The Rise of China’s Tea Diplomacy - OZY | A Modern Media Company
It’s unclear whether Beijing’s soft power efforts will work at a time it is also aggressively engaged in territorial disputes with multiple neighbors.
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As its increasingly muscular approach worries other nations, China is turning to tea to calm their nerves.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • From Kenya to Sri Lanka, Morocco to Myanmar, Beijing is cranking up its use of tea as an economic and cultural symbol of soft power.
  • Its efforts come at a time when China is facing growing criticism for its muscular foreign policy and handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Only a few hours earlier, U.S. President Donald Trump had accused China’s leadership of disinformation and propaganda around the coronavirus, his tweets a part of escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing. But on the morning of May 21, China’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York hosted a virtual celebration for the global body’s member states. The occasion? The first-ever U.N.-recognized International Tea Day.

Celebrating tea is neither new nor unique to China. Indeed, India and other tea-producing nations have in the past sought greater global recognition for the tea industry from bodies like the U.N. But as its increasingly muscular military and foreign policies worry other nations, China has decided to crank up its soft diplomacy machinery. That has become even more important at a time when it faces criticism for its initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which originated there.

Tea — grown and consumed in China for 5,000 years — is central to that approach.

Months before the U.N. celebration, China inked a deal with Kenya to import 5 million tons of special flavored tea. China’s Fuzhou Benny Tea Industry Co. Ltd. will provide new machinery to Kenyan factories and share its expertise in tea-making, warehousing and marketing as they craft teas suited to China’s market. In March, as the pandemic and recession began to hit the world, fellow tea-producing nations Kenya and Myanmar were among the earliest recipients of Chinese financial and medical aid. The symbolism wasn’t lost on Sri Lanka, whose president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, thanked Beijing by sending Sri Lankan tea to the Chinese Embassy in Colombo.

Tea is like the panda for China — a cultural symbol.

Kunbing Xiao, Southwest Minzu University

China’s choice of tea as a key diplomatic tool to soften its image makes sense, says Kunbing Xiao, an associate professor of anthropology at Southwest Minzu University in Chengdu, and a leading scholar in the history and evolution of Chinese tea.

“Tea is like the panda for China — a cultural symbol,” Xiao says, adding that she believes contemporary China would like the world to see the country as peaceful and as helping other developing countries boost their economies. “So there lies a symbolic meaning and of course it is an honor to have international cooperation.” 

China has been preparing the groundwork for its more recent emphasis on tea diplomacy for a few years. In April 2014, President Xi Jinping used tea and beer as metaphors to underscore friendship with Belgium, during a visit to that country.

CHINA-FUJIAN-TEA EXPORT (CN)

Workers process flower tea in Fuzhou, in Fujian province.

Source Lin Shanchuan/Getty

“The Chinese people are fond of tea and the Belgians love beer. To me, the moderate tea drinker and the passionate beer lover represent two ways of understanding life and knowing the world, and I find them equally rewarding,” Xi said. “When good friends get together, they may want to drink to their heart’s content to show their friendship. They may also choose to sit down quietly and drink tea while chatting about their lives.”

More recently, though, China has decided to upscale its tea outreach. Last year, Jinli Tea, a small tea company in Lichuan, in Hubei province, became the first Chinese company to operate a branch in Morocco. Since late 2015, Jinli has invested $8.2 million in the country. And the deal with Kenya could bring that country’s farmers $70 million, according to Mwangi Kiunjuri, who at the time of the agreement was Kenya’s Cabinet secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.

For all its economic and diplomatic might, though, China has its vulnerabilities — even with tea. Its domestic tea market, valued at $18 billion, is expected to take a permanent 10 percent hit post-pandemic because of the increased investments that will be needed in safety measures for workers. And it’s unclear whether Beijing’s soft power efforts will work at a time it is also aggressively engaged in territorial disputes with multiple neighbors.

But tea consumption in China is rising 10 percent a year, so preferential trade deals with other nations to make up any deficit — while presenting the purchase as a way of helping those countries — serve Beijing well.

Alka Acharya, a professor of Chinese studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, compares Xi’s tea push to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s drive to emphasize the Indian origins of yoga. Modi’s campaign led to the adoption, in 2015, by the U.N. of June 21 as the International Day of Yoga. “A cultural icon becomes a tool for diplomacy only when it becomes a source of leverage,” she says.  

The use of new modes of diplomacy in recent years is only natural, Acharya suggests, as economic globalization has increased the range of interests for major countries. “Clearly, the tools of diplomacy have also expanded,” she says.

Even if that involves repackaging one of your oldest products.

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