In the 1990s, the Chinese government banned the works of satirical writer Wang Shuo. In his bestselling novel Please Don’t Call Me Human he imagined a Beijing Olympics where nations competed to prove their citizens’ capacity for humiliation. He was a mocking of China’s greatest obsession—keeping face.
It was a future gazing, deep satire because the Olympics—in 2008—came to be seen as China’s coming out party as a global superpower. It was a brand building exercise of epic proportion.
The ascendancy of China is happening under the watch of a new elite that has only seen Chinese success, power and prestige throughout their careers. This was different from the earlier Chinese approach to hide its growing strength. Their position was articulated in a slogan given by Deng Xiaoping “tao guang yang hui" literally “hide brightness, nourish obscurity". The official translators worded it as “bide our time and build our capabilities".
That China is dead. A new aggressive, acquisitive, domineering China is now showing its muscles.
But China cannot be a world power, in the true sense, till it is able to build a global marketplace where its brands dominate. It is nowhere close to that state today. For all its show of superpower status, China is, and historically has always been, inward looking, ‘defensive -aggressive’ and somewhat bitterly provincial.
From the time of the Ming dynasty, supreme power lay with the Emperor who was literally at the centre of the world order—Tian Xia. The same Ming emperors built the Great Wall of China.
China is obsessed with the need to establish boundaries. Even the pictogram for the ‘country’ is made up of a four-walled figure. China has become—in purchasing power parity terms—the world’s largest economy. With that comes enormous power. Yet, one has to be open and embracing to become a leader of world culture.
China has tried to imagine a world where the majority nation states are economically dependent on it. It wants global markets to operate outside the boundaries of ‘other national’ control. It wants to create its own parallel set of transnational institutions. But within its boundaries, the Chinese Communist Party maintains draconian control over the political system.
Yet, the 21st century cannot be a Chinese century till Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Tiger Woods, Tesla, Google and a thousand others global culture building brands and icons remain American.
In this respect, China’s race to superpower status is unlikely to have a finish line. Even if Beijing’s formula of state capitalism, open markets and a closed political system survives, it is unlikely to be able to take up a confrontational militaristic posture and build endearing global brands.
China has already changed the balance of economic and military power, but now it faces the real test of being a superpower, and that is about influencing how people across the world think.
It is not as if the Chinese do not know this. They have been desperate to try and build a global presence in content, cultural activities and preferred brands. A hot buzzword has always been ‘ruan quanli’, Mandarin for ‘soft power’. They have understood it quite differently from how the American political scientist Joseph Nye articulated it originally in 1990. But they have taken to it and promoted it far more zealously than even the Americans. Yet, they haven’t been able to succeed.
Soft power does not depend on any trading carrot or military stick, but rather on the attraction of culture and the lure of social norms and way of life. If the Chinese want to truly dominate the world, they have to join the competition to set a global agenda for life and living. The maximum number of Chinese students abroad still go to American universities, their trading relationships have been the deepest with American companies. Even though China did set up Confucius institutes to promote Chinese language and culture and Global Times and CCTC take its worldview public, it is unable to create a universalisation of its offerings the same way that Anglo-American ideas and brands have been able to.
Till it wins the battle for mind space, it cannot be the numero uno global power.
The clock is ticking—“TikTok"!
These are the author's personal views.
The author is global head of marketing at Royal Enfield.