We take the future Asian superpower for granted, but who is their Robert Redford?
By Rafael Poch for Ctxt.
In the 20th century, in order to become a global superpower, the United States established itself in the first phase as the hegemonic power of the Western Hemisphere. To do so, it had to defeat other aspirants in Europe, such as the German Empire and Nazi Germany. It also defeated the Japanese Empire in the Pacific and then contained the Soviet Union in many parts of the world. The United States used the Western Hemisphere as the basis for its global projection. Some American authors (John Mearsheimer) say today that China is following the same path. Its current purpose is to establish itself as a regional hegemonic power in Asia and to displace the United States from the region where its economy is currently the most important. From that regional base, they say, it will expand its influence and power in the world in the same way the United States did.
Of treachery and anxiety
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, says, “China will not, repeat, not repeat the old practice of a strong country seeking hegemony.” The Americans, and in general Westerners, do not believe him. As the saying goes, “the thief thinks that everyone is like them”, so for Westerners, who invented capitalism and have dominated the world by force and coercion for five hundred years, another modus operandi is unthinkable. They say that Chinese prudence is part of the same thing, albeit with greater subtlety, avoiding head-on collisions, occupying, for example, positions where American interests were lower or where there was no presence at all, such as in certain countries and regions of Africa… That China has granted debt relief to 28 of the 31 most indebted countries in the world, or that it has completely written off the debts of some of them, such as Afghanistan, Burundi and Guinea, would, in short, be a sign of treacherous opportunism to gain positions rather than of altruism and goodwill.
The anxiety of this debate increases when it is confirmed that, after seventy years of Western governance of the world economy, while the United States withdraws towards protectionist and introspective attitudes, China is snatching the international initiative from it with its defence of globalising openness and its offer to the outside world of large infrastructure projects oriented towards developing countries, the “New Silk Road Initiative” (aka the Belt and Road Initiative, BRI) that the New York Times is presenting as “a current version of the Marshall Plan”.
To export, to integrate
After twenty years of undertaking the largest urbanization process in history, building new cities and rail and highway connections between them, China is exporting its experience and industrial and manufacturing overcapacity to the developing world, thus expanding the role of its banks and its currency. For some this is nothing more than “an attempt to solve China’s problems of overcapacity, its growing debt and its dwindling growth rates through geographical expansion” (Martin Hart-Landsberg) for others this is a nefarious advance in chrematistics that will further suffocate the planet. Without denying these hypotheses, others note that the Chinese plan is currently the only integrating project for a world that is already integrated in its existential dilemmas: global warming, advancing inequalities and capacities for mass destruction. In the current scenario, the BRI is the only alternative to the succession of military disasters carried out by Washington in the course of the last century, from Afghanistan to Syria, via Iraq, Libya and Yemen with its toll of entire societies destroyed and some four million dead…
Problems on the horizon
The debate on how to interpret the rise of China and its global projection is a matter of paramount importance. It would be vain and arrogant to pontificate about its future outcome when we are exposed to so many uncertainties. But even without going into the questions of whether China will be able to maintain its internal stability in the coming decades, we can foresee problems on the horizon of global dominance by China.
A superpower status, if attained, depends not only on the economy and military power. “Every successful empire had to elaborate a universalist and inclusive discourse” to win support and consensus of the population outside its borders, as well as of countries and their states, observes Indian historian Joya Chatterji. “Successful imperial transitions driven by the hard power of guns and money also require the soft-power salve of cultural suasion for sustained and successful global dominion. Spain espoused Catholicism and Hispanism, the Ottomans Islam, the Soviets communism, France a cultural francophonie, and Britain an Anglophone culture. The United States has been able to introduce its civilization in its globalization with extraordinary success. China has nothing comparable; an alphabet that instead of 26 letters has 5000 characters, a confused “communist” official ideology and an extraordinary civilization but historically self-centred and introspective.
The decline of the United States as a power is a historical fact, but beyond pure economics, in the realm of what is known as soft power, the ability to influence via its cultural and ideological prestige, cultural Americanization, mastery of its global language, its patterns of conduct and fashions, the entertainment industry, etc., continues to advance at full steam. In Western Europe it has conquered and colonized, leaving a perhaps definitive seal, in those nations most jealous of its idiosyncrasy and way of life, such as France. In countries such as Russia, where despite geopolitical rivalries the westernisation of society continues a pace, this is fundamentally an Americanisation.
“In 1919 there was a European civilization with an American culture as a variant,” wrote Régis Debray. Today we have, “an American civilization in which European cultures, with all their diversity, seem to be variants at best and indigenous reservations at worst. On a chessboard that would be called a castling, on a battlefield, a defeat.
The Scottish comedian, Frankie Boyle, observed some time ago, regarding American films about Vietnam, that, “American foreign policy is horrendous. Not only will America come to your country and kill all your people, but what’s worse I think, they’ll come back twenty years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad.”
Where is China’s Hollywood? Who is China’s Robert Redford or Marilyn Monroe? What are the fashionable Chinese words that our people adopt before they understand them without bothering to translate them? Where are the Chinese bead necklaces, ingeniously designed devices and technologies that combine entertainment with police control that excite idiotised youth? We take the future Asian superpower for granted, but how do you say cool in Chinese?
Translated by Pressenza London