In a small office at the Pakistani Television Corp (PTV) headquarters in Islamabad, producers are preparing to air a video interview of a Pakistani man and his Chinese bride.
The woman in the footage is dressed in traditional Pakistani clothes, sitting next to her husband who addresses her in fluent Mandarin, amplifying a message of trans-national love prevailing over differences in language, religion and culture.
The videos are the latest sign of China’s growing push to build up cultural “soft power” to complement the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the US$60 billion infrastructure program it has launched as part of the Asian giant’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative.
Over the past year, China has sent state-owned PTV and other commercial television channels a series of documentaries, dramas and other television programming free of charge, officials from PTV told reporters.
Experts say China has been ramping up attempts to win the hearts and minds of citizens in Belt and Road nations through language, traditional media and social media campaigns, echoing the cultural firepower previously wielded by Western nations, which have leveraged everything from language centers to Hollywood and blue jeans to burnish global influence.
“We have learned from the experience of the United States, the UK, and other Western countries, but now, it’s time for the world to understand China,” said Chen Xiang (陳翔), a correspondent coordinating state-run China Radio International’s wide-ranging presence in Pakistan.
“We want to tell the people the truth about China, what real China is … through radio programs, through TV and through other cultural activities we can do this,” Chen said.
China is boosting its Mandarin teaching through state-backed language and culture organizations called Confucius Institutes and spreading exposure to its arts and narrative media in a bid to engage everyday Pakistanis.
Earlier this year, PTV World aired its first Chinese cartoon series, titled Three Drops of Blood (三滴血), following its premier at the government-funded Pakistan National Council of Arts, where the Chinese embassy rented a large portion of the building to host a China Cultural Center.
Recent investments in TV and film follow Chinese interest in print media. Launched in 2017, Huashang (華商報), the first-ever Chinese language newspaper in Pakistan, now boasts a readership of more than 60,000 a week.
With about 25,000 Pakistanis learning Chinese at home and another 22,000 Pakistani students in China, there is some way to go before Mandarin challenges English in Pakistan, where the legacy of British colonial rule is everywhere.
Yet signs of China’s presence are increasingly visible, from expatriate engineers and their families shopping in city centers to a growing number of Chinese tourists visiting Pakistan’s rugged mountainous north.
Locals report an increasing appetite to engage using shared cultural touchpoints and language, sometimes with business in mind.
“China is interested in improving its soft power all across the world, “ said Kiran Hassan, a research associate fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, adding that Pakistanis are responding with enthusiasm.
“It’s an audience that is ready to receive the Chinese perspective as they feel that China is offering them an economic opportunity,” he said.