A Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon (Part 3): The Sino-American cultural rivalry

ak4 1 450x276 A Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon (Part 3): The Sino American cultural rivalry

In recent years, the perception of the ‘China threat’ has been the main obstacle for improving China’s cultural image. Furthermore, there is a paradoxical relationship between the foreign perception of a Chinese threat and the internal perception of China’s rise. In short, when China is weak and split, America’s China image usually is quite positive and when China gets strong and begins to have the potential to develop externally, America’s China image tends to be negative. Likewise, due to America’s strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region, the rise of Chinese soft power invites world concern. Many scholars anticipate competition between China and the United States over their competing soft power. In fact, as Joseph Nye anxiously pointed to the decline of American soft power and the rise of Chinese soft power, some scholars have even noted that a Beijing Consensus might actually be replacing the Washington Consensus. Hence, China’s employment of soft power must change others’ perceptions of the logic that the culturally influential are necessarily threatening.

As China’s cultural rise is benefiting from globalization and concurrently producing anxiety for the champions of the Pax Americana, the world is clearly in a period of transition. In this process, the United States may be blamed for buck-passing as the sole superpower, and China may be viewed as the object of hope due to its rapid rise. Furthermore, as this series has demonstrated, the dominance of Western culture might be diminishing. The globalization of both high and popular culture through media should therefore not be understood as the cultural homogenisation of Western hegemony. Instead, it is part of a larger set of processes that operate translocally, interactively, and dynamically in a variety of spheres: economic, institutional, technological, and ideological. In short, unlike constructions of cultural imperialism that emphasize the self-conscious extension of centralized power, the information age of globalization contends that the world’s increasingly interconnected media environment is the outcome of messy and complicated interactions.

As China continues to ramp up its dissemination of high culture through an increased academic and linguistic presence, the United States is facing some challenges. During the 2003-2004 academic year, foreign enrollment in the United States fell 2.4%, the first decline in three decades. In 2003, 2,563 Indonesian students received visas to study in China, a 51% increase over the previous year, contrastingly; only 1,333 Indonesian students entered the United States for study in the same year, a precipitous drop from the 6,250 student visas issued in 2000. Since September 11, 2001 and the subsequent implementation of student tracking measures, a more stringent visa regime, and suffocating regulations on certain types of research, the United States is no longer perceived as a friendly destination for many foreign students, especially those from Asian and Muslim countries. Consequently, many students are instead flocking to rival institutions in Great Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia, and, of course, China.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

However, Chinese cultural power need not compete directly with Americanisation or Westernisation. It is important to realize that globalization is not a zero-sum game; Chinese values can exist side-by-side with Western norms in today’s anarchical world. Furthermore, as cultural power becomes a central factor in national decision-making, economic development, social structure, and global and local conflicts, China is making more efforts to develop its cultural power resources and enhance its capability to convert these resources into desired policy outcomes. While China has shown less enthusiasm in promoting its cultural power in those parts of the globe that are less liberal and democratic, the attractiveness of Chinese political values is undeniable. In many Asian Muslim countries, Chinese cultural influence represents a welcome global foil to the penetration of their cultures by a decadent and highly commercialized American culture. Moreover, American foreign policy (which tends to run hot and cold) has left many nations clamoring for a new patron, a role China is only too happy to assume. According to the Editor-in-Chief of the Bangkok Post, “in mainland Southeast Asia, a place where former enemies of the United States like Vietnam and Laos actually could be amenable to Brand America, China has severely cut into the United States monopoly on soft power, with the help of American mistakes in the region”.

Similarly to cultural globalization, for China, there are distinct repercussions that come with participation in the information revolution. A consequence of both cultural globalization and China’s move to ‘informatisation’ is a flood of foreign words into China as well as an increase in the level of English employed in everyday life. As with other languages (French, Russian, and Spanish in particular), there is the growing fear that the casual but steady inclusion of foreign words into Chinese will undermine the language’s development in the future, or even endanger its very existence. Additionally, many Chinese are concerned about the disappearance of the country’s cultural uniqueness as part of the evolving globalization process. The fear that cultural globalization is only a one-way street in which things flow from the North to the South underscores the trepidation felt by many in China. Internally, the interplay between Chinese and Western cultures resulting from globalization has emerged as a major topic of debate amongst Chinese scholars. Many liberal Chinese scholars argue that China must recognize the dominance of globalization and move towards a deeper and more active participation in global flows of people, ideas, commerce, technology, and information.

What does all this mean for Global Governance?

Whether China’s soft power projection succeeds will depend on the particular audience. China may find it easier to win ‘friends’ (or solidify relationships) with developing countries with whom it shares political and economic values, such as other BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, and India, which are all deemed to be at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development). Indeed, public opinion polls show that China is generally viewed more positively in such developing countries. The greater question at hand is whether China will be able to build new constituencies in countries it has less in common with, including many in Europe and also the United States. For the more China not only brings itself in line with international standards, but militarizes its cultural capital to alter and construct impending norms in its own images, the more influence China will wield regarding the further development and management of global governance regimes in this informational era of globalization.

The numbers already show the beginning of a potential trend. Due to the interconnectedness afforded by globalization, The People’s Republic of China’s employment of the high and popular cultural attractiveness of soft power through a public diplomacy aimed at indiscriminately enticing populations all over the world is filling the vacuum left by the erosion of the Western framework in the areas of language, education, cinema and television. As culture becomes a more prevalent way to exercise power in the global arena, China’s place within global governing regimes is increasingly looking like a Beijing Consensus which acts as a stabilizing pole, in fact one of several, in an increasingly integrated but multipolar world where the competitive exchange of ideational, educational, artistic, and linguistic cultures might replace military might and economic domination as the main criterion of power and progress.

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