I arrived in Hong Kong at the end of last month, and I was shocked to see how most of this dynamic peninsula was shrouded in a dust haze. The next day, I flew to Beijing worrying that the air pollution could be even worse there, but surprisingly, the sky was as blue as if it had been manually Photoshopped by experts. The media soon smelled the ironic connection with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) for the seemingly “bizarre” weather and so, the term “APEC Blue” was invented.

Apparently, APEC is viewed by the Chinese government as a platform to present China’s soft power comprising of a splendid Chinese culture, social and economic development as well as a chance to redress the perception of the long-denounced problem like dust-haze to the world. Therefore, weeks before the summit, environment unfriendly industries within Beijing and the adjacent regions were suspended as required to reproduce the long lost blue sky and as short as the APEC meeting, the blueness was gone with the closure of the summit.

Media praised APEC as a symbol of the successfulness of China’s soft power, but how to decide the effectiveness of soft power has not been fully discussed academically. Dr. Ty Solomon, an assistant professor based in Glasgow, Scotland, argued in his article ‘the affective underpinnings of soft power’ that was published in the European Journal of International Relations in September this year that “much of the appeal of soft power derives from the affective and aesthetic dynamics in the social construction of identity and the investments that audiences make in such identities”. While domestic and foreign media described the sophisticated porcelain utensils for the banquet and traditional culture programs at the welcome gala as the successfulness of China’s soft power, what the ordinary Chinese care the most about is whether the air is clean enough to breathe.

The audience or recipients could not relate the cultural elements of APEC to real life, instead the benefits of the blue sky gathered the general public and collected their devotions to the creation of the “APEC Blue”. In this case, soft power promotion is not successful with regards to the gaps between the government’s publicity and the people’s concerns.

The dust haze continues to spread across China, and the architecture that held the APEC meeting became a tourist spot for experiencing the Chinese culture. Tourists now pour in to have a taste of the ‘national level’ meal and dresses, and forget about the pollution outside.

- The reader is a Chinese researcher at a research center based in Abu Dhabi