The Story

China is on a mission to upgrade its international reputation. The government doesn’t want people to see the country as just the world’s factory for socks and toys and cell phones. It wants people around the globe to think China is cool. And it’s tried a bunch of different things to do that, including building a global pop star. But can China change its image through the power of pop music?

The Facts

Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song.
Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music.
Additional music by Wolf Colony, Kent Rockefeller, Bobby Lord, and Legs.
David Herman and Mark Wilkening mixed this episode.

Want more Chinese pop? We made a Spotify playlist of some of our favorites.

Show transcript

LISA CHOW: From Gimlet Media, I’m Lisa Chow. And this is StartUp. For the last decade, China has been on a mission—to make the world believe that it’s cool. China doesn’t want people to see the country as just the world’s factory for socks and toys and cell phones. It wants respect and admiration. But how do you do that? How do you shift a country’s global reputation? China’s approached it in a bunch of ways. It’s invested in the film industry, and it’s gunning to host the World Cup. And there’s another thing.
Today on StartUp: building a global pop star. It’s a way to gain more soft power in the world. That’s influence based on culture and values, not just military and economic strength. Emanuele Berry has this story about China’s attempt to do something that very few countries have pulled off. A quick warning, there’s some swearing in this episode.


EMANUELE BERRY: There this guy, George Goa, who’s seen China’s image problem play out in his own life.

GEORGE GAO: Growing up as a Chinese immigrant in the U.S., it’s always been my experience that I wasn’t cool. It’s sort of like the opposite of the storyline in the movie “Love Actually,” Where the British man goes to the U.S and he goes to a bar and all he has to do is speak and girls flock to him because he’s British. So my experience is basically the opposite of that.

EMANUELE: But last year, George went to China to study for his master’s degree. And all the sudden, things were different for him.

GEORGE: The first day I went to graduate school in Nanjing and I sat down at the cafeteria table and I started talking with a pretty girl and we spoke in Chinese and she was not very interested in what I had to say and then when I told her I was from the U.S. something completely clicked and I was like wow, this works. I can just say I’m from the U.S. and it opens doors.

EMANUELE: So that’s soft power right there.

GEORGE: Exactly that’s soft power.

EMANUELE: Soft power, remember, this idea that a country’s attractiveness based on its culture and values can give it influence. George’s nationality changed, and when it did, so did his cool factor. And it made him wonder, why is China so uncool? So he wrote an essay with exactly that title. George has worked as a journalist, and he’s studying U.S.-China trade relations at Johns Hopkins. And he told me about all the different efforts China has made to try to build cultural influence. And the Chinese government, they’ve tried a lot of things.

GEORGE: They would peddle these very stilted rap songs in English about how great China is.

MUSIC – “RAP OF CHINA”

EMANUELE: They built over 500 Confucius Institutes around the world—these Chinese cultural centers. And they’ve organized language exchange programs.

GEORGE: They also have a lot of universities that they’re building abroad, for example in Malaysia and in Laos.

EMANUELE: They’ve poured money into the film industry. And into the news media.

GEORGE: To expand their news outlets and their English language news shows.

EMANUELE: But there’s one especially ambitious project the government supported. Back in 2011, the government partnered with an entertainment company to launch a project called Earth’s Music. And the idea was that they’d create a pop star who represented China and its worldview on a global stage. This was no easy feat for China. It was up against its own history. Back in 1949, when the communists took power, the Chinese government controlled and suppressed Chinese popular music. So the industry is decades behind the west. The first thing the project set out to do was hand pick a pop star.

GEORGE: And they found someone name Ruhan Jia. So they they signed Ruhan onto their label to promote China’s image abroad.

EMANUELE: So what happened to her?

GEORGE: I haven’t really heard from her since 2014. She sort of fell off the radar.

EMANUELE: So I went looking for Ruhan Jia. And it took a couple days, but I found her.

RUHAN JIA: Hello

EMANUELE: Hello

RUHAN: (laughter)

EMANUELE: In articles, Ruhan is described as being like sunshine. And I wondered, what does that mean?  And as soon as I talked to her on the phone it was like ohhh, Sunshine. Warm and welcoming. She says her disposition is part of why the leaders of Earth’s Music thought she would be a good representative. They told her.

RUHAN: Your voice, your music, your style match with Earth Music. Can you sign contract with us?

EMANUELE: As a cultural ambassador, Ruhan had a lot to offer. She was a musical prodigy. Piano at four, opera lessons by seven. She trained at one of the top opera schools in the country. This is from one of her performances in Shanghai.

