01.19.11

China's Absurd U.S. Outreach

As Hu Jintao visits the U.S.—and for a month after—China is running promotional spots on six giant screens in Times Square. Daily Beast China correspondent Huang Hung on why it’s laughable.

As Hu Jintao visits the U.S.—and for a month after—China is running promotional spots on six giant screens in Times Square. Daily Beast China correspondent Huang Hung on why it’s laughable. Plus, China and America's seven biggest gaffes.

If you pass through New York’s Times Square in the next few days, you might notice six large screens that flash a series of 60-second videos featuring Chinese people staring stiffly into the distance. The images flash by quickly—too fast to allow anyone to actually read the names and occupations of those pictured in the video.

Photos: Hu Jintao Visits the U.S.

Bemused passers-by may not realize it, but the display is the brainchild and handiwork of the People’s Republic of China, apparently part of a public-relations effort to introduce different cultural elements of the world’s second-biggest economic power to America. Undoubtedly timed to coincide with this week’s state visit to the United States of Chinese President Hu Jintao, the videos play simultaneously, 15 times every hour, from 6 a.m to 2 a.m daily, and will continue through February 14, Valentine’s Day.

The ads have prompted a furious Internet debate in China. Many nationalistic mainland citizens express pride that Beijing can afford to place huge displays in one of America’s most famous tourist attractions, and they say the videos demonstrate that China has what it takes to make a major-league PR play—namely, cash. Other Chinese, like me, find the videos laughable, a classic case of communications that don’t communicate.

To begin with, of the 15 or so people featured, only a couple, the basketball star Yao Ming and the actress Zhang Ziyi ( Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), would be known by Americans. Second, some of the stars of the video are actually American citizens, and others are U.S. residents with green cards. Apart from the problem of the images zipping by too speedily for anyone to be recognized, there are two versions of the ads, with two different sets of ethnic Chinese—almost all equally unknown to the American public.

Nevertheless, as the display was paid for with the tax money that I and other Chinese citizens pay, I will attempt to assist the cause of the motherland and explain who is being featured in the videos:

1. The leading Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, a stunning Hollywood veteran, who only a year ago was smeared by an official website as having pocketed donation money for earthquake victims; the actress Fan Bingbing, a popular sex symbol; Yang Liping, a dancer; Zhou Xun, another actress, and Zhang Xinling, a celebrity I don’t really know.

2. The dancer Tai Lihua, who choreographed the dance of “Buddha with 1,000 hands.” It may well be a fitting image for Times Square, often a haven for dexterous pickpockets, especially at peak moments, like New Year’s Eve.

3. Yuan Longping, the man who genetically engineered wheat crops so we Chinese don’t need to import the genetically engineered grain produced by the likes of Monsanto. We are very proud of Yuan, naturally.

4. Three men, all Internet moguls, and all billionaires. There’s Li Yanhong, owner of baidu.com, the Chinese search engine that copied Google and then helped manipulate the American giant out of China; Ding Lei, who owns Netease in China, and Jack Ma, who first sold out to Yahoo, bought Yahoo China—and is blamed by Yahoo for destroying its business in China. All three men run businesses that are copycats of American Internet models, all of which triumphed over their U.S. counterparts in the Chinese market.

5. Wang Jian Zhou, the CEO of China Mobile—and a government bureaucrat, given that senior positions in state-run companies are political appointments. Wang is about to retire, so his video presence amounts to a gold watch, of sorts.

6. Nobodies. Well, that may be harsh, but even the credits can only describe them as “extraordinary” Chinese.

7. Chinese designers. I recognize at least one of them, Yung Ho Chang, the chairman of MIT’s architecture department, who can be seen on the far right. The problem: He’s American, not Chinese.

8. Chinese top models. Not much else can be said, as none of these mannequins would be recognized by Americans familiar with Western supermodels.

9. Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei, along with others I don’t recognize, but all of whom appear as if they could be featured at nearby Madame Tussaud’s.

Video screenshot

You may be wondering what the Chinese government wants to say with these videos. If so, no answers are immediately forthcoming. Presumably, the videos showcase Chinese accomplishment. But the display might be considered an example of Chinese hubris (not to mention insensitivity) on a certain level: Some Americans may regard the inclusion of the Internet copycat billionaires as a slap in the face, considering. Others featured in the videos might just be controversial—like the scientist who genetically engineered wheat. The message, whatever it is, seems so convoluted as to be counterproductive. It may well be a good thing that few of the “stars” are recognizable.

This week, the Times Square videos have been all over the Chinese evening news, touted as a sign of Chinese trying to reach out to Americans. Most broadcasts followed segments on the videos with news of President Hu’s U.S. summit. Perhaps in the end, the Times Square tableau is merely an advertisement for the biggest mainland star of the moment: the boss of China Inc.

Huang Hung is a columnist for China Daily, the English language newspaper in China. She is also an avid blogger with more than 100 million page views on her blog on sina.com.