By Sally Peck

China has turned to its history to cement its new place in the world

Once the Communist Party dismissed China's ancient culture as part of the country's 'backward' feudal past. But now Beijing is harnessing it in the service of the state, packaging treasures and traditions for export abroad in the hope of softening China's international image.

The Ministry of Culture announced in April that it had agreed to allow the highest ever number of top-tier ancient treasures to leave the country, to be sent the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.

A 4,000-piece jade burial suit is among 350 priceless royal Han dynasty (210 BC - AD 220) tomb objects on display in The Search for Immortality, a show designed to coincide with the 2012 Olympic Games, when all eyes will be on Britain.

Simultaneously in New York, the Terracotta Army continues its Long March around the world, with nine of the estimated 8,000 life-size figures entombed with the Qin emperor (259-210 BC) on display at Discovery Times Square. Each of these figures is unique and the army, discovered by peasants in 1974 after lying dormant for 2,000 years, has yet to be completely unearthed.

The objects in both exhibitions are relics of ancient rulers struggling to prove their legitimacy. The mandate continues today, as Beijing deploys its treasures in a soft-power offensive.

Where once human rights issues and images of an authoritarian regime's goose-stepping soldiers dominated its international image, over the past decade Beijing has put cultural and educational exchange at the heart of its re-branding efforts.

Brazil's contemporary music scene and India's modern literature have served to raise each nation's profile abroad. But with a modern arts scene that offers limited international appeal, Beijing has turned to its distant past, using stars from 5,000 years of history and art to cultivate relationships with prestigious institutions around the world.

'These are extraordinary things. Why not make the most of them? They show that China was once a very important kingdom and will be so again,' said Roderic Wye, a China expert and Associate Fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House.

More than 300 Confucius Institutes have been set up at universities around the world since 2004, offering places for foreign students to study Mandarin. But there are suspicions that these also act as government intelligence-gathering centres.

Beijing has encouraged international students to study in China, many at the government's expense. And it has invested billions of dollars in high-profile projects in Africa and Latin America, ranging from the building of railway lines to football stadiums.

China relies on Africa's minerals for its economic growth. A million Chinese have gone to work there over the past decade, during which time bilateral trade has shot from $10.6 billion to $160 billion, according to government figures. But this has caused resentment among Africans as only Chinese labour has been used while, at the same time, local markets have been flooded with low-cost Chinese goods. China has responded to this by sponsoring the education of tens of thousands of Africans: 100,000 were trained in Chinese universities and military institutes in 2006 alone.

Beijing also announced in April that it will begin publishing an African version of the government-run English-language newspaper, China Daily. The newspaper, which is state-run but claims to have an independent editorial board, has European, US, Asian and Hong Kong editions, all launched in the past five years, and all with a mandate to present news with a Chinese angle.

At a time when many Western news media outlets are contracting, Beijing is pouring millions of dollars into the sector. In an effort to improve its image abroad, some of these media outlets are even recruiting Western or Western-trained reporters to help reshape content. The Government has also allowed number of international journalism programmes to be set up at Chinese universities in recent years.

In South-East Asia, China needs to sell itself as a non-threatening presence. 'In soft power terms, China would like to remove the need for the South East Asians to hedge against its rise by improving their relations with the US. This is not the way things are going at the moment,' said Roderic Wye.

Whether drawing on the ancestors to re-brand China will work remains to be seen.

A recent BBC poll showed that, while opinions of China's influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, they remain predominantly negative across Europe, in the United States, as well as in India, Japan and South Korea.

More significant is the direction in which the polling figures are heading: in the 2012 results of the 22-nation poll, China had surpassed both the US and the EU in global perceptions of influence, with 50 per cent of those polled indicating that China was exerting a positive influence worldwide, a four-point increase on 2011.

The increase was apparent in both the developing and industrialised world, suggesting that China's multi-pronged soft-power approach might be starting to reap benefits.


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