“America's biggest export is no longer the fruit of its fields or the output of its factories, but the mass-produced products of its popular culture – movies, TV programs, music, books and computer software.”
-The Washington Post, October 25th, 1998
As the world transitions from a purely physical-goods society to a more digital, service-focused one, soft power and cultural exporting is even more important than it was when the Washington Post made that point 17 years ago (fun fact: 1998 was SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO).
For decades, the United States has disseminated its society’s values and perspectives via television, film, business, technology and other cultural channels in a concerted soft power push.
This soft power, in other words, is an effort to create goodwill, respect, and admiration for the United States around the world.
As China rises in global prominence and influence, I ask you these questions:
- Can they make the same sort of push on a global scale?
- Can Chinese culture be exported the way American (and, prior to that, European) culture has?
- Will we all one day become Chinese?
Let’s take a look.
What Does Soft Power Really Mean?
Respect and interest for broader Chinese culture and history continues to be strong on a global scale, and it makes sense intuitively:
China is home to one of the world’s oldest extant cultures, with thousands of years of wild and crazy history to appreciate.
Even Peking opera, something of an esoteric and China-specific art form, is enjoying a burst in popularity in the West.
In the PRC era, however, China has had a much harder time convincing the world to cozy up. After opening up to the outside world in the late 1970’s, things were looking bright - Deng Xiaoping, 邓小平 (dèng xiǎo píng) , in fact, was Time Magazine’s 1978 Man of the Year.
Global impressions of China were generally positive, and though the mass media era had just begun, the CCP was doing a good job of managing soft power by promoting all the cute-and-cool things we associate with China, like pandas, cuisine and martial arts.
This is what soft power is all about: shaping your country’s reputation through subtle and indirect means.
But as the Cold War wound down, China’s top-down, hardline governing style became increasingly unpopular around the world.
The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 further turned many around the world off of the Chinese model of culture and government. Not to mention that it soured China-US relations.
“How can we admire a culture that tolerates that kind of violence from the government?” the global public asked themselves.
Enter Hu Jintao, who in 2007 made soft power an official priority of the CCP. In a meeting of the 16th CCP Central Committee, he described how "[c]ulture has become a more and more important source of national cohesion and creativity and a factor of growing significance in the competition in overall national strength."
Hu’s efforts, along with those of his successor, Xi Jinping, have generally been poorly received, however, in part because they seem to ignore the methods that have made the US and the UK (and even regional soft powers Japan and South Korea) so successful.
“Soft power is conceived as government PR,” argues Richard Creemers of the University of Oxford’s Center for Socio-Legal Studies.
Beijing’s view is that “it’s up to the government to decide what China is and then market it abroad,” in part because of the “international weakness of Chinese brands and cultural exports, which are the best soft-power assets of [other] countries,” says Trefor Moss of The Diplomat.
Perhaps the best-known soft power tool in the modern Chinese arsenal is the Confucius Institute program, which has recently come under fire from domestic and international critics.
Since 2004, hundreds of Confucius Institutes, which are roughly akin to the UK’s British Council or France’s Alliance Française, have opened around the world.
In the last several years, however, dozens have been forced to close amid allegations of censorship and restrictions on academic freedom. Including institutes hosted at prominent universities like the University of Chicago and Stockholm University.
Not exactly a smooth move from a soft power perspective, eh?
What Would Chinese Cultural Dominance Look Like?
Let’s ignore the bad publicity and management of the whole Confucius Institute program for a minute, though. For the sake of argument, let’s say the PRC gets their soft power act together and manages to surpass the US not just as an economic force but as a cultural one too.
It’s actually not as crazy as you think.
The overall concept of soft power jives nicely with the deep-seated Chinese concept of face, because at their cores, both are about controlling and maintaining reputation though various subtle and indirect means.
See the concept of face in action here: What Does Losing Face Mean?
With a long-established expertise in this, it’s not that hard to imagine Chinese cultural hegemony becoming a reality in the way Anglo-American culture is (arguably!) now.
But what might it look like?
We don’t even have to imagine it, really.
Near-future sci-fi space tales like Firefly and The Expanse book series posit a world (well, a universe at least) in which Chinese culture has firmly become part of global culture.
Check out this list of the top Chinese curses from Firefly (be sure to ignore the awful pronunciation tips), or see the asteroid belt residents of The Expanse who tend to answer in the affirmative with statements like “F**kin’ 对 (duì), man…”
More than a linguistic impact
Back here on Earth, though, we might see more than the language factor come into play.
With a cultural hegemony built on allegiance to the state rather than suspicion of it, we could see a trend toward less personal responsibility and more collective responsibility.
Extensive lawsuits, for instance, might become a thing of the past.
Multi-generational families living together could be the norm.
Heavy investment in infrastructure (hello, high speed rail from NY to LA!) and even teenagers not rebelling against their parents could become the rule rather than the exception.
So much of American cultural identity is built on cowboy, rugged individualist principles.
But in a Sino-centric world we’d see more cultural output based on filial piety and doing what’s best for the group, rather than for the individual.
Think Rebel Without A Cause (Who Still Visits His Parents Twice a Month).
More practically, Chinese values like education and face could become more prominent aspects of global culture, with more universities opening their doors and “face consultants” replacing the PR industry.
Think of all the cool Chinese calligraphy graffiti there would be in Brooklyn!
Anyways, I’m kind of just spitballing ideas here.
Distant oddity or something more deserving of attention?
It’s easy to sort of just write-off China as a wacky, far-away place with weird food that politicians say we should be afraid of so they can get more votes.
The fact of the matter is, though, that China is more than a bunch of old dudes with weirdly-uniform hair dye situations.
China is a HUGE place with a VERY strong cultural identity that is just as valid on a global scale as the Anglo-centric culture we’re all so familiar with.
They just haven’t quite figured out how to package and export it the way the US and Europe have.
The only question is how great their influence will be.
I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on what a future world in which China is the global cultural authority might look like.
Professional mahjong leagues?
So You Think You Can Squaredance Like an Ayi?
It’s all on the table. Let me know in the comments below!