We cheer the Brazilian soccer team and find our inner peace through yoga. But what is the flagship example of Chinese soft power? It might just be a day of shopping and singledom.
Jason Lee / Reuters
Happy Singles Day, everyone! Today, 11/11, is the holiday you don't celebrate yet. But don't worry. You will.
A little background: Singles Day is a Chinese thing, and a recent one. It's like Valentine's Day for the consciously uncoupled, a special day for people lacking a special someone. On Singles Day, single people go out and have fun together, celebrating their lack of attachment and absolutely not feeling a little bit sad and alone.
Like most holidays, Singles Day started off with good intentions — in this case, college kids in Jiangsu Province having a bit of fun in the early '90s — before being turned, as it inevitably must, into a consumerist festival. Now, Singles Day is the day when single people buy themselves a gift, and Chinese retailers fuel the action with a Black Friday-style frenzy of special offers. E-commerce giant Alibaba, the most vocal proponent of Singles Day, says it did almost $ 9 billion in Singles Day sales today, dwarfing U.S. online sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.
So why will Singles Day end up making it to the rest of the world? First, because it's an idea whose time has come: Everyone else has a day, so why not single people? Second, because it involves an official day of shopping, eating, and all-purpose consumption, which there can never be too much of in the eyes of the people who run the world.
But thirdly, and most importantly, Singles Day is a pretty unique opportunity for Chinese soft power to finally begin manifesting itself in the West.
Cultural soft power matters. Growing up in Australia in the early '90s, every kid in the schoolyard could do an American accent — how else could you all recite Simpsons lines to each other? You knew the U.S. was rich, because look at those giant houses the sitcom families live in! When the kids threw a tantrum, they'd run from the kitchen table and up the stairs to their bedrooms. Two-story houses! You knew America kicked ass, because Tom Clancy, and that it was a land of opportunity, because Wyclef.
As countries rise on the world stage, soft power inevitably comes with it. India has yoga and Bollywood, Brazil has soccer and Havaianas, Japan its anime and manga.
We all cried for the sad Brazilian soccer fan, and in doing so, we celebrated Brazil's soft power.
Compared to that, mainland China is coming up relatively empty-handed in the cultural big leagues. Despite its giant economic power and military might, we're still not humming along to catchy Chinese pop songs, or watching overdubbed Chinese soap operas. Singles Day is China Inc.'s big chance.
Obviously this won't be easy. Marketing types say it's tough to get a bona fide new national holiday off the ground, particularly when every trade group and PR lobby is trying to make their version of National Doughnut Day a Thing. And Singles Day falls on 11/11 — a date the Chinese appreciate for its symmetry, but Americans know better as Veterans Day. It's not one to be messed with lightly.
But commerce knows no boundaries, only obstacles. Singles Day can happen, and it's a chance for China and the West to get on the same page, at least for one magical shopping day each year. Some U.S. companies are already getting in on the action through their China-focused websites, making it even easier to roll out an American adaptation.
And all this is helped along by the fact that Singles Day is championed by Alibaba, the Amazon-eBay-PayPal of China — one of the world's biggest internet companies, and one you'll be hearing a lot more about in the next few years.
Alibaba has its eyes on the U.S. market, and so do Chinese gadget makers like Lenovo, which bought the Motorola handset business this year. The direction of the trend line is pretty clear: More Chinese companies will be headed this way, for a long time to come. Singles Day is their chance to bring something from home. And unlike Chinese pop music, it's something you will actually enjoy. Just like being single.