MUSIC – RUHAN JIA SINGING “COSI FAN TUTTE”

EMANUELE: And she went on to do some pretty impressive things. She got a part in a rock opera written and produced by Damon Albarn, of Gorillaz. She was asked to sing the BBC theme song for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And in 2011, she worked on a classical crossover album that ended up winning two Grammys. So Ruhan had a bunch of success in the realm of classical music, but China was looking to build a pop star. Growing up, Ruhan had obviously heard pop songs.

MUSIC – “LOVE” BY LITTLE TIGERS

EMANUELE: She liked a group called Little Tigers. They were a boy band from Taiwan.

RUHAN: Three handsome boys, they play, “dun dun dun dun.”

EMANUELE: But her interactions with pop were pretty limited, because not everyone in her house was a fan.

RUHAN: But my mom said that is not good music. Not good quality. They don’t want me to listen to that.

EMANUELE: So she wasn’t exposed to a lot of pop music, but there were other things that made her seem like the right fit for Earth’s Music. She’d worked in the West, and she spoke English well. All they had to do was figure out how to morph her classically trained voice into something more casual, and with a global appeal. So Ruhan started studying, by listening to music that was forbidden when she was a child.

RUHAN: Ke$ha, Guns and Roses, and Marilyn Manson. I like him very much.

MUSIC – “THIS IS THE NEW SHIT” BY MARILYN MANSON

EMANUELE: What was one of your favorite songs in particular?

RUHAN: “This Is New Shit.” (laughter)

EMANUELE: Yep, this is it. Marilyn Manson’s “This Is The New Shit.” It’s actually a critique about the sameness of pop music.

RUHAN: I like his songs a lot.

EMANUELE: So yeah, some interesting choices. Especially when you consider the image the project wanted Ruhan to have. The team working with the Chinese government ended up settling on something like a grown up Disney princess—both wholesome and regal. A Swedish production team was tasked with making the album. The songs were a mix of Chinese and English, there were some Celine Dion-like ballads, and some more poppy songs that required Ruhan to step further away from her Operatic roots.

RUHAN: The one song dancing on the rainbow. This song’s very beautiful melody but you need to sing very light like talk. Like: “you got me smiling forgetting all my sorrow.”

MUSIC – “DANCING ON A RAINBOW” BY RUHAN JIA

EMANUELE: Ruhan was used to singing classical music, which takes a lot of energy and focus. But singing pop music was like taking a break.

RUHAN: Recording all that, I feel I didn’t lose any energy, I feel not tired. So I said, “Oh being a pop star is so easy.”

EMANUELE: The album came out in the winter of 2011. It was not only supposed to launch Ruhan’s global pop star career, but also bring China’s dream of cultural cool to life. One of Ruhan’s first big stops on her global debut was New York.  Her album was even advertised on billboards in Times Square.  She performed at a venue in Brooklyn, and, weirdly, it was really more of a press conference. It kicked off with speeches from Chinese and American music executives. And then Ruhan came out, looking perfectly elegant, wearing a floor-length red dress. And standing on a tiny stage, she sang a handful of song for a small crowd—only about two dozen people and reporters. Reading about the event, it doesn’t feel like the debut of a global popstar. And it wasn’t. That year Ruhan did a bunch of small shows around the world. But in the end, the album didn’t make much noise in the western market. Or in China—sales there were just okay. Three years after Ruhan started with Earth’s Music, she left.

EMANUELE: Do you think it was worth it ?

RUHAN  I think it’s an experience in our live, you need to have lots of experience but if now, I will say completely, no.

EMANUELE: Looking back, Ruhan thinks the entire vision was flawed.

RUHAN: This plan is too big, you cannot let one album to win global market. It’s not going to happen.

EMANUELE: Declaring Ruhan a global pop star didn’t make her one. Just like saying you’re cool does not make you cool. These days Ruhan’s goals are much simpler.

EMANUELE: So as a kid, at first you wanted to be a dancer and then a musical star. Then the government has this goal to make you like a global star. What do you want to be now?

RUHAN: I want to be a hermit. Truly, exactly, I really want to be a hermit.

After Ruhan left the Earth’s Music project, she went through some big life changes. She made another album on her own, but after that, she realized she was burnt out and needed a break. She got really into Buddhism and silent meditation. Our two-hour phone call was the longest conversation she’d had in six months. So the state-backed pop star who was supposed to help China become cool, for now she wants to be a hermit. But China’s dreams aren’t dead yet.

MUSIC – “HEART” BY TFBOYS

EMANUELE: Meet the boy band taking China by storm, after the break.

<<BREAK>>

EMANUELE: Ruhan didn’t make a big pop music splash in China, but young Chinese people were listening to pop music. Some of it was Chinese, but a lot of it was coming from the U.S., Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan. Some of the most popular stars are from South Korea. And some members of the Chinese government have made it clear that they aren’t happy about that. There have been these meetings where officials ask why China has struggled to produce popular culture, while South Korea has excelled. K-pop groups have even made headway in the West. Just last year the Korean Boy Band BTS, famous for their song “Fire,” beat out Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez for a Billboard music award.

