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Gifts present a look at today's China

Updated: 2014-09-05 10:07
By Zhao Shengnan (China Daily Africa)

 Gifts present a look at today's China

Accompanying President Xi Jinping on his visit to Tanzania in March 2013, first lady Peng Liyuan brought a variety of gifts to the Women and Development Foundation. They included sewing machines, schoolbags, pearls, Pechoin skincare products and the Shu embroidery of a giant panda. These Chinese brands set the Internet abuzz and experienced a surge in sales after the list was made public. Provided to China Daily

DVDs of popular movies, sewing machines among items presented on diplomatic trips

She takes 33 days to recover from a painful breakup with her boyfriend before becoming confident enough to embark on a new relationship in one story.

In another, a group of Chinese youths band together, and leave the comforts of their home and work, to explore the country and discover their aspirations.

The stories in the movie Love Is Not Blind and TV series Beijing Youth became hits at home for their accurate depictions of social issues including young adults' modern views of success and love.

The two tales also became part of a slew of recent movies and TV series that struck a chord with audiences nationwide.

In July, President Xi Jinping decided that these stories, with their heartwarming looks into ordinary Chinese lives, were good enough to be presented as gifts to his Latin American hosts.

That put the DVD sets on par with more iconic Chinese items like porcelain and silk that have comprised many of Beijing's gifts to foreign leaders and dignitaries.

The marked departure from tradition generated great media interest. Observers say the DVD sets reflected an accurate, changing China, even if they were surprising.

"My experience tells me it doesn't matter how many gifts you give or how expensive the gifts are ... it is important that the gifts represent China and highlight shared values," says Lu Peixin, former acting head of the protocol department of the Foreign Ministry.

"Gifts like contemporary movies and TV dramas are a good choice as they help the world better know today's China and the Chinese," says Lu, 77.

"But I could hardly have thought of them when I was working in the ministry," he says, laughing.

"China today has much more things to present than before," says Lu, who spent more than half of his diplomatic career, from 1960 to 1997, in the protocol department.

After serving several generations of leaders, including Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, Lu saw first hand the changing tastes in gifts.

Modern China's diplomatic gifts are not only a token of friendship, they can also provide a tantalizing insight into its characteristics, tradition and progress.

Practical beginnings

When Chairman Mao Zedong visited the Soviet Union in December 1949, just two months after the founding of the People's Republic of China, he presented gifts that were carefully planned but probably very rare in modern diplomatic history.

Besides tea, porcelain and other offerings, Mao personally assigned two railway carriages to be packed with vegetables and fruits including cabbage, scallions and kumquats, as gifts from the newborn country to its then "big brother".

"In the early days of New China, we were not quite clear about gift-giving. So we tended to give a large amount of practical gifts that could be used, like food and clothes, to benefit more people rather than just the top leadership," Lu says.

Being practical and useful to the greater public also mean different things in different times.

From a bicycle to former US president George H. W. Bush and a set of audio equipment to Pyongyang in the late 1980s, to the sewing machines and skincare products that first lady Peng Liyuan gave to Tanzanian women in 2013, China's gifts also portray how lives have changed in recent years.

Yao Yao, chief of a soft power studies center at China Foreign Affairs University, says: "It doesn't matter whether people in other countries like the songs or TV dramas produced by today's China, we should at least help them know about today's China.

"Most issues of contention arise from a lack of understanding," he says.

"It's not an easy task, but we have to continue presenting a true picture of the country."

Soft power

Ling Di, a brand director of Perfect World (Beijing) Film and Entertainment Co, which produced the shows included in the DVD gift sets, noticed that the Chinese government has been paying increasing attention to spreading China's soft power and development through its rich culture and modern values, rather than "show how wealthy we have become".

"Popular TV drama and movies are the most straightforward way to demonstrate China and how ordinary Chinese people are living," he says.

"Family intrigue, romance and friendship can strike a chord in any audience regardless of their nationality."

The DVD sets that Xi presented to Brazil and Argentina during his visit to Latin America in July included subtitles in Chinese, English, Spanish and Portuguese.

Zhang Jingying remember a different type of gift and how it has been updated.

The general manager of the Tianjin-based Flying Pigeon bicycle brand, behind the first bicycle after the founding of New China, referred to a Flying Pigeon bicycle that was given to former US president George H. W. Bush. An electric bike was subsequently presented to US President Barack Obama.

