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Prasad MC asked: What are the implications of China’s attempts at cultural appropriation in South and Southeast Asia?

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  • Parama Sinha Palit replies: Given the definition of the term ‘cultural appropriation’ as the “adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture”, I don’t think it can be applied in China’s case with respect to these two regions. It is more an attempt to influence culturally with an eye to fashion a diplomacy which is both benign and tactical. There is little doubt that China has been attempting to win hearts and minds of the international community by adopting a more expansive strategy emphasising culture, greater people-to-people communication through public diplomacy, education, media and economic assistance. While their success is debatable, the fact remains that cultivating international goodwill and carving a benign image for itself has been a policy priority of the Chinese state ever since it felt isolated after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

    While my research reveals that China’s cultural forays into both South and Southeast Asia is scant when compared to its application elsewhere in Asia or the West, it is equally true that China has done so deliberately in both regions. This is where China’s pragmatism holds true. Not wanting to jeopardise its economic development by creating further tension in an already volatile South Asia, China has been primarily relying on other specific tools such as economic assistance, education and high-level visits instead to engage the region. This has, to an extent, paid dividends, with India losing its clout in Nepal and being challenged in Sri Lanka where Chinese economic muscle is squeezing India out. China’s growing influence in the rest of South Asia too is indisputable.

    The case is no different in Southeast Asia. A closer study of China’s cultural engagement in the region also reveal Beijing’s cautiousness in not pushing cultural initiatives too hard – a strand in some respect identical to India’s restraint in exporting culture to the neighbourhood – which could be due to the common apprehension of being branded ‘cultural colonisers’ by smaller neighbours in the region. However, China tries to advance a different agenda in the region through its Confucius Institutes (CIs) — expanding its ‘soft borders’ without using military force. Again, in this region, China employs tools like economic assistance and education while crafting its regionalisation strategy in a way so as to change regional perceptions. In fact, China has emerged a higher education hub in the region with Southeast Asian and even South Asian students flocking to China for education.

    China’s diplomacy has been smart in projecting its strengths to the world. Whether it be education or an alternate economic model, China has projected itself as a leader ready to experiment with regionalisation, all helping it to emerge as a regional and a global player. It has also been pragmatic to use cultural tools in a limited way in these regions, refusing to over-emphasise them fearing its cultural forays may be misconstrued as cultural assertiveness and thereby hurt its long-term objectives.

    For more on the subject, please refer to my following publications:

    Dr. Parama Sinha Palit was a researcher at IDSA.

    Posted on September 11, 2018.