Brand Finance, an international market consultancy headquartered in London.

Cao Xuenan, an assistant professor of cultural studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “China’s soft power has not really taken on the pop culture or entertainment industry, and it doesn’t follow the formula that we see in K-pop, which relies heavily on an industrial chain.”

She said building infrastructure, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, remained the focus of China’s soft power projection.

Using music as a currency of influence was a rather Western trait, Cao said, as the West branded pop culture as “containing new ideas related to the youth, and political ideals that challenge the status quo”. She said South Korea had become quite successful lately in appropriating that strategy.

“If it draws eyeballs, it is soft power … Korean artists like BTS create more positive associations with Korea on the international stage, and whether people understand the complexity of that cultural phenomenon or not doesn’t matter – as long as they can make people talk about South Korea, they have a huge influence,” Cao said.

The South Korean boy band was invited to the White House in May to address the surge in anti-Asian racism in the United States, and to the United Nations in September to speak about the importance of vaccination and sustainable development. Cao said that was partly down to its members “looking really good”, as well as the closeness between Seoul and Washington.

But it might be more difficult for Chinese artists to gain acceptance from a Western audience. The Washington-based Pew Research Centre found that 82 per cent of American adults had an unfavourable opinion of China last year, up from 79 per cent in 2020 and more than double the proportion a decade ago.

Hong Kong-born pop star Jackson Wang, who in April made history as the first solo Chinese performer at Coachella – the biggest music festival in the US – frequently uses the tagline: “I am Jackson Wang from China.”

The 27-year-old’s straightforward shout-out to his birthplace has been heavily analysed and deliberated on social media, with some claiming that it was a “betrayal” of his roots in Hong Kong and South Korea – where he started his music career – as well as an example of “sucking up” to Beijing.

“This kind of criticism levelled at Wang reflects the fans and the media’s speculation that there will be more to gain by provoking him to have to justify his national identity,” Cao said, while comparing Wang to Lisa, the Thai member of South Korean girl group Blackpink, who openly embraces her ethnicity without the media associating her with Thai politics.

“The Chinese identity is always in Western media, it is a spectacle itself, which is why this question is chased after more for Chinese artists than those of other nationalities – and there is no escape.”

Chinese artists could better embody their country’s soft power if their art could avoid being politicised, but sometimes that politicisation originated in China, said Zhang Chi, a postdoctoral international relations researcher at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, referencing Eileen Gu Ailing, the American-born freeski prodigy who won two gold medals and one silver for China at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.

“Gu’s identity was first discussed by the Chinese public and the mainstream media in China, and the West only caught up on this discourse, so it is not fully attributable to the current climate of Chinese public figures being scrutinised by Western media,” Zhang said, adding that people were naturally interested in knowing where Gu’s “loyalty” lay, given the portrayal of her as a national hero in China.

Scaling down nationalistic talking points would be more helpful to the expansion of Chinese soft power, Zhang said.

“For most cultural products, not emphasising any political values and ideologies would actually make them more attractive,” she said. “In contrast, imposing ideologies may turn off the audience, especially given anti-China and Sinophobic sentiments, as well as Western governments’ perceptions of China.”

Zhang said international cultural exchanges were facing headwinds as distrust and antipathy grew between China and major Western powers.

“The enlarged perception gap between them has shrunk the space where cultural products can be appreciated regardless of the political considerations of the sort of values behind them,” she said.

But when successful, such as in Wang’s much celebrated performance, the cultural impact of C-pop could affect public opinion.

“Chinese celebrities might change overseas communities’ perception of China by demonstrating the abilities of Chinese celebrities to cooperate with world-leading celebrities and attract an international following,” Zhang said.

Musicians, despite their ability to further a country’s influence, were not necessarily concerned about politics, said Linda Lee Wai-kuen, the manager of Hunan-born rhythm and blues singer Tia Ray, who performed at the MetaMoon Music Festival at the Barclays Centre in New York in November.

Tia, the first and only Chinese artist to appear on the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s global singles chart, has expanded her catalogue of collaborations with US and other overseas musicians.

“It’s about the persistence of messaging,” Lee said. “Politics and tensions have always been around – it is not as relevant when it comes to making or putting out music. We write and sing about pretty much the same things: falling in love, being heartbroken or feeling happy.

“Various Chinese artists, including mine, are all trying to break internationally, and you would find the same with young US artists – they would love to break into the Chinese, or Korean, or Japanese markets.”

C-pop could serve as a platform for overseas communities to correct or increase their understanding of China, which might be outdated, while also creating a sense of resonance.

“When people think about China, they think of dragons or lanterns or the Great Wall – these are things that are a few thousand years old – from ancient China, not contemporary China,” Lee said.

“Cuisine is a great soft power – you may not like or know about the country, but you can love the food, or because of the food, you become intrigued – I think music is the same, it’s pretty borderless.”

Despite political tensions, she said there were universal beliefs that Chinese artists could embody that would satisfy the expectations of both their domestic and international fans.

“I hope people will respect each other’s values, even if they’re different,” Lee said, while adding that some basic values, such as opposition to sexual harassment, were common to both the US and China.

Wang’s appearance at Coachella was part of the Head in the Clouds Festival, an annual music extravaganza organised by US-based music company 88rising, which also has a Shanghai branch. It has been held across stadiums in Los Angeles, Jakarta and Manila since 2018.

Lee said “going global” would require C-pop stars to venture into not only the US market, but also the blossoming Asian music scene, and for any C-pop stars to have soft power value, they would have to engage with the local communities overseas, rather than just the Chinese diaspora.

“It’s critical that you have a local audience, otherwise you are not breaking into that market,” she said. “Can you imagine if an American artist were to break into the local Hong Kong music scene, and only foreigners go see them?”

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