China’s “Soft Power” Goes Global: Li Keqiang, S.B. Cohen, and North Korea

By | May 15, 2012 | No Comments

China’s “Soft Power” Goes Global: Li Keqiang, S.B. Cohen, and North Korea

by Adam Cathcart

Much attention has been paid, and rightly so, to the “Korea wave” (韩流) and its impacts on North Korean culture. But what about China’s efforts at “soft power” expansion? How, if at all, are these perceived in the DPRK? And what role do visits by PRC leaders play in stimulating and consolidating outposts of Chinese cultural influence in North Korea?

Red October |  It seems that Chinese leaders prefer to make their junkets to the DPRK in the month of October. The inner-Party debates of the late summer have been duly hammered out on the northern beaches at Beidaihe, the parades and patriotic fervor of the PRC’s own October 1 commemorations have gone off with out a hitch in places like Lhasa, and the anniversary of the sacrificial entry of the Chinese People’s Volunteers into the dis-integrating maelstrom of the Korean War gives everyone practically no choice but to harken back to the Korean War.  (Nothing cements a friendship like remembering the good old days when Devil-General MacArthur firebombed Sinuiju.)  Or perhaps Chinese leaders are called by the legendary beauty of autumn on the Korean peninsula, the way a Japanese aficionado of Baroque art is called by the Vatican Museum.

In any event, October is the month: For the past three years, North Korea’s visits from the pool of nine slick-haired gentlemen who make up the Central Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party have all come in October.

In 2009, Wen Jiabao arrived in Pyongyang, and was greeted by the miraculously healthy Dear Leader on what appeared to be a Hainan Airlines carpet at Sunan.  Only South Korean President Kim Dae Jung had received a similar airport welcome from the North Korean leader in the past.  Accordingly, Wen Jiabao dispensed a ton of largesse and locked in cooperation agreements whereby not simply economic and security but cultural cooperation was to be expanded.

In October 2010, China’s embattled man of the hour, the man who Chris Buckley describes as “a hulking presence in Chinese politics” Zhou Yongkang ascended the dais for a massive parade marking the public emergence the North Korean successor, cementing China’s traditional security-driven alliance.  (Nothing says “I love you” like a visit from Zhou Yongkang.)

And in October 2011, Vice-Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Pyongyang for three days, fusing overt pressure on the DPRK to return to talks with its neighbors, economic blandishments, and emphasis again on cultural ties.

Li Keqiang as Future Premier |  Gauged by the barometer of China’s recent state media landscape, Li is by far the “most popular” of the three men having been tasked with going to Pyongyang: Wen Jiabao, having made a final peroration this past March with an ominous warning of factionalism, is receding.  Zhou Yongkang is at the grinding axis of the rumor mill and having defiantly sycophantic articles published about himself in the People’s Daily and what Northern Expedition propagandists would have called its lesser “running dogs 走狗.”  “Don’t call it a comeback,” Zhou would appear to be saying, “I’ve been here for years,” but if his überpatron Jiang Zemin finally drops dead, Zhou is toast, or so goes the scuttlebutt.

By every measure and in marked contrast, Li Keqiang appears to be on the ascent: he is slated to replace Wen Jiabao as China’s Premier (总理) after December 2012.  More importantly, Li has has been far more visible than (ostensible Zhuxi-to-be) Xi Jinping since the Wang Lijun affair erupted out of a car (trunk?) in the U.S. Consulate here in Chengdu.  A recent magazine spread about Li Keqiang in Huanqiu People magazine tacked on about twenty pages of illustrated pabulum to the Vice-Premier’s recent trip to Brussels, Hungary, and Russia, further acclimating Chinese readers to the notion that this anglophone engineer was becoming China’s face to the world.

A visit to Pyongyang by Li Keqiang, then, properly takes place within China’s political tradition whereby the Premier is seen as the latest successor-manifestation of Zhou Enlai.  There may be hard edges to what is said — the Mauser remains nested in the proverbial trench coat — but all the axioms about people-to-people diplomacy (民间关系) are supposed to hold true.  It’s a tough act to follow: Even as a fading countenance in 1974, Zhou had sufficient personal charm whereby he could slough off Kim Il Sung’s ideé fixe of invading South Korea for a second time while, literally, telepathically projecting Chinese friendship into Shirley MacLaine while she performed live shows in Las Vegas.

Li may not have the personal charm of Zhou Enlai or the aura of frustrated reform which surrounds the huggably manipulative Wen Jiabao, but he does have a big fat travel budget, a burgeoning Rolodex of Confucius Institute contacts, and a lot of pandas in cellophane:

Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang 李克强 distributes stuffed pandas to North Korean child-performers outside of Taedonggang Commune, October 25, 2011 |Image via CCTV

The upcoming China-North Korea Document Dossier #3 will be delving into such interactions with greater detail.

