China's diplomats tend to keep a low profile when abroad, living in closed compounds and rarely being seen outside official functions. They are more often than not perceived as being rigid and businesslike rather than friendly and approachable. Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai has made an obvious effort to break the mould, attending the Super Bowl, one of America's most popular sporting events, and ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. At a time of rising American mistrust of Beijing, there is no more basic form of soft power to help strengthen relations.
The ambassador's stepped-up presence comes amid a series of cultural events marking the 35th anniversary of Sino-US diplomatic relations. Consul general to New York Sun Guoxiang flipped the switch on the Year of the Horse lights on the Empire State Building, and a concert by the New York Philharmonic featuring Chinese music was conducted by Long Yu, director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. The performance continued a collaboration that taps into growing interest among mainland Chinese in Western classical music, viewed by the classical music world as vital to shoring up flagging Western interest in the genre. In terms of diplomacy, it is also a bridge contributing to trust and understanding.
A poll by Pew Research found 33 per cent of Americans have a favourable view of China, down 18 percentage points on 2011. That is despite Beijing's long-standing policy of focusing on soft power to foster better relations. US academic Joseph Nye, who coined the term, does not believe top-down efforts like Confucius institutes and the China Public Diplomacy Association are the most effective ways of winning over rivals. President Xi Jinping's recent call to better promote the nation's culture seems a more pragmatic starting point.
Diplomats, entertainers, sportspeople and artists are best suited to doing this. Soft power is, after all, the result of being admired, liked, respected or trusted. There is no better way to attain this than mingling with ordinary people.