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Meet the pop star who is key to China’s superpower ambitions

Before Beijing can achieve its ambitions to be a superpower it will need to become a respected soft power. That's where Jia Ruhan comes in.
 Jia Ruhan sang as a guest singer in famous pianist Robert Wells's concert "rockabilly-medley" in November 2012. Handout
Jia Ruhan sang as a guest singer in famous pianist Robert Wells's concert "rockabilly-medley" in November 2012. Handout

SHANGHAI // Pop stars, it is probably fair to assume, are not normally at work by 9am. But then, Jia Ruhan is no ordinary pop star.

She is employed by the Chinese government and her mission is this: to become the communist country’s first globally recognised recording artist.

Her project is mentioned in the government’s current five-year plan and the hope is that by 2016 she will be taking Grammys alongside the likes of Beyonce and Katy Perry.

To that end she has been provided with her own personal studio in Shanghai, an office and support staff, and access to the state’s vast network of media outlets and concert venues to promote her work.

“This is about soft power,” says Bill Zhang, Ms Jia’s manager and vice president of the state-owned record label Synergy.

“Generating more soft power is an essential step in our country’s development. A country needs soft power in order to be a superpower.”

And a superpower is what China ultimately wants to be.

Unfortunately, it is several steps off, and cultural clout is one of the areas where it is the weakest.

It has never made the top 10 of Monocle magazine’s well respected Soft Power survey, and an opinion poll conducted for the BBC last year showed China’s positive international perception dropped to the same level as 2005 – the year before it began sponsoring Chinese language institutes overseas and handing out massive amounts of foreign aid.

Joseph S Nye, the Harvard professor who defined soft power as “the ability to co-opt rather than coerce”, says China’s rapid economic and military rise over the past two decades has scared other nations and if Beijing it does not do something to round out its hard image, it will struggle to win them to its cause .

China’s growth has “ frightened its neighbours into looking for allies … But if a country can also increase its soft power of attraction, its neighbours feel less need to balance its power,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year.

“For example, Canada and Mexico do not seek alliances with China to balance US power the way Asian countries seek a US presence to balance China,” he added.

Which is where the 31-year-old Ms Jia comes in.

Mild-mannered, pretty and possessed of crystal-clear soprano voice, the hope is that she will be able to convey the more human side of Chinese life.

Her new album is about everything from Chinese history to its current environmental problems, she says, and unlike her first album, which was mainly in English, this one will be in Chinese.

“I am Chinese, so I should make Chinese music: that way I can really be an international Chinese musician,” she tells The National.

Not that Ms Jia was always so interested in her own culture. Growing up, she learnt the piano and ballet, and at university she studied western opera.

Later Ms Jia travelled to the UK to play the Queen Mother of Heaven in Monkey: Journey to the West, an opera co-produced by the British musician Damon Albarn, and to the US to sing a track on Christopher Tin’s album Calling All Dawns, which went on to win the award for Best Classical Crossover at the 2011 Grammys.

When she first heard of the idea for her new album, which aims to combine traditional Chinese songs with western rock-pop style, she says, she wanted to run for the hills.

“I am a classically trained soprano,” she says, laughing. “I have spent my whole life making my voice pure and clean. Now I have to learn to sing with a growl or a county twang.”

Perhaps fittingly, she has also been instructed to soften her powerful operatic voice.

To achieve this, she spends her days rehearsing and listening to popular western artists such as Taylor Swift, Christina Aguilera and Ke$ha – something she finds very odd because her music professor mother did not allow her to listen to their predecessors when she was growing up.

“My parents never really approved of performing. They wanted me to go on to teach,” she says.

All of which begs the question why, out of a nation of millions of avid singers, Ms Jia, who is not widely known in the country, was chosen as the one and only recipient of this government support.

Mr Zhang’s explanation is that in reality very few people here have the right kind of image and skills.

Speaking English was important, he says, as was a proven ability to sing and perform.

Most important though was the fact she had studied western music – albeit classical – and that she had worked with foreign musicians.

Ms Jia, however, has a slightly simpler explanation: “They like me. I am traditional, I am cultured, I am ‘sunshine’,” she says.

All of which is true.

But will she appeal to a western audience the way she does to Chinese bureaucrats? And will it make any difference if she does?

Li Kaisheng, an expert in international relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, is cautious.

“Of course, having a superstar would help,” he says, but “true soft power comes from within”.

“The most important thing is to deal with the issues of corruption, pollution and moral scandal. If China keeps generating negative news at home, it can’t have a good image internationally.”

Professor Nye would agree. The private sector and civil society are much better at generating good will than government – Hollywood and Apple being two excellent examples.

As he wrote last year: “The best propaganda is no propaganda.”

If that is true, Ms Jia’s chances at global stardom are not good.

When The National turns up at her offices, Xu Lin, the director of Shanghai’s powerful propaganda department, is just leaving.

Ms Jia says she does not know who he is and that no government official has ever told her there are things she cannot say.

“I love freedom. I love to break the rules,” she says. “They just come here to tell me they love my music.”

Now she just hopes others will too.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: April 20, 2014 04:00 AM

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