China Cultural Superpower

Today China is the leading economy in terms of exports, trade, and volume of foreign direct investment, but also aims to be a leader in cultural influence as well.


In addition to the macroeconomic objectives, Beijing wants a stable presence in UNESCO through investments devoted to the development of infrastructures and events to meet the cultural needs of an increasingly wealthy population, as well as to attract tourists, students, and foreign entrepreneurs, strengthening its soft power. Xi Jinping himself, president of the People's Republic and secretary of the Communist Party of China, often mentions in his speeches the value of the country in history and archeology.


In the second half of July 2021, the city of Fuzhou, Fujian province, hosted the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee, chaired by Tian Xuejun, Deputy Minister of Education and Chair of the People's Republic of China Commission for UNESCO. During this event several new sites have been included in the World Heritage list, such as the ancient port city of Quanzhou, located in Fujian. The inclusion of Quanzhou, a maritime commercial center between the 10th and 14th centuries, during the Song and Yuan dynasties, also visited by Marco Polo during his trip, highlights the importance of cultural and economic intertwining.


Quanzhou joins the list of Chinese material assets registered in the World Heritage: 56 sites (38 cultural sites, 14 natural, and 4 mixed) and 42 intangible heritages, making a total of 98 tangible and intangible assets recognized by UNESCO. China ranks first among all nations in terms of world heritage sites. Actually, Italy does have a greater number of tangible assets (58), however, it has fewer intangible assets (14).


Among the Chinese World Heritage sites there are not only archaeological sites and remains of ancient imperial cities, but also places that have had great economic importance: in addition to the port city in Fujian, the list also includes the Imperial Grand Canal, which allowed the connection between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, and the segment of the Silk Road (over 5,000km) called Tianshan Corridor. The Tianshan Corridor, beginning in Chang'an, the ancient capital of the Han and Tang dynasties, allowed to reach the Central Asia regions, hence the markets of Europe.


The efforts that China devotes to the UNESCO agency are joined by many other initiatives showing the consideration that Beijing places in promoting its millennial history, demonstrated by the increasing public and private investments, the realization of cultural projects, and the construction of new museums. These developments are promoted by specific government guidelines, such as the transformation of the museum system to reach international standards by 2035, through the creation of 15 first-class centers and 20 centers for the protection of intangible heritage.


According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, in China there are over 3,200 public libraries, 44,000 cultural centers (including theaters, concert halls, and other structures), and 10,560 institutes for the preservation and protection of archaeological finds, which employ over 2.3 million people.


The National Bureau of Statistics records 5,466 museums at the end of 2020, with 110,000 employees. In the period between 2016 and 2020, almost 1,600 new museums have been opened, generating 34 billion yuan in revenues, with 1.12 billion admissions, in 2019, the year before the pandemic.


The construction of cultural centers and art galleries, especially in the main metropolises, has involved internationally renowned architects and it is part of real estate development projects. Such projects have begun at the end of the 2000s, pairing up with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the Shanghai Expo of 2010, which hosted over 73 million visitors. In fact, it is not uncommon to come across, especially in Shanghai, old factories and industrial areas that have been completely redeveloped and converted into spaces dedicated to art, or historic buildings that have been restored and marked by specific commemorative plaques.


The Minister for Culture and Tourism has released the five-year plan for the sector, defining the main objectives for the period 2021-2025. Among these, guaranteeing greater protection to sites that are part of China's cultural heritage and developing the tourism sector in a modern and sustainable way, also through the employment of new technologies and artificial intelligence. At the international level, promote greater development of cultural cooperation, especially with countries along the new Silk Road.


2022 will be the “year of tourism and culture” between Italy and China. According to data from the Statistics Center, in the last pre-pandemic year, 2019, the domestic tourism market recorded 6 billion trips and over 5.7 trillion yuan in turnover. In 2019 there were 145 million international arrivals in China, over 31 million foreign tourists and over 900 billion yuan revenues.


A ranking published in 2020 shows Beijing as the main destination for domestic tourism, followed by Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Xi'an, while a recent survey confirmed the popularity of cultural visits and high rate of appreciation from tourists: 83.6% appreciate visits to museums and over 73.2% include these in their travel itineraries. A particular niche is represented by the so-called “red tourism”, aimed at discovering and understanding the origins and the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party. At the time of writing, China has over 33,000 sites and artifacts from the revolutionary period, with over 800 million tourists every year.


Furthermore, domestic tourism has been fundamental for the post-Covid economic recovery. The government's goal is to build a sector capable of generating 10% of China’s GDP in the coming years.


At the international level, Beijing aims to develop its diplomacy on cultural aspects, further than focusing solely on its economic power. In recent years, in order to increase the circulation of the Chinese language abroad, Beijing has promoted the development of the Confucius Institutes network, which often constitute a bridge for foreign students interested in understanding Chinese language and society. Then, there are cultural projects focused on the new Silk Road, with new investments and greater interchange. The completion of numerous projects in emerging regions, such as a museum in Dakar, Senegal, where China has allocated 34 million dollars, are symbols of this strategy of cultural and economic interaction.


A substantial amount of funds is also dedicated to media, such as books, newspapers, television, and cinema, and through the establishment of artistic foundations, for example the China National Arts Fund and the National Center for the Performing Arts.


Few nations have similar capabilities and resources to devote to cultural promotion. In 2020, the revenues of the companies operating in the sector generated a turnover of 9,850 billion yuan (about 1,530 billion dollars), a substantial increase compared to the 8,660 billion yuan of the previous year.


In the new Five-year plan Beijing has defined the country's development strategy for the next few years, aimed at creating a prosperous, harmonious, and culturally advanced socialist nation.


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