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