MUSIC – “FIRE” BY BTS

EMANUELE: So the K-pop explosion gave China a blueprint for how it could create its own stars. The government had tried, and failed with Ruhan, but the private sector saw an opportunity. Okay, the government wants cultural products. We know there’s a market for pop stars. Let’s try and build Chinese idols.

AMY HE: I think a lot of the groups that China is debuting themselves, a lot of the boy bands and stuff, all of them are really modeled after K-pop groups.

EMANUELE: This is Amy He. She’s a former reporter for “The China Daily.” And she knows a lot about K-pop because she used to run a K-pop news magazine.

AMY: I mean not everything is a copy of what’s going on in Korea, but it draws so much influence from Korean entertainment as a whole.”

EMANUELE: She said in South Korea there’s a specific method used to build pop acts. Companies recruit artists or they have  auditions—thousands of people show up—and they choose a small number to become trainees.  And these trainees are put through a star building bootcamp that can last years.

AMY: They learn how to sing, learn how to dance. It could be a long process. It could be really short or really long depending on how talented or charismatic that person is. And then maybe they eventually, they get to debut. Sometimes as a solo artist, sometimes as part of a bigger group.

EMANUELE: The K-pop acts produced by this method are part of the Korean Wave, the spread of Korean culture.  China is trying to do the same thing, create its own Chinese idols. And one of the most successful is TFBOYS.

MUSIC – “HEART” BY TFBOYS

EMANUELE: I lived in China in 2015, and images of TFBOYS were everywhere. Three boys with identical bowl cuts, gap-toothed smiles, matching suits, and bowties. They were on billboards advertising Snickers and soda. I went to a film, and they made a cameo in matching sweaters. On TV they performed silly stunts on countless variety shows. TFboys, whose full name is The Fighting Boys, were built by a private company. They used a method similar to the one used to create boy bands in Korea and Japan. The company started training the boys in 2010 when they were 10/11 years old. But the thing that really helped launched the group’s career was posting videos of the group as they were training, still working on their moves, not yet perfect. There are videos of the three boys singing covers of songs, rehearsing, and dancing. The company started reality shows with the group at the center. Videos of the boys hanging out, joking around, talking.

SOUND FROM VIDEO RECORDING OF TFBOYS EATING

EMANUELE: In this video the three of them are sitting around stuffing their faces with food, stir fried eggplant, soup and dumplings. Drinking out of silly straws. The videos are unpolished, but there’s a charm to them, it makes TFboys feel approachable, like you know them. Fans from teen girls to 40-year-old moms loved watching these videos. They became invested in these boys, and they felt like they were watching them grow up. The group’s fame continued to grow. They started making more appearances on TV, singing their hit songs. The music they make is simple, but catchy—the type of pop songs that you cannot help singing along to. And the lyrics are positive, aspirational. No teenage angst or hyper-sexualized songs.

MUSIC – “MANUAL OF YOUTH” BY TFBOYS

EMANUELE: Their hit, “Manual of Youth,” is a guide for kids on how to be happy. Lyrics include: “Polish my shoes, dress up,” “hold my head up high with each step I take.” One of their latest songs, “AMIGO,” which uses Spanish, English and Chinese, is about standing by your friends till the end.

MUSIC – “AMIGO” BY TFBOYS

MIN SUN YE: I have yet to actually hear a song by them that I haven’t liked. I feel like they are so famous now their fans would accept anything.

EMANUELE: This is Min Sun Ye. She’s a TFboys superfan. She has a YouTube channel where she watches videos of her favorite Chinese and Korean music acts and records her reaction in real time. In this clip she’s about to watch the TFBOYS music video for their song “Shi Ni,” which means “It’s You.”

MIN SUN YE (FROM VIDEO): Oh God, the music video finally happened…like the TF boys hat. I just got it and I cannot take it off.

EMANUELE: She tilts her head down to show viewers a white baseball cap with the TFBOYS logo bedazzled on it. She’s hyped about this video, shaking with anticipation.

MIN SUN YE (FROM VIDEO): I’m not ready, I’m not ready, I’m not ready to die.

EMANUELE: She presses play, the video of the group appears in the lower left corner of the frame. They’re older now, about to go to college. The matching suits are gone. They are dressed hipper, their dance routines are more complex, but the bowl cuts are still there. Min Sun Ye’s smile is huge, and she’s sort of bouncing and singing along. And then her favorite TFboy appears on screen. He’s wearing suspenders and she’s overwhelmed.

