More than anyone else, it is the Chinese who fear the dragon that is supposed to symbolise their gargantuan, swallow-you-whole economy, which has just overtaken Japan to become the world’s second largest. China wants to be seen as the loong, which is a softer, entirely auspicious dragon-like being that is loathe to, in fact incapable of, breathing fire.
These radically different perspectives were described by celebrated philosopher Lin Yutang in the 1930s. “Where there is a national mind so racially different and historically isolated from the Western cultural world [as the Chinese], we have the right to expect new answers to the problems of life,” Lin wrote in The Importance of Living, which contrasted the Taoist cult of the “loafer” with that of the American “hustler”.
Might the loong be part of Lin’s “new” answer to China’s 21st century problem, namely, a profound sense of ill-usage at the way a fearful world portrays it? Perhaps, but only if the Chinese could find it in themselves to execute an effective rebranding operation. This would expand the world’s vocabulary even as it softened the dragon with all its hard, unyielding consonants into the lazy sighing syllables of the loong.
It would be a new word for the dictionaries, with all its inflexions of a New Age exorcism. It would expel the old fear of Chinese aggression in the here and now and embrace a new, calmer possibility that the expansionism may be more calibrated, gradual, in fact loong-like.
But it is not quite as simple as that. Rebranding a country and its people is a monumental task. It goes beyond a new vocabulary. Even “Enter the Loong” is a discernibly less snappy name for the popular Bruce Lee film that made kung fu all the rage back in the 1970s.
Lin recognised the inherent possibilities of branding countries when he pithily commended macaroni as having “done more for our appreciation of Italy than Mussolini”. It is true that to many, the hollow noodle tube, so beloved of children everywhere and so supremely accepting of almost any sauce as partner, spells the comforts of home and hearth and thereby the domestic delights offered by Italy.
A brand is famously said to be more than a word, a slogan or an easily remembered picture; it is a studiously crafted personality profile of an individual or institution. The crafting takes decades, often centuries. This is why the English are still seen as fair, the French as fashionable, the Swiss as precise, the Germans as serious, Americans as hearty and the Chinese as ruthless and inscrutable. The universe of cultural images begets the brand and it is this cultural ‘value’ that allows French companies to sell haute couture without too much fuss about price or provenance and for the Swiss to sell Longines, Tissot, Piaget, Rolex, Patek Philippe and other watches that the aspirational hope to pass on to their great grandchildren.
The Chinese have a discernible brand image and have done well out of it. The world poured money down the dragon’s maw believing it was ruthless and inscrutable enough to be a safe investment. Four-fifths of the Chinese economy is made up of investments and exports and this is because the world expected it ruthlessly to deliver cheap labour and cheap land for factories that would flood the planet with big brands at small prices. It did. Unsurprisingly then, the world simply doesn’t believe the Chinese are more loong than dragon.
Neither does it buy into Nigeria’s 16-month ballyhoo about being a “Good People, Great Country”. Its information minister launched the slogan even as scam e-mails issued from there in a steady stream and its commercial capital Lagos topped polls of the world’s most dangerous place to work. The campaign merely replaced a previous, failed rebranding exercise called the “Heart of Africa“. A cliche is generally a poor tool with which to airbrush history.
So too Serbia, whose tourism ministry promised to spend a mere 1,35,000 euros to rebrand the landlocked country in the war-ravaged heart of south-eastern Europe. But a year on, it is painfully obvious that Serbia is not known for being militarily neutral, a credible EU applicant and having a high Human Development Index and the IMF’s stamp of emerging economy. Instead, its brand image remains unhappily bound up with that of its former leader, Slobodan Milosevic, his Slav nationalism and attempts to “purify” Bosnia of its Muslims.
Even so, sometimes, a bad image may be better than none at all because a nullity cannot be built on. The lack of an image or what Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas calls Europe’s “iconographic deficit” has long exercised EU officials. Koolhaas diagnosed the problem as a still-uniting continent strewn with symbols that look like a nation-building project blue flags, anthems and passports but which do not add up to one subtly solid message about the EU’s brand identity and its remarkable range and reach.
So what of China’s desire to be loong not dragon in the world’s eyes? Across the world, its diplomats and diaspora still live by Deng Xiaoping’s injunction “conceal brilliance, cultivate obscurity”, making it difficult to build the image they want. This despite the Chinese president’s exhortation last year about the need to “build a more congenial image…more morally inspiring”. But the ” loong march” is yet to begin. Is this at least partly because as one leading branding agency advises, in the final analysis, it is not slickness, polish or cleverness that makes a brand a brand. It is truth.