“Look, they are stopping traffic for us,” I told my fellow passengers, pointing to a Dalian city police car driving in front of our beige mini-bus.
An expression of bewilderment and genuine surprise appeared on the faces of two mid-level managers from Europe, with whom I shared the ride to a Chinese traditional medicine tour organized by the Dalian government as a cultural side-show to the so-called Summer Davos conference.
I then explained how Dalian, a city with 6.7 million people located in Northeastern China, had ordered all construction in the city to be halted and implemented restrictions on the use of private cars during the Annual Meeting of the New Champions. It is a regular practice by Chinese cities hosting international events. Beijing famously closed all surrounding factories to ensure the often smog-plagued city had blue skies for the APEC gathering in 2015.
“So, this is all fake?” One of the managers murmured.
Of course not. China’s economic miracle is not fake. The improvement in the living standards of average citizens is not fake. The increasing social openness is not fake.
But the world’s second largest economy and the biggest player in numerous industries is still painfully lacking in confidence, so much so that cities exhaust all their resources to present a perhaps “augmented version” of civic reality for international guests, just like a young girl might put on too much makeup for a first date.
This phenomenon also highlights the fact that China lacks “soft power.” Where as Chinese tech companies such as Tencent and Alibaba are joining the ranks of the world’s biggest and most valuable corporations, there are very few internationally recognized Chinese players in the realms of culture, fashion, film, media and sports.
This lack of “soft power” is a real burden for Chinese citizens and companies alike. At a psychological level, the extraordinary window-dressing measures taken by cities like Dalian during international events may convince Chinese citizens that their cities, and they themselves, are inadequate under normal conditions. Chinese companies, meanwhile, routinely pay a “China premium” on deals, because Chinese capital is often negatively associated with intellectual property infringement and communism.
To cure this hundred-year-old disease, China must change its psychology of shame. For generations, Chinese schools have taught children to feel ashamed of the country’s history between The First Opium War in 1840 and the founding of a New China in 1949, a period when the country endured semi-colonial status and was manipulated by foreign powers. Such lessons may have prepared students to strive for a Chinese renaissance, but they have also created a society that suffers from chronic self-doubt and insecurity about its own beliefs.
Secondly, the government should create a more fertile environment for cultural industries to flourish. Chinese people have created one of the greatest civilizations on earth, including distinctive philosophies, art, cuisine and literature. Given enough freedom, the talented writers and directors of China will be able to make movies fit for the pickiest critics around the world.
The Summer Davos meeting in Dalian was one of the best events of its kind I’ve attended, and Dalian is the cleanest city I’ve seen in China. But Chinese cities, and its people, should feel confident enough to let the international community see how they really look on any given Tuesday.