Ramping up the likeability factor

SHE can plant just about any fruit, flower and vegetable, craft furniture and hew rocks to make stone walls. Not only that, she can sing, play the guitar, weave, sew and, boy, can she cook!

Her name is Li Ziqi and she’s a young and pretty Chinese vlogger who is world famous.

During a rather dull week I came across one of her videos and, intrigued by the title, Making a Dress Out of Grape Skins, decided to watch it. As it turned out, the title was misleading. She wasn’t making a dress out of grape skins but dyeing it purple with grape juice!

Still, she was so engaging that, bam! I was in love. This is actually her first video, released on YouTube in 2017.

As at May 12, 2021, her YouTube channel has more than 2.3 billion views and 15.2 million subscribers, making her a Guinness World Record holder for having “the most subscribers for a Chinese language channel on YouTube”.

And that’s not counting the millions of Chinese fans on Sina Weibo.

Li’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Chinese government.

The Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, awarded her the People’s Choice Award in September 2019. That got her some flak, with detractors accusing her of being a government mouthpiece.

The thing is, her fans don’t care, and that includes me. If she is pushing a pro-China agenda, so be it. That’s because she’s doing it in the nicest, most palatable way.

That still doesn’t make me a fan of China’s President Xi Jinping but I must say I am quite impressed by how modern, progressive and successful China has become.

While Li wins global hearts and minds by depicting an idyllic, self-reliant rural life with breathtaking scenery, other forms of Chinese soft power are also taking shape.South Korea – whose praises I have often sung – is a recognised global influencer with its K-pop, dramas and movies.

That was how I was won over. China is now doing the same.

Thanks to the Internet, YouTube and video streaming sites, China’s creative content is very much available to the rest of the world.

But unlike South Korea, China’s quest for international admiration is made much harder because of its long-time nemeses: the United States and its Western allies.

Additionally, in today’s world, selling propaganda is vastly different from the previous century when the United States could easily control information and present itself as the heroic global protector of freedom and democracy. The villains were communist Russia and China, easy peasy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has added another toxic layer of anti-Chinese sentiment, fuelled by the unresolved question of the origins of the coronavirus that crippled the world.

Much of the continued suspicion is due to Beijing’s failure to respond transparently to many questions or to share information.

Still, through it all, China’s entertainment machinery is still running and I dare say it is playing a vital role in ameliorating anti-China vitriolic.

Movies and dramas are all about telling stories and Xi knows their power.

Back in 2014, he reportedly said: “We should increase China’s soft power, tell a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world” to raise the country’s popularity and likeability.

That, to me, is the key: the likeability factor. Like people, some countries have it while others don’t.

Li Ziqi has a tonne of it; so too Singapore which has been described as an “illiberal democracy” but gets away with it because it is so clean, safe and well-run.

Often, ignorance reduces likeability. I can attest to that with my love for South Korea. I had no interest nor fondness for anything Korean until I discovered what the country was about through its dramas. I believe many share this experience.

Despite the high level of censorship, the Chinese creative content industry has managed to produce some really outstanding productions that have wowed and won fans from around the globe.

Several streaming websites have subtitles in English and many other languages that make the shows accessible to international audiences. There are all sorts of genres to pick from: costume dramas set in different dynasties or in fantasy worlds, the republican era, and modern times.

Many modern romcoms show how sophisticated and developed Chinese cities are with upscale homes, offices and neighbourhoods, much like how US sitcoms like The Brady Bunch and Friends depicted a positive American way of life. Gone are the poor, sad and drab Chinese of the Cultural Revolution.

Two major events in China have also impacted the industry of late: the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2019 and the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China this year.

That probably explains the deluge of patriotic films and dramas like The Eight Hundred set in World War II – it was the top grossing film last year in China.

China’s propaganda films used to be pure hardsell of nationalism that came across as boring and preachy. But The Eight Hundred scored with audiences because as Chinese media professor at Taiwan’s Nanhua University Chang Yu-liang was quoted as saying in an inkstone.com article: “The best patriotic movie is one that you don’t even realise was one.”

Another film that premiered during the 70th anniversary of the republic was The Bravest. Based on a real disaster, the Xingang Port oil spill in 2010, the movie depicts firefighters’ heroic efforts to contain the fire and protect the surrounding city.

There are more shows screened online with chest-thumping patriotic fervour but manage to still be very watchable. These are modern dramas like You Are My Hero and My Dear Guardian featuring extremely highly trained, well-equipped and disciplined police officers and soldiers who go to great lengths to protect the nation against all sorts of threats and still manage to find romance.

Yet another gung-ho military themed series is Glory of Youth which gives an insight into a branch of the Chinese army called the Rocket Force. It was produced in association with the People’s Liberation Army and much of it was filmed in real military facilities so it does look and feel impressive, and it has pretty strong plots too.

Finally, there is the ongoing 40-episode series called Faith Makes Great (sic) comprising 30-minute or so episodes based on real-life and largely unsung heroes who made notable contributions to China’s growth and development through the decades.

I have watched up to episode 11 and, frankly, the martyrdom and sacrifice was over the top in quite a few stories.

But there are some real gems like “173 Meters” which focuses on a young engineer named Xia Li who spent six years leading a team to dig the last 173m of a tunnel for the Lanzhou-Chongqing Railway line which was completed on June 19, 2017.

The one that moved me to tears is episode eight, “Bonfire in the Snow”. It features the kitchen squad of nine cooks in the army that had to traverse treacherous, snow-clad Jiajin Mountain during Mao Zedong’s famous Long March of 1935. These men had to lug heavy kitchen equipment and firewood to serve the regiment they were attached to.

The episode’s postscript tells that, tragically, all nine died and were buried in the snow fields, their names and identities lost to history.

Now that is some powerful storytelling, propaganda be damned! How not to like?

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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column , So Aunty So What , propaganda , soft power


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