"From the bicycle to Bush in 1989 to the electric one to Obama in 2009, the technologies we used have changed beyond all recognition. Take the one to Obama for example - the lithium batteries we used could match standards in the US or Europe," Zhang says.

The role of bicycles has also changed a lot in China, she says.

In the 1980s, bicycles were the top means of transportation and Bush was keen to visit places in Beijing by bicycle when he worked in China before he became president.

"Now they are more about leisure, physical exercise and environmental protection," she says.

Lu says when Bush first saw the gift standing in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, he just jumped onto it and kept riding "so fast and happily that the Chinese security guards could barely follow him".

This bicycle was later exhibited in a prominent position in the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

On the occasion of Obama's 53rd birthday in August, The Washington Post listed all 274 gifts he received from 2009 to 2012. Among the 15 gifts given by China during the period, the Flying Pigeon electric bicycle ranked first.

Economic effects

Diplomacy has never been independent from economic interests and the promotion of products related to diplomatic gifts is a common occurrence.

When first lady Peng gave the Pechoin skincare products to African women, the 83-year-old brand and other domestic skincare products in China saw a surge in sales.

Ling, from Perfect World, says the company would "definitely" promote itself overseas as a producer of the national gifts.

"The government has set the platform for the development of China's cultural industry, and we have to perform well on that platform," he says.

A delegation from the company had traveled with Xi to Latin America to seek business opportunities, following a wave of Chinese TV drama exports.

Gifts present a look at today's China

Mao Doudou and Her Sweet Days, a 36-episode light comedy about a modern Chinese couple and their relationship with each other's families, struck a chord with African audiences last year. Other TV series have gone down well in Southeast Asia.

"Both the company and the directors were surprised by the gifts chosen for Latin America. Beijing's decision greatly encouraged us to match Western TV levels. As long as we produce something that is really high quality, it can be a national gift and honor for us," Ling says.

Zhang says Flying Pigeon has established more than 60 stores across China to sell bicycles of the same model as those given to foreign leaders.

Lu says this was not something new. When Beijing was considering giving a cashmere coat to visiting former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, many Chinese coat producers flocked to the protocol department he worked for, hoping the free sample they brought might be chosen.

The Foreign Ministry usually did not pay for the gifts. It would give a certificate to the producer instead, Lu says.

"The issuing of such certificates has become more strict due to the economic windfall it can lead to," Lu says.

Some gifts can also bolster development.

In July, Xi also presented former Cuban leader Fidel Castro with 5 kg of moringa seeds, an edible plant whose Chinese name literally means "spicy wood", and promised closer cooperation with Cuba to develop the plant.

In 2011, Xi, then vice-president, visited Cuba and Castro's house, which was shaded by moringa trees. Soon after the visit, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a program with Cuba regarding pest control, breeding and cultivation techniques.

Liu Changfen, an expert at the Tropical Crop Research Institute in Yunnan province, says the move reflected China's own rich experience in moringa planting.

The seeds were "a perfect gift from the country", Liu says.

Li Xiang in Tianjin and Chen Jie in Beijing contributed to this story.


 Gifts present a look at today's China

During a special luncheon on the final day of President Xi Jinping's visit to South Korea in July, Xi presented a scroll bearing the image of ancient Chinese General Zhao Yun, a CD of songs by first lady Peng Liyuan, who is also a famous folk singer in China, and a handicraft shaped like the Rose of Sharon, South Korea's national flower, to his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye, the Korea Times reported. In Park's 2007 autobiography, Despair Trains Me and Hope Moves Me, she referred to Zhao as her "first love". Also in July, President Xi decided that the movie Love Is Not Blind and TV series Beijing Youth were good enough to be presented as state gifts to his Latin American hosts. Photos Provided to China Daily

 Gifts present a look at today's China

When George H. W. Bush was chief of the US Liaison Office in the People's Republic of China from 1974 to the end of 1975, he was keen on visiting Beijing's ancient hutong alleys by bicycle. When he visited China as US president in 1989, then premier Li Peng offered him a Flying Pigeon bicycle. Bush jumped onto the bike as soon as he saw it in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. The bicycle was later exhibited at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Provided to China Daily

 Gifts present a look at today's China

Pat Nixon, wife of former US president Richard Nixon, visited pandas in Beijing during Nixon's groundbreaking visit to China in 1972, which marked the beginning of the normalization of bilateral ties. During the visit, then premier Zhou Enlai announced the gift of two pandas to the United States. About 20,000 visitors visited the National Zoo in Washington to see the pair on the first day they were put on public view. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 09/05/2014 page14)

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