China will be a major testing ground as countries consider the power contemporary art has to influence international relations.

The New York Times ran an article in June 2012 on Chinese museums and their recent push to host exhibitions of international artwork. With China’s recent focus on soft power initiatives, some question whether the nation has anterior motives behind its cultural push.

The National Museum of China, which reopened in 2011 with the exhibition "The Art of the Enlightenment"

The National Museum of China, which reopened in 2011 with the exhibition "The Art of the Enlightenment".

The article mentions several high-profile past and upcoming exhibitions of Western art in China, including the landmark exhibition “The Art of the Enlightenment“, the first show to be held at the National Museum of China after a five-year refurbishment.

The New York Times noted that the focus on Western exhibitions serves several domestic and international aims.

‘Every year the museum will stage several exhibitions from abroad,’ [Guo Xiaoling, head of Beijing’s Capital Museum] said. ‘These foreign museum exhibitions are helping young Chinese people become more global.’


At the same time, the government is pressing China’s leading museums to raise their international stature by sending more exhibitions abroad.

Mr Guo said government leaders in Europe, especially in Britain and France, had been very active in promoting ties with Chinese museums. ‘Each year, the British Council will organise Chinese museum directors, curators and cultural groups to visit Britain,’ he said.

In the context of China’s soft power push, the move to foreign exhibitions can be seen as a way to get Chinese art exhibitions into Western institutions, a quid-pro-quo style common in Chinese social relations and business etiquette.

In the eleventh Five-Year Plan, enacted from 2006 to 2010, President Hu Jintao stated that China must develop its cultural industries in order to spread its influence across the globe. Hu stated that it was a national imperative that China “vigorously develop the cultural industry, launch major projects to lead the industry as a whole, speed up the development of cultural industry bases and clusters of cultural industries with regional features, nurture key enterprises and strategic investors, create a thriving cultural market and enhance the industry’s international competitiveness.”

To this end, China has rapidly expanded its international education programme, establishing over 300 Confucius Institutes in under a decade. These schools run Chinese language programmes as well as teach traditional activities like classical ink painting and martial arts.

The nation has also focused on its international media, with the English-language version of China Central Television (CCTV) setting up an office in New York City and state-run newspapers like the People’s Daily expanding free distribution to locations in Europe and the US.

Entrance of the 798 Art District in Beijing, China.

Entrance of the 798 Art District in Beijing, China.

China’s rise to prominence in the international contemporary art world has not been overlooked, either. With the transformation of Beijing’s largest art district, 798, into a thriving tourist site, many local governments now aim to transform their own abandoned factories into similar cultural landmarks, even in places without any local cultural producers.

Economically, the flourishing art scene provides a small fortune for the private and state-owned enterprises working in the art world, such as China’s largest auction house Poly International Auction, a subsidiary of a company founded by the People’s Liberation Army. Beyond the bottom line, however, it is questionable as to whether the contemporary art boom benefits China’s soft power initiatives.

A Poly Auction event in Beijing.

A Poly Auction event in Beijing.

Though Chinese contemporary art has spurred the development of countless museums, galleries and businesses within the creative industries, its influence is limited by the scope of its appeal. As a professor from Tsinghua University states, “Culture is still a small-scale activity performed by an elite group. It is a functional instrument. It can get you a car, a house and a beautiful wife.”

Others have questioned whether contemporary art can be considered Chinese soft power at all. As political theorist and China researcher Sam Crane noted, the forms of contemporary art in China are largely derived from the West. Whose soft power does this aspect of Chinese cultural development actually benefit? As Crane asks, “Does the diffusion of such avant garde art forms serve the soft power interests of China or the US? Are they attracting ‘us’ to become more like ‘them’.  Or are ‘they’ becoming more like ‘us’?” Answering these questions may be the key to success for China’s soft power initiatives.


Related Topics: art in China, promoting art, globalisation of art, museums

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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