August 14, 2014 12:00 am JST

China's cultural influence isn't limited to the silver screen

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei staff writer

Model Liu Wen, center, presents a creation from the Dolce & Gabbana spring/summer 2014 collection during Milan Fashion Week on Sept. 22, 2013. © Reuters

DALIAN, China -- Hollywood is not the only place where China's presence is being felt. Everywhere from Paris runways to American campuses and African newsstands, the influence of the Middle Kingdom is plain to see.

Chic China

It is spring, and Paris is charmed by Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel "supermarket." For the 2014-2015 fall/winter ready-to-wear collection, the German designer filled the venue of the Chanel fashion show with fruits, cheeses, cans and wine to create a make-believe grocery store. Of the 84 supermodels walking down the aisles posing as posh Parisians, five were Chinese.

     China's top model, Liu Wen, wore a fluffy gray coat as she strode confidently through the colorful aisles. Liu was the world's fifth highest-paid supermodel in 2013, earning an estimated $4.3 million, according to Forbes. She trails only Gisele Bundchen, Miranda Kerr, Adriana Lima and Kate Moss. Her star could soon rise even higher, especially if Chinese shoppers -- the world's largest consumers of luxury goods by nationality -- continue to travel the world and purchase dresses and bags at their current pace.

     In the past two years alone, Liu has represented Estee Lauder, Calvin Klein, Esprit, Coach, H&M, Tory Burch, Roberto Cavalli, Tiffany, Oscar de la Renta and Hugo Boss.

     "The Chinese customer is influencing the design of our products," Edoardo Vittuci, general manager of Tod's China, told the Nikkei Asian Review earlier this year at a fashion event in Shanghai. Many of Tod's bags now have zippers to close the top, and their coats have more pockets, two of the most sought-after features for Chinese customers.

     In the food and beverage sector, Coors Light is becoming less "cool," although not necessarily in a bad way. This summer, Molson Coors Brewing altered the packaging on its bottles and cans in China so that the Rocky Mountains featured on the labels turn blue even when the beer inside is not ice-cold.

     The Chinese tend to shy away from cold beverages. When customers ask for a glass of water at a restaurant, they expect to receive it hot or warm. Part of the reason is that the boiling process is believed to kill whatever germs may be floating inside.

     In response, Molson altered the ink on its labels so that it turns blue at around 5-7 C, as opposed to the original 4 C.

The pen is mightier ...

Things get a little murkier when it comes to China's rising influence in the media. At the end of 2012, China Daily, the country's state-owned English newspaper, launched a weekly edition for the African market. At newsstands in Nairobi, China Daily Africa Weekly is sold alongside domestic newspapers such as Daily Nation and The Standard for an affordable 50 Kenyan shillings, or 57 cents. The cover story for the Aug. 1 edition is titled "Building Bridges -- Long-lasting relations cemented as more Africans and Chinese study and work in both places." In its pages, readers are unlikely to find any mention of illegal mining, land-grabs or how an influx of cheap goods from China is devastating local industry.

     China believes that its image in Africa is suffering due to unfair coverage by Western media. It is worth noting, however, that China ranks 175th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index of 2014, alongside nations such as North Korea, Syria and Turkmenistan, and does not have a good track record for fair and balanced reporting.

     With cover prices significantly lower than the International New York Times or the Financial Times, China Daily believes that over time, it might emerge as the main supplier of English news in Africa. State-run news agency Xinhua has also started providing news feeds to a Kenyan mobile phone operator, so that users there can receive free English news, with a Chinese flavor.

     The most systematic soft-power push by China may be the Confucius Institutes. There are 440 of these state-sponsored Chinese-language cultural education centers in 120 countries and regions. They are often based on university campuses, offering Chinese-language classes to students who are interested.

     But 10 years since their inception, these institutes have come under fire in the U.S., with some professors saying that their presence on American campuses compromises the universities' academic integrity and independence. The American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, issued a statement urging the 90 host universities in the country not to extend their contracts with the institutes unless China agrees to more transparency and allows the host university to control what textbooks are used and what is taught. Marshall Sahlins, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago, says a litmus test for gauging Beijing's influence would be this: Can the institutes host lectures or conferences on such controversial issues as Tibetan independence or the political status of Taiwan?

     Xinhua issued a scathing reply: "The great Chinese sage Confucius might have pardoned the AAUP for their criticism of Confucius Institutes might come either from fear of other cultures or ignorance -- or both." The institutes, the government mouthpiece said, are a "unique contribution from this populous country to world peace." Xinhua did not address the litmus test.