What the 11-year struggle to build a friendship garden reveals about soft power TO ASIAN culture buffs, a tranquil Japanese garden built two decades ago in Houston is in the Daimyo strolling style. Economic historians, an unromantic bunch, see a peace-offering to a rattled American superpower, presented at a moment when Japan’s rise inspired something like panic. Today the garden is a shady oasis, thronged at weekends by Hispanic families filming themselves by its carp-filled pond. But its origins were tangled up with a tense economic summit for G7 nations, held in Houston in 1990. Japan’s prime minister announced a gift of a precious teahouse during that meeting; work on the garden began the next year. Not long before, Japanese buyers had snapped up the Rockefeller Centre and Pebble Beach golf course. Both proved poor investments, but many people at the time saw them as evidence that Japan was overtaking America. (A 1993 film, “Rising Sun”, marked the peak of Japanophobia, mixing sex and murder with dollops of self-doubt: “catch-up” is our national game, mutters an American cop chasing Japanese villains.)
Houston was not Japan’s first go at garden diplomacy. As trade tensions built in the 1970s, Japanese authorities helped to build a fine garden in Missouri and—to mark America’s bicentenary in 1976—sent scores of priceless bonsai to the National Arboretum, a park and research station in Washington, DC. The gift deftly combined generosity, reminders of Japan’s long history and subtle jabs (the tiny trees included a four-centuries-old pine that had survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima). The bonsai won warm headlines. It was an early display of soft power: a term coined by Joseph Nye of Harvard for a country’s ability to inspire and sway others without using force.
Now it is China’s turn. In the past decade and a half, Chinese classical gardens have opened in Staten Island in New York, St Louis, Seattle, San Marino in California and Portland, Oregon—often with help from Chinese authorities. Yet the story of Chinese garden diplomacy is revealingly different. As China rises, its officials have promoted ever-grander projects, culminating in a 12-acre Qing-dynasty garden that China has offered to build in the National Arboretum. The “National China Garden” is to feature a lake, a two-storey teahouse, rockeries, pavilions, bamboo groves, art exhibits and a homage to the White Pagoda of Yangzhou.
America’s reaction has been official graciousness, followed by foot-dragging. A first letter of intent to build the Washington garden was signed in 2003, in a flurry of diplomacy led by Jiang Zehui, then-president of the Chinese Academy of Forestry (and, not irrelevantly in China, a cousin of ex-President Jiang Zemin). In China experts have already chosen artfully weathered boulders for the garden and built reproduction antiques for its pavilions. But at the site on the outskirts of Washington, 11 years after talks began, all that could be seen on a recent morning was an untouched meadow, some handsome stands of Asian trees and two grazing deer. American taxpayers’ money is not on offer: in 2008 the Senate passed a non-binding but chilling amendment barring the use of federal cash for the National China Garden, arguing that—next to research on soyabean rust and other agricultural threats—it was “clearly not” a priority.
Private fundraising has been painfully slow. China is to donate all structures above ground and will send workers to assemble them. But the Department of Agriculture, which runs the National Arboretum, must prepare the foundations and water features, a task expected to cost $35m. Under government rules, no ground may be broken until the whole construction budget is raised. A fundraising foundation must also find an endowment of $25m to cover maintenance and cultural projects. To mounting dismay on the Chinese side, the foundation’s only substantial funding to date is $1.7m, and that was spare cash left over from America’s pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. “The Chinese want to break ground yesterday. They want to know why we haven’t raised the money,” says an official. The reasons are many, but one stands out: the garden appears to matter more to China.
In part the slow fundraising reflects healthy changes, as China opens up. American firms wanting goodwill in China do not need to fund projects in Washington—they may now directly “build a school in Guizhou”, notes Robert Daly of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. In part, the delays say a lot about America’s worldview. Japan no longer causes much alarm. A century-old Cherry Blossom Festival, involving pink flowers and Japan-themed exhibits, is one of Washington’s cheeriest annual events. China’s shock-and-awe approach to friendship prompts pricklier reactions. There is talk of China sending $5m to complete the national garden’s design and construction plans, and of Chinese firms taking a lead on funding. American officials do want the garden built: it should be rather lovely, and the 21st century will be safer if the two countries’ publics like one another. But ground-breaking is two years away, at least.
Feared, not loved
It is not easy for an authoritarian regime to wield soft power. Foreign bosses may swoon about swift Chinese decision-making and foreign children may love the pandas China rents to zoos. But generally China is less loved than feared. On June 24th a congressional committee voted to name the street outside the Chinese embassy “Liu Xiaobo Plaza”, after an imprisoned Nobel-peace-prize winning dissident. Also in June the American Association of University Professors accused Chinese-funded “Confucius Institutes” that teach Chinese language and history inside many American and Canadian colleges of advancing “a state agenda” and restricting debate. (Chinese state media accused the AAUP of “fear” and “ignorance”.) America’s recent loss of confidence makes the relationship even trickier. Most Americans (prematurely) think China has the larger economy. Small wonder they are reluctant to underwrite Chinese offers of friendship. The Economist
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