Suffice it to say that in the North Korean context, wherein not even free German-language education can be offered to the North Koreans without they themselves shutting the whole thing down, that it is a movement of somewhat more than minor cultural importance when a Confucius Institute opens in Pyongyang.  Whether or not a few dancing pandas in an Arirang for Chinese tourists, or Li Keqiang dispensing a few dolls from a car trunk and promptly flying to Seoul, is enough to wedge North Korea’s cultural door open more fully is also worth debating.

Considering North Korea and the PRC as a Cultural Unity |  China’s tacit and explicit support for Kim family rule in North Korea — to say nothing of the formal alliance with the DPRK —  plays a role, though far from a decisive one, in hampering China’s broader efforts to be perceived abroad as fully modern, open, and accepting of outside influences.

The PRC’s support for North Korea is determined as “far from decisive” in poisoning world views of China, if simply because the Chinese state is quite good at shooting itself in the foot when it comes to undermining months or years of soft-power initiatives with any number of ham-handed individual actions.  Take your pick: Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo, the expulsion of Melissa Chan, the over-the-top equations of the Dalai Lama with Hitler, etc.  China’s notoriously moving “red line” too often runs through and scatters the gains of a million carefully-arranged calligraphy classes.

To engage in a brief comparison of certain elements Chinese and North Korean state-driven culture, a certain congruity of statement does emerge.  Are foreign reporters an excellent means of conveying the message of positive change to the outside, or are they, more or less, all spies?  Is youth culture really all about the Young Pioneers and children dreaming of their motherland whenever they go abroad? Are leaders more or less infallible, the agents by which happiness is bestowed upon the masses? Isn’t everyone better off when the state pourse endless resources in to commemorations of the war with Japan? etc. etc.

Globalized, Wired China as Gadfly? |  But what about the Chinese internet? What, in other words, about the mockery of Chinese netizens of the “supreme dignity of the leadership of the DPRK”?  Is there not a regular parade of Chinese internet attacks on Kim Jong Un, even to the point were there was jubilation and much rejoicing when he was judged to be dead on Weibo?  Is South Korea forever destined, so long as the DPRK endures, to bear the brunt of North Korean state media attacks — indeed, to the point of war threats — on people who say nasty things about Kim Jong Un?  Isn’t the Chinese internet discourse every bit as bad as the American press and popular culture when it comes to satirizing North Korea?

As to this final battery of questions, a separate essay is offered, unpacking a single episode which binds together the triangular relations between Hollywood stereotypes, Chinese internet culture, and funereal rites for Kim Jong Il:

Adam Cathcart, “Chinese Media’s Short-Lived Love for Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘The Dictator‘,” The Atlantic, March 15, 2012.

No Comments

  1. “Are foreign reporters an excellent means of conveying the message of positive change to the outside, or are they, more or less, all spies?”

    They are certainly not all spies but they are definitely “an excellent means of conveying the message of positive change to the outside”. To me most foreign reporters are simply reinforcing the age-old outside perception (or misperception) of China by picking and choosing what to report (and what not to report). Their work solidified stereotypes more than anything else. Of course, once in a while there are a few folks whose work has extended understanding and bridged the two worlds, but I’d say very few and far between.

  2. Ooops, meant to say “they are definitely not ‘an excellent means of…’ “.

  3. Thanks for the comment, JCM!

  4. Actually, when it comes to foreign reporters in the DPRK, there is a wonderful (in the sense of _illuminating_) moment in the Laura Ling memoir about her trial for spying and “trying to bring down the socialist system of the DPRK” (maybe she was channeling Jon Huntsman, Jr. comments about how to use the Chinese internet?) when the prosecutor or judge bears down on her and starts his line of questioning with “Do you know who Anna Louise Strong is? You should be more like her!” In other words, if you’re going to report on us, just convey to the outside whatever we tell you to, because you are, more or less, our inanimate megaphone. Strong (whose papers I have read in Seattle; they’re in the UW Archive) was more complicated than that, but there is virtually no light between her writings in 1940s about North Korea and the regime’s, and same about her work in China in 1950s. China’s Tibet propaganda today is basically word-for-word from her big tomes, or vice versa, hard to tell, because it’s such a symbiotic loop. And if we can’t manipulate you, you must be a spy. Well! How pleasant.

  5. Li Keqiang isn’t quite the engineer, I believe, and therefore an exception at the top. He apparently studied law and economics. As Shirley MacLaine has long left the orbit of charming Chinese top-cadres (I seem to have heard that she lives somewhere in the desert, but in a home with a watertap), Li will never gain the great status of Comrade Zhou Enlai.

    I believe it’s a safe prediction for several reasons – let’s have a review of it here in 2023, sub conditione jacobaea.

  6. Point taken, JR! And, incidentally, I think we will have a post up soon linking to your excellent translation of Zhou Yongkang’s remarks at Legal U which was reported on May 11, much appreciate your rather protean production of late:

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