Giulia Sciorati

PANEL 2: China’s Soft Power in Kazakhstan

Visualising China’s Story in Museum Exhibitions: Insights from the Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan

Giulia Sciorati, LSE, UK

After the launch of the “Tell the China Story Well” (Jianghao Zhongguo gushi 讲好中国故事) policy, scholars started to pay increasing attention to China’s self-representations in discourses targeting foreign audiences. These studies generally connect this policy to the country’s international discursive power (Huayu quan 话语权), which had been central in China’s outward communication campaigns since the Maoist era and found new momentum as a response strategy to the “China threat” theory.

So far, the study of visual representations as a different channel to construct a China story has remained at the margins of the research on China’s discursive power. This limitation is particularly prominent today when compared with what scholars have identified as the “visual turn” of the Communist Party of China (CPC) – i.e. the CPC’s reliance on visual political communication.

The study aims to start filling this gap by investigating exhibitions held by museums outside China in collaboration with Chinese institutions. I argue that museum exhibitions are a potentially effective tool for promoting specific self-representations because they a) target foreigners with a pre-existing interest in the country and/or its cultural products and b) are seemingly distant from political élites and political messages to the target audiences.

Drawing from the insights of the social-constructivist school of International Relations theory and, thus, considering the “world as our making”, the study seeks answers to the questions: which representations of China are presented in museum exhibitions overseas? Which ideas and values are associated with China? Which history and whose historical interpretations are displayed? Answering these questions will offer a more comprehensive understanding of how China exercises discursive power abroad.

To answer these questions, I will present the preliminary findings of a study on the Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan (CSM) in Almaty, which has hosted five exhibitions in collaboration with Chinese institutions since 2009. In light of the centrality of the neighbourhood in China’s foreign policy and the country’s awareness of its negative reputation among Kazakh civil society, the CSM is a crucial case for how China uses visualities to present an alternative self-representation to foreign audiences.

By examining catalogues and other archival materials and interviewing CSM staff involved in the exhibitions, the research findings will offer empirical evidence on how visualities are used to construct specific visual discourses on China and present them to target audiences, thus strengthening the country’s discursive power by other means.