Illustration: Craig Stephens
Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei
Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei

How a cute baby elephant sheds light on China’s quest for soft power

  • Xi Jinping has called on officials to promote the image of a ‘lovable’ China, a word that in Chinese literally means ‘cute’
  • And cuteness – with its power to evoke empathy – does have universal reach, as cat lovers and Western media outlets following the adventures of 15 Chinese elephants can attest to
In a bid to shape international public opinion about China, President Xi Jinping told senior officials that the country needed to present a more “credible, lovable, and respectable” image of China. This surprising formulation is more than a call to tame the “Wolf Warrior” rhetoric. The key word here is ke ai, translated by the official media as “lovable”. But ke ai literally means “cute”.
The idea of cuteness as soft power may seem odd on the face of it. But the rapid spread of what we can term a culture of cuteness – the public affirmation of the cute animals, robots and emojis that inform everyday social interaction – is one of the most fascinating social developments in contemporary China. 
The trend for all things adorable started in Japan in the 1970s, when the country was largely ruled by a meritocratic bureaucracy. It was led by teenage girls and eventually filtered through society. 

Over the past decade or so, the culture of cuteness has spread to China almost like wildfire. The streets of Chinese cities are populated by ridiculously cute dogs and cats, and the use of emojis has become the norm on social media, even in official settings such as exchanges between university administrators.

In Shanghai’s not-so-cold winters, it has become almost compulsory to dress small dogs in colourful jackets, to the point that it is jarring to spot a naked dog in the streets. 


Cat car model takes Chinese automobile shows by storm

Cat car model takes Chinese automobile shows by storm

It’s worth asking why the culture of cuteness has taken root so quickly and deeply in China. We discuss possibilities in our book Just Hierarchy. One explanation is cultural. Cute emojis may be more widespread in East Asian countries that prioritise politeness and indirect talk because online communication cannot be softened by facial expressions of deference or rituals such as bowing.

Other explanations are tied to meritocratic systems. According to one study, viewing cute images promotes careful behaviour and attentional focus, with potential benefits in learning and office work. Cute images make it easier to concentrate, and may help social mobility in ultra-competitive societies. 

But the culture of cuteness also represents a kind of rebellion against the system: instead of affirming the value of boring, hard-working and largely male bureaucrats, it affirms the value of playful, somewhat self-indulgent ways of life.

As Simon May puts it in his brilliant and highly entertaining book The Power of Cute, the culture of cuteness articulates “a nascent will to repudiate the ordering of human relations by power, or at least to question our assumptions about who has power and to what end”.

A worker installing a Hello Kitty manhole cover in Tama Central park, Tokyo, in 2017. According to one study, looking at cute images promotes careful behaviour and attentional focus. Photo: AFP
If cuteness is a reaction against a political system underpinned by an ultra-competitive educational system, one might expect it not to have substantial impact on less competitive societies. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the culture of cuteness has had little social impact in the world’s happiest countries, such as Denmark and Finland

In China, it’s not uncommon for tough-looking guys to carry cute purses for their girlfriends. This is unheard of in supposedly more open Western societies. Male undergraduates may walk around in T-shirts with pictures of pink teddy bears – which, in the West, would be interpreted as signalling interest in same-sex partners, rather than paying winking homage to the culture of cuteness.

Why then would Xi affirm the need to promote the image of a “cute” China abroad? It seems a losing cause outside East Asia, especially in Western societies that pride themselves on Enlightenment values of rationality and scientific (i.e. not cute) approaches to life. 

But cuteness does have universal reach. A cute cat unifies warring tribes on the global internet. More surprisingly, perhaps, a herd of 15 wild elephants in China’s Yunnan province has joined the big family of cuteness. Western media outlets that normally report on doom and gloom in China have been actively documenting the unusual trek of this seemingly lost herd. 


China’s wandering elephants need a nap amid 500km trek

China’s wandering elephants need a nap amid 500km trek
Although there is a political dimension to this story – protected habitats for wildlife may no longer support the growing numbers of elephants – the main reason for the media attention is that people are naturally attracted to cuteness. Humans tend to be moved by beautiful, seemingly vulnerable animals. Cat lovers know it’s impossible to be bored by a beautiful cat face. 

While elephants, with their intimidating size and parched skin, may not be the cuddliest creatures around, baby elephants are another matter. The star of the herd in Yunnan has been a baby elephant born during the herd’s trek to nowhere. In a video seen around the world, the baby sleeping in the middle of the herd wakes up and adorably struggles to climb out from among the larger elephants.

Another time, the baby elephant falls into a ditch and has to be saved by an older member of the herd. Mencius famously said we would feel a natural empathy for a child about to fall into a well, but we are capable of the same empathy for a cute animal that needs rescuing.

So the story of the elephants nicely illustrates the idea of cuteness as China’s soft power. We dearly hope for a happy ending, but we worry the story won’t end well: what if the baby elephant dies, an elephant kills a human, or the herd cannot find a new home? Whatever happens, there should be no cover-up. Cuteness as soft power can only be effective if it’s accompanied by credible reporting – bad news and all. 

Daniel A. Bell is dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University in Qingdao. Wang Pei is assistant professor at the China Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai. They are co-authors of Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the West