China's latest “popaganda” campaign: Ruhan Jia

Music is one of China's most valuable cultural exports, and the Chinese government is hoping Ruhan Jia will be their first global pop hit.

Ruhan Jia has two ambitions. The first is to master the edgy tones of Christina Aguilera; the second, to become China’s first global pop sensation. And she has the backing of the Chinese government to reach for both.

Pop culture’s export value is becoming increasingly clear. Soft power is hard currency, and China has a lot of catching-up to do to compete on the global stage. In 2011, China launched Earth’s Music, a ten-year scheme aimed at boosting China’s global brand by producing pop stars to compete on the world stage. The government sees Earth’s Music as so important that it has included it in its five-year economic development plan.

The project was pitched to the government by the state-owned media firm and record label Synergy, and Ruhan is the first person signed to it.

“If you have a strong economy, people think of you as a big country – and we have a strong economy,” says Bill Zang, vice-president of Synergy. “But only when you are strong culturally are you seen as a superpower.” The challenge now for Synergy is to find a star who will combine traditional Chinese music with western pop.

I visited the company’s Shanghai headquarters in December while producing a documentary for the BBC. The city was suffering some of the worst pollution in its history, and Ruhan wore a mask to protect her voice from the fumes. Synergy is based in a former factory that produced CDs and cassettes. Today, its focus, like much of China’s changing economy, has switched from manufacturing to innovation.

The buildings, studio and rehearsal rooms are all paid for by the government. It is hoped that by giving the right people the right resources, China will produce a star to crack the international market. There are high hopes pinned on Ruhan.

“I spend all of my time in here, weekends and holidays. It’s like my second home,” she tells me. It is here that she hones her stage show, practises new songs and, crucially, learns the vocal techniques of western singers in an attempt to appeal to western ears.

Each month, Synergy provides her with piles of CDs to study, a task Ruhan calls her “musical education”. “Michael Jackson has a good beat, Elvis is very sexy, Queen are very rock, and Ke$ha teaches me to be more wild,” she explains, breaking into song to imitate husky R’n’B numbers, smooth jazz and even a dose of heavy metal. Such music would have been forbidden to her when she was growing up.

Born in the 1980s at the start of China’s one-child policy, Ruhan spent her childhood practising the piano and singing. She wasn’t allowed out to play like the other children from her block of flats in the northern city of Shijiazhuang. But, she says, the hard work has paid off.

Many Chinese musicians would envy the opportunities she has had since signing to Synergy. They still have to struggle through layers of bureaucracy and censorship to put on a concert.

Ruhan is reluctant to talk about the political side of her sponsorship. “The Chinese media just want to know whether I have a boyfriend,” she laughs. “Europeans always ask about politics. All I care about is finding a good company that can promote my career. I sign to Synergy, the government say they like that, so why not?”

Her success so far has been modest. She has 310,000 followers across several social media sites but sales of her first album, Time to Grow, were not as strong as hoped. But, as the album title suggests, she feels this is just the beginning.

“The Documentary: China’s Global Popstars” is part of the BBC World Service’s Freedom 2014 season

Voice of velvet, frame of steel: Ruhan brings soft power to Chinese dreams.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.