Why is “Singer” TV Format so Important for Beijing’s “Musical Diplomacy”?


“Singer” is the Hunan Television show that managed to combine AI, music and soft power. While Beijing is implementing “musical diplomacy”, the Chinese format reaches a record number of views both in China and beyond the Wall


Singer歌手 2019 is achieving an extraordinary appreciation during its 7th edition premiered on January 11. This success is due to the smart use of artificial intelligence (AI) at the service of entertainment but also to a significant political and diplomatic value added by the format for the first time.

The music TV show – formerly known as “I am the Singer我是歌手 – is a Chinese version of a Korean reality show. Since 2013, it is broadcast on Hunan Television – China’s second TV network – and usually collects a share of about 750 million people per episode.

Seven professional singers perform for the audience, which votes to eliminate one singer after each week’s performance. Then every week, another singer joins the competition varying the lineup of artists constantly.

What makes this type of talent show different from the others is that it hosts not only singers from the Dragon’s star system but also international talents.


Singer - hunan television - talent show - cifnews

© Weibo. Unlike traditional singing competitions, which invite new faces, Chinese “Singer” hosts talents who are already working in the music business thus offering performances of a higher quality.


Although “I am the Singer” was born as a Chinese singers music show, for some years now, the Hunan Television decided to host artists from other countries, especially from those that gravitate around the Chinese diplomatic orbit such as the countries of Southeast Asia, and those of central Asia.

The most internationally famous guest has been Jesse J, who was the first British artist to participate and also the first foreign singer to win the competition in 2018.

Even though the possibility to follow the fate of the viewers’ heroes both live or on delay is surely one of the show’s success factors, the choice of the participants is the main ingredient of its recipe for success. The singers chosen are in fact very popular among various audiences from both a demographic and geographical point of view.

The talents are strategically chosen by the “Singer” production with the help of big data offered by Chinese tech giants with which the TV channel collaborates.


Nevertheless, this year, the choice of participants has also assumed a greater political dimension compared to previous editions with the Belt and Road Initiative, Taiwan, and Russia as the main focus.


This year, Beijing is actually implementing a real “musical diplomacy” carrying out many soft power operations addressed to the audience beyond the Wall.

The first target of these operations has been Taiwan with two Asian music superstars standing out from the participants. These are Liu Huan 刘欢 – born in Tianjin and known as “the professor” – and the Taiwanese Chiyi Yu 齐豫, the 70s and 80s musical icon. These two iconic artists have not only gained a huge success in mainland China but they have also built a big fanbase in Taiwan becoming extremely popular in both countries.



The choice to bring Chiyi Yu on stage reflects the show’s logic of marketing and business. It is not the first time that Taiwan is represented on this show and many singers from Taipei have already performed on Hunan Television’s stage over the years. But the fact that these two leading artists from these cross-strait countries share the stage together is surely not a coincidence.

Indeed, 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the end of military frictions with Taiwan and Beijing seems to want to reach out again to Taipei through music.

In addition, the 2019 “Singer” edition is hosted by the Taiwanese singer Wu Qingfen 吴青峰, who is popular in Taiwan, as well as in China, and he is also one of the participants.


The participation of the Russian singer-songwriter Polina Gagarina highlights how China and Russia have once again become natural business partners.


Beijing’s direct investments in the Russian Federation have almost tripled over the years. Moreover, today, the economic dialogue between the two countries has intensified a lot and it now speaks the language of e-commerce. The Chinese giant Alibaba and its Alipay were, in fact, the main sponsors of the recent edition of the FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Beijing and Moscow are going through a rediscovery of their relationship and Polina Gagarina’s participation in the Chinese contest is a sign that the two countries are moving closer together.

The Russian talent was unknown for the Chinese audience, but her presence in the “Singer” is now an extraordinary opportunity to bring these two different cultures closer tearing down the wall of prejudices between the two neighboring populations.


Singer - Bulgaria - kristian kostov - cifnews

© Youtube. The Bulgarian singer is not in his first appearance on Chinese television. Kristian Kostov also performed during the final of the Miss World 2017 beauty pageant in Sanya, China.


Among the participants of the ongoing edition, there is also the singer Kristian Kostov from Bulgaria, whose involvement is closely related to the Belt and Road Initiative.

After having represented Bulgaria at the 2017 Eurovision, the nineteen-year-old Bulgarian is now the show’s most popular singer among girls on Weibo. Although Kristian Kostov and Bulgaria itself were almost unknown for the Chinese audience, he suddenly became one of the main protagonists of this “Singer” edition.

However, as in the case of the Russian Gagarina, Kostov’s presence is also the result of intense diplomatic work. In fact, within the BRI, China-Bulgaria trade grew by 22% in 2018 while Sofia has recently applied to be the eastern and central Europe gateway for Chinese goods. During the music show’s New Year episode, in fact, the Bulgarian Consul in Shanghai was one of the guests.


However, this year edition is also drawing attention to some internal policy issues, in particular, to the Tibetan region.


On March 28, Beijing will commemorate the 60th anniversary of Serfs Emancipation Day, a celebration of Tibet’s liberation from the Dalai Lama’s control. This event represents a sensitive anniversary for the Middle Kingdom as it raises concerns both inside and outside the Chinese borders.

Through formats like the “Singer”, the PRC provides a showcase for China’s ethnic minorities but the participation of the Tibetan duo ANU among the most appreciated artists of this edition seems to go beyond the classic concept of “give visibility”.

The duo is well known in the Xizang region, therefore, their entrances are always accompanied by footages of Tibetan beauties, Lhasa and of the Tibetan Plateau.


Singer - hunan television - tibet - ANU - cifnews

© Weibo. On the 3rd episode, the Tibetan band ANU, composed by Payag and Gonpa, entered “Singer” cast replacing the contestant with the least amount of votes.


According to communication experts, this is a twofold move. On one hand, Beijing wants to show to the audience, whether Chinese or not, how Tibet has fully integrated into China’s economic landscape. On the other hand, Xizang has become one of the most popular tourist destinations with double-digit growth year on year. Therefore, making the Tibetan culture known outside traditional circuits represents a successful soft power move that people love.


The ongoing edition is already reaching record numbers even on Western social networks, YouTube in the lead.


Each episode of the “Singer” is broadcast on delay on the American video-sharing platform with an average of about 700,000 people watching the episodes. It is a growing success if compared to last year’s average of about 500,000 viewers.

In addition to uploading episodes, Hunan Television also uploads participants’ individual performances. As a result, while one billion people watched Jesse J win the competition across all platforms, Taiwanese Wu Qingfen’s videos on YouTube alone usually collect about one million views turning the advertisement through this channel into a significant business opportunity.

So, why is this music TV show so interesting? “Singer” is the perfect combination of big data and AI at the service of entertainment together with business and soft power. Moreover, for the first time, a Chinese TV contest is experiencing a worldwide appreciation with Western social networks crowded with comments about its singing performances.

Through the performances of a duo from Lhasa who sings and “rap” in Tibetan language, Hunan Television managed not only to entertain the audience but it also managed to show that China is more open than ever.


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