Since the closing years of the 20th century China’s emergence as a world economic power has ramifications globally. While some countries fear that this would adversely affect their economic competitiveness, others welcome it as an opportunity to expand their potentially lucrative trade relations with the Middle Kingdom.
China now ranks as the world’s fourth largest economy. Amazingly, this feat has been achieved in one generation. This is unprecedented in human history. By 2020, it could overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy. With its rising affluence and world stature, Chinese language, culture and things Chinese are gaining popularity all over- and sooner than China experts had anticipated.
How does this nascent Chinese soft power manifest itself? First and foremost more than 30 million foreigners worldwide are now learning Chinese. A significant number have enrolled in Chinese tertiary institutions. This trend should quicken over time.
Not surprisingly, Chinese as a second language is now taught in numerous schools and colleges in different parts of the world. It could become a popular second-language choice there, after English, in the not-too-distant future. In addition, more Chinese literature is being translated into foreign languages.
Also, traditional Chinese medicine has widened its following in the West. An important component, acupuncture, is now taught in leading medical schools in the US and Europe and many hospitals use it as possible remedies for certain ailments for which modern medicine has proved ineffective. More research is being conducted in laboratories to verify the efficacy’s of other Chinese herbal treatments. Furthermore, many Americans have become keen practitioners of feng shui, martial arts and health-promoting exercises. Leading US book shops are well stocked with feng shui books, mostly written by Americans themselves.
Chinese movies, dubbed in foreign languages, are now making their regular appearences in Asia and the West with growing audiences. Several have won coveted international awards. Chinese movie icons have become familiar names overseas.
Conventional wisdom dictates that a nation’s cuisine is a hallmark of its civilisation. Chinese food is arguably the most popular in the world, as Chinese restaurants operate even in remote parts of the globe. It is unquestionably the most visible form of Chinese soft power.
Chinese art, which has long been collected by the elites of East and West , is now more accessible and appreciated by ordinary foreigners who can view them in their own museums or more readily in China itself. Today, millions of tourists go to China to savour the myriad attractions of its 5000-year old civilisation. Now placed fourth among the world’s favourite visitor destinations, it is expected to top the list within a decade. The Beijing Olympics 2008 will further enhance China’s softer image with increased tourism and through worldwide television coverage for millions of viewers.
Finally, as Chinese is likely to supercede English as the number one Internet language within a decade, at least in terms of the number of users, it should propel China’s cultural reach exponentially.
The question is: Can the current interest in Chinese language, culture and other things Chinese be sustained, or is it a mere flash in the pan? If it is here to stay, will it ultimately threaten the seemingly unassailable supremacy of the American soft power? Historically, a nation’s cultural influence is determined largely by its political and economic standing in the world, and whether others find it stimulating and worthy of emulation. With American soft power being so pervasive globally, it is unlikely that China can rival its dominance in the foreseeable future. Underpinning its cultural appeal is the popularity of the English language, which has been entrenched as the world’s linqua franca. Without it, peoples of different races and cultures will cease to communicate effectively with each other. Furthermore, the excellence of its top educational and cultural institutions, its powerful print, electronic and broadcasting media and the perceived attractiveness of some aspects of the American way of life have won it widespread admiration and following.
Most experts agree that China’s soft power will increase significantly with time, in tandem with its growing world ranking. This will happen when foreigners become attuned to its language and culture, not merely for its economic benefit but also for its intrinsic value. One important factor that may militate against the dissemination of China’s cultural outreach is that its language, a vital conduit for cultural transmission, is difficult for foreigners to learn. But this problem is not insurmountable as many young people have acquired fluency. For these reasons, I am optimistic that the Chinese soft power will ultimately become an international force. Whether it will eventually threaten the supremacy of the American soft power, no one can predict accurately. Only time will tell.
Lam Pin Foo
June 29, 2006