Here's an Asahi Shinbun article from a couple days ago:
“An idol group composed of 56 Chinese women has been born. It is called '56 Flowers.' One can't help but think that it is meant to compete directly with Japan's AKB48. That said, the sense of propaganda in songs like their fervently performed 'China is the most Beautiful,' embodying Chinese head of state Xi Jinping's 'Chinese Dream,' is quite strong. Will they really be popular?
“56 is the number of officially recognized Chinese ethnicities. It seems that 56 Flowers is attempting to appeal to a sense of ethnic unity and patriotism. The particulars of the group's formation are unknown, it is supposed that Chinese authorities were involved.
“According to local media, it is formed of various ethnicities of girls, aged 16-23, with skill in singing and dancing. At Beijing Park in June, they stood onstage in front of the Chinese flage and images of Mao Zedong, wearing white blouses and black miniskirts. Staff apparently said, 'Unlike groups from Japan or China, 56 Flowers is not selling sex or looks.'
“There have been comments on the Internet in the vein of, 'They seem like a North Korean group,' and 'It smells like the Cultural Revolution.' (Shanghai)”
Here's another article, this one in English, with a little more information. For good measure, here's a video.
So you get 56 girls between the ages of 16 and 23, dress them up in cotton blouses and short skirts, and have them sing and dance for our entertainment. Totally not selling sex though!
This “various ethnicities” thing is nice, especially given China's historical...struggles with that issue. It only really works, though, if each member is actually a representative of that group. Please let me know if I'm wrong, but something tells me this super isn't the case. At least Team 8 really did go out and recruit a girl from each prefecture. And while I totally understand concerns regarding propaganda, I'm interested to see where this might go.
Anytime I think about the China Century theory, I suspect that it will not really equal the influence of America during the American Century unless it occupies the same cultural space. I mean, setting aside the possibility that we may have entered a period in history in which globalization is so prevalent that no one country can possibly dominate – you could draw some parallels. A rising economic star. Flirting with imperialism. That kind of stuff.
But what made America into America in the eyes of the rest of the world was, I think, its popular culture. The average American on the street cared about Tom Cruise, not Ronald Reagan. I guess the same is true of a lot of countries – probably most non-Japanese people you know can picture Goku, but not Abe Shinzou – so maybe this is a shallow point, but what I'm getting at is that I've always wanted to see what China could give us for soft culture. I can name a couple dozen Korean pop music groups despite having never even been there, but I can only think of two Chinese groups, and one of them is SNH48.
We've got wuxia – that's identifiably Chinese. And that's cool. Wuxia is cool! Can't wait for Iron Knight, Silver Vase! “Hong Kong action movie” is basically a genre, and Sleeping Dogs rocked (that's if we're counting Hong Kong as culturally part of China, but let's not get into that). What else though? By and large I'm gonna go ahead and say that Chinese pop culture doesn't really get much play outside of China, at least not in the English-speaking world. Isn't that odd? China is kind of really big, you guys. This seems to mark a deliberate step towards changing that, and I'm excited! I'd love people to step more Chinese songs for In the Groove. Maybe not “China is the most Beautiful,” but you know.
I'm also not totally convinced that this won't be like the forced hallyu of the mid-2000s up to recent years, where Korean artists started recording songs in Japanese, SNSD appeared on Letterman and there was even talk of getting Americans into K-dramas. This publicity campaign was the subject of much derision by K-bloggers, and the “movement,” such as it is, tends to be regarded as a bit of a failure. This could easily go the same way. It's still interesting, though, and it will likely have a very different character, if only because of the Chinese government and all that it represents.
To close the circle: Does 56 Flowers have a credible chance of competing against AKB 48? Uh, no. They're completely different products. AKB sing about first love, and hair scrunchies, and teenage prostitution. These are very relatable, easily digestible topics that transcend differences in lifestyle and cultural boundaries. The glory of the People's Republic of China is not. To be fair, I don't think it actually says anywhere that they want 56 Flowers to spread its influence beyond China; maybe it represents more of a pep rally for Chinese citizens. If so, they've got work ahead of them, because sadly, nobody cares about politics anymore. Also, they may be a state-driven propaganda machine.