Chinese soft power lantern festival

3 min readMay 26, 2023
collage (L) illuminated lotus tunnel, (R) “happy planet” video game
Evening viewing slot for Chinese Lantern Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan USA (late May 2023)

Tickets to see the well-designed and well-installed cloth figures all around the zoo in Grand Rapids were timed slots, so great was the demand and so worrying were the lingering Covid-19 variants. In fact, less than 5% of those filling the circular route that evening wore face masks. Some sections were backed by loop recordings of upbeat (synthesizer) music and others not. Some displays including moving parts and others were static. But just about all subjects seemed to trigger at least some visitors to capture the scene on cellphone apps and in a few cases on cameras with interchangeable lenses, too. The pictures in this article come at twilight when the artificial colors and artificial illumination stand out most brightly. But just as the folk wisdom states, “not all that glitters is gold,” so also in this exhibit “not all the cheerful color is happy.”

collage (L) ‘red panda’ illuminated sculpture, (R) tunnel of artificial wisteria in rainbow lights
Ironically (L) the red (lesser) panda installation is near the real-life pens; the (R) rainbow pop meaning of Gay Pride is unexpected in the culturally conservative master vision fabricated artificially

At first impression, the pulsing music and oriental symbols of 12-animal zodiac cycle, auspicious Chinese artifacts, and all kinds of creatures of air, land, and water seem pretty and without malice. But then the picture changes when remembering the Chinese soft-power snafu incidents (University of Chicago, for example) of central government-sponsored Confucius Institutes, the proven industrial spying, bullying the governments around China’s borders and far away in Africa, kidnapping and coercing Chinese nationals abroad, torturing Uyghurs and other ethnic-nationalities of the west-most province of China (XUAR, Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region) as part of documented slave labor and genocide of culture, language, and people.

Now instead of blissfully strolling under the blinking lights, blowing smoke bubbles, bopping music, and moving inflatables, the whole installation seems to express the logic of sickly sweet consumerism: saturate the hoi polloi with material glitter and color and confections, then take away rights of people, natural habitats, and any foreign government that gets in the way of the Chinese Communist Party. Happy consumers should be complacent voters, right? That did not work out well for the Uyghurs and 14 other ethnic peoples in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region. Despite material wealth, increasing inroads of infrastructure, and promises of economic advancement for not questioning the majoritarian Chinese model of central control, still the local people of the western province did not want to be occupied by outsiders taking all the mineral wealth and coercing labor for solar panel production, cotton and tomato farms, for example. Oceans of pretty colors, pleasant music, and provision of schools and hospitals can only go so far when the price to pay is to forfeit one’s language and family relationships by force in concentration camps.

In light of the wider context and track record of Chinese soft power (external audiences, especially) and hard power (internal audiences, especially), the pretty exhibition of the Chinese Lantern Festival casts a dark light. It is the polar opposite to the first photo’s video game, “Happy Planet.” Such electrified artifice makes even the resident wildlife of the zoo and outside the fences in the surrounding parkland pale in comparison. The fake becomes more vivid than the living creatures’ lives.