The Cultural Diplomacy Festival

The cultural diplomacy film festival is nothing new. Most countries sponsor film festivals or screenings that showcase their culture abroad as part of a concerted cultural diplomacy effort. France and Germany are leaders in this respect, and they, as well as other countries (Japan, Turkey, and Israel) realize this task through the institutional backing of their cultural ministries, as well as via designated non-governmental cultural organizations, such as the Goethe Institute, and the Instituto Cervantes.

Back in 2010, in reference to special screening events organized to mark Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States and at the Chinese mission to the United Nations in New York, I wrote that “China appears to organize one-off cultural diplomacy events to coincide with diplomatic initiatives but does not sponsor festivals that may be taking place on regular basis.”5 Even in 2013, when I had the opportunity to give a public lecture on these matters in London, I did not consider the sponsored festival important to China’s breakthrough to the West.6 However, my thinking has evolved, not least because I have observed several instances that made me realize there is a wider Chinese cultural diplomacy effort than I previously knew about.

Among the many recent instances that altered my thinking, first and foremost was when I picked up the March 2014 issue of the English- language magazine Where? Paris Monthly Guide, available at the British Embassy in France and also at various Parisian hotels. The cover announced the visit of “the famous” Shanghai Ballet Company, which I had also seen advertised on posters in the metro. Because I had never heard of this famous ballet before, I thought it was a shortcoming of my education. On opening the magazine, I actually found very little coverage on this visit. It was briefly discussed on page 19 alongside three other events. I also learned that these shows were taking place at the Palais des Sports de Paris, a remote peripheral venue—in other words, not exactly in the heart of cultural Paris. On one hand, the event made it to the cover of the monthly Parisian magazine and was pushed at tourists. On the other, it was not quite an event that would make it to the city’s main cultural roster. In general, this is representative of the ambiguous situation of sponsored Chinese culture presence in the West—it appears to merit prominence and attention, but in practice, the reader proceeds with caution.

Turning to film festivals specifically, the most obvious but also the least successful type of sponsored event is the usually clumsy and inept efforts of the People’s Republic diplomats to use cinema to promote China. One example is the two-day long Chinese film festival, traditionally organized by the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva on the occasion of the UN Chinese Language Day in April. By coincidence, I happened to be visiting the UN Headquarters in Geneva during the festival in April of 2012. My host, an Indian national and an UN veteran public servant, told me that when the festival was first launched years ago, it appeared attractive. However, due to the selection of films, all interest had faded away. The films that screened in 2012 included Confucius with Chow Yun Fat, Close to the Sun, and Love, Come Back.7 Indeed, it seemed that few UN employees were flocking to the screenings; the long marble corridors were completely empty and no one rushed to see the films. Even the concurrent lecture on Chinese medicine seemed to draw more attention.

While the above festival and other similar events are directly organized by Chinese diplomats in the West, a host of events are sponsored by partnerships of Chinese organizations and Western cultural institutions, precisely along the lines, I described in the previous section. One such event is the Festival du Cinema Chinois de Paris (Chinese Film Festival in Paris,, established in 2004. The festival’s website does not list sponsors but rather provides “friendly links” to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China (SAPPRFT, cn), the China Film Archive (, and the Beijing International Film Festival ( The French counterparts are respectively the City Hall of Paris, the French Ministry of Culture and Communications, and the Cannes Film Festival.

This festival in Paris takes place in late October and features a combination of recent films, archival finds, shorts, animation, and workshops. As with many similar events, even if formally run by a “foundation,” it seems to be a one-person project in practice—in this case, of British Chinese artist Deanna Gao.8 Based in the prestigious and costly 16th arrondissement, Ms. Gao has established very good local connections in Ile-de-France and has managed to involve competent and reputable French such as Juliette Binoche and Serge Bromberg of Lobster films. She has also capitalized on links within the diaspora as well as with archives. In 2013, the highlight of the program was the panorama of early documentaries, from the 1930s to 1940s, of director Sun Mingjing (1911-1992).9 Quite appropriately, the festival aims to reach out to non-Chinese audiences. Therefore, the venues it uses (La Pagode, Max Linder, and Le Lincoln) are located nowhere near the concentrations of Chinese-speaking population in Paris in the 13th arrondissement and Belleville, but rather in upscale neighborhoods mainly populated by white and upper middle-class French—the so-called bo-bos or bourgeois-bohemians. The programming is predictably neutral, and includes archival selections, children’s fare, and cine-concerts, as well as recent mainstream releases. These have included American Dreams in China and Guns and Roses, an anti-Japanese guerilla-comedy-thriller- cum-martial arts film. The latter was screened in the presence of the festival’s “ambassador,” Chinese actress Tao Hong, who had just arrived from a similar cinematic-diplomatic mission in Brazil. Predictably, the guests of the festival include officials from China and France whose names no one beyond film administration circles would ever know, and everything else, including partners, media coverage, and so forth, is more or less in line with my aforementioned general descriptions of the elements composing the sponsored festivals.

It is noteworthy, however, that in 2011 a new Festival du Cinema Chinois en France ( was launched in Paris, sponsored by SAPPRFT and the Chinese Cultural Centre, with French organizations such as CNC (Centre National du Cinema) and Pathe.10 This festival takes place in even more mainstream cinemas, opening at the Gaumont-Marignan on the Champs Elysees. It is attended by even higher profile stars closely linked to fashion and mainstream media, such as Gong Li, and Catherine Deneuve. It then travels to six other cities across France, from Strasbourg to Biarritz. The French co-chair for the 2014 edition is Pathe’s Jerome Seydoux, currently number 39 on France’s rich list.11 The program consists mainly of big budget films, apparently chosen by People’s Republic of China (PRC) representatives. Media and corporate partners include CCTV, Xinhua, People’s Daily, Air China, Huawei, and Bank of China, among others. Apparently, the older festival run by Deanna Gao, while still receiving sponsorship, is now regarded as insufficiently high-profile to manifest China’s newfound soft power, so both the Chinese and French authorities have decided to sponsor only one national film showcase. The situation in France is that normally SAPPRFT attempts to maximize the spread of China’s soft power by only sponsoring one festival per country, as confirmed by our Paris- based colleague Flora Lichaa.12 The Mairie de Paris also only sponsors one Chinese film festival, per their policy to sponsor one festival per country.

Whereas these two Paris-based festivals are a clear fit for the cultural diplomacy festival, it is important to note that there are hybrid variations, where more veiled forms of sponsorship can be observed. For example, all events assisted by the local Confucius Institute could be regarded as indirectly sponsored by the Chinese authorities (along the lines of sponsorship by the British Council or Goethe Institute). Once one analyzes festivals more closely, more and more instances of such indirect sponsorship can be discovered. There are also numerous corporations with strong Chinese interests, which engage in film festival sponsorship. While on the surface these appear as private and corporate sponsorships, in fact it is another veiled form of support given with the government’s blessing.

Yet another context in which this kind of sponsorship comes through is the number of variations on Western-programmed Chinese-language cinema showcases that do not necessarily focus on the PRC, but rather feature a combination of films from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and sometimes other territories. An example is the Toronto International Film Festival’s A Century of Chinese Cinema showcase, which also formed the basis for related events like those held at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2013, or at the British Film Institute in London in 2014. In all such cases, there is indirect official Chinese sponsorship via corporations. But, when films from the PRC are scheduled alongside films from Taiwan in contexts that are out of line with the PRC’s official position, it becomes clear that the PRC authorities are willing to turn a blind eye when pragmatism suggests it.

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