MIN SUN YE (FROM VIDEO): Who put Wang Jun Kai in suspenders? Because I got to shake their hand, then smack them. Because you know it’s my weakness, you know it’s my weakness, that I cannot handle it, and then you do it anyway.

EMANUELE: What attracted her to TFBOYS was their positive messaging and their live performances.

MIN SUN YE: They are the most popular thing in China right now. They are what pretty much every single teenage girl is going nuts over.

EMANUELE: And they are going nuts. TFBOYS fandom is intense. For one of the members’ birthdays last year, fans and the band’s music label raised millions in U.S. dollars to purchase advertisements around the globe, including eleven billboards in Times Square. And what’s so unique about the TFBOYS fandom is not just that they pull big stunts, it’s also that their fans include people outside of mainland China. On a visit to Taiwan, they were swarmed by screaming girls. On YouTube, you can find translations of their songs in Vietnamese and Thai. And Min Sun Ye is a lot more than just a fan. She’s proof that China’s campaign to build cultural influence around the world may be working. Because Min Sun Ye isn’t Chinese, and that’s not her real name. Her name is Savannah. She’s a 21-year-old college student who lives in New Jersey. She’s white and Filipino. And she is basically the Chinese government’s dream of how a global pop star’s influence could change China’s reputation. Because of TFBOYS, Savannah is determined to become fluent in Mandarin.  She’s even studying it in school.

SYM: I was always like, I want to go to China. But now it’s like I need to go to China, something that really needs to happen.

EMANUELE: She says she loves the culture, music and language. She thinks China is pretty cool. So TFBOYS have the potential to succeed where Ruhan struggled for a couple reasons. They were created by a private company, that may have understood the market better than the government. They catered to the Chinese fan base, both in their image and messaging and their use of social media. This helped the group become massive in China and enabled them to reach other markets.  Popularity outside of China is sort of unprecedented for a Mainland Chinese Pop act. That cool that China craves, maybe it’s just starting now with TFBOYS. But Amy He, our K-pop expert  says there are things that could limit TFBOYS’ reach.

AMY: I think people who are already skeptical about K-pop will be ultra-skeptical of the TFBOYS, because this is like a rip off of a rip off, to put in bluntest terms. Because so much of K-pop musical styles and performance styles are derivative of what we saw in American pop years ago. And then TF boys are basing what they learn from Kpop, so it’s like two layers removed from what audiences may already know and consume in American pop culture.

EMANUELE: And critics also say some of their songs feel like propaganda. As the group’s popularity has grown, they’ve appeared in videos for the Communist Youth Organization, singing a song called “We Are the Heirs of Communism.” They’re also spokespeople for official government projects like the 2020 mission to Mars. This might not be a problem for Chinese audiences, but it’s a harder selling point to the west. But perhaps the biggest barrier to the group’s global popularity is the Chinese government itself. The government still shapes all creative fields. It approves lyrics, decides what airs on TV, what’s accessible online and what can and cannot be published. China wants to create cultural products that resonate with a global audience, but at the same time spread the state’s values. I asked Amy He if that’s even possible.

AMY: My personal take is that it can’t be done, but I think China also doesn’t have the best track record of trying to reconcile those things. To uphold a positive image of China while at the same time producing art that feels true to modern society and modern living.

EMANUELE: In other words, the government may be standing in the way of gaining the cool that it wants. Most people I talked with for this story say China’s reputation in the world isn’t cool. But they also believe that there are things happening in China that are cool. They talked about the growing Sichuan rap scene, Beijing underground rock bands, and hot fashion brands where made-in-China is the selling point. And maybe these are some of the cultural products that could actually find an international audience, increase China’s influence in the world, and give it more soft power. But these pockets of cooL are also the last place the Chinese government would look.


LISA CHOW Emanuele Berry is a reporter for StartUp. Coming up on StartUp: an unusual story for us, about a listener who had an idea.

SKYLER GRONHOLZ: It was something like, “Start recording my life as if I have 50,000 listeners every week. And start living my life as if I had 50,000 people that cared.”

LISA: He wasn’t trying to start a business, he was trying to restart his life. How did recording help? That’s next week on StartUp.
StartUp is hosted by me, Lisa Chow. Our show is produced by Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone, Simone Polanen, Emanuele Berry, and Amy Standen. Our senior producer is Molly Messick. We are edited by Annie-Rose Strasser. Production assistance and fact checking by Max Gibson. Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music. For full music credits, visit our website. David Herman and Mark Wilkening mixed the episode. Special thanks to Karoline Kan, Yuhan Xu, Wang Tianhai, Michael Pettis, Jerome Mahz-ay, Salima Koroma, Charles Liu, and Scarlett Li. To subscribe to StartUp, go to Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you like to use. Or check out the Gimlet Media website: GimletMedia.com. You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

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