This Quora answer to the question “When will the US lose its status as a superpower?” is glib. But it’s spot on:
America will lose its status as the world’s strongest when…
- Coca Cola is no longer the top beverage in the world
- McDonalds is no longer the top food chain in the world
- Hollywood movies are no longer the highest grossing in the world
- Americans spend more money on foreign entertainment than their own.America’s closet ‘rival’ regularly spends hundreds of millions on media that glorifies American might, so US superpower status is secure for now…
The strength of your military or foreign reserves only matters if you also know how to capture the world’s imagination and offer people a new way of doing things (whether it’s the right way or not is another question). Chinese civilisation is rich in detail, narrative, strategic thinking and innovation. It is both majestic and subtle – no argument there. But crucially missing in its five thousand years of history are both the confidence and will to meaningfully project itself cross-culturally…beyond the trading post or the Chinatown.
The next question is – does it need to? Absolutely.
When your economic and strategic footprint is as large as China’s, you cannot afford not to be number one. Even if your intentions are indeed benign, your impact is not. An elephant stomping across the savannah has no desire to hurt or rob others in his quest for existence, but his very heft and presence will always have consequence and make him an object of fear and suspicion.
You have to win hearts and minds to push your agenda – sticks and carrots are not enough. The Greeks, Romans, various Muslim empires, British and Americans all knew this and, like it or not, their cultural fingerprints are visible everywhere beyond their territories of origin (along with their brutal legacies).
As we head into the Lunar Year of the Monkey, I’m reminded of one of my favourite childhood television shows: Monkey, an adaptation of Journey to the West produced between 1978 and 1980.
This children’s show was a ridiculous cult success in Australia and other places but, as far as I can tell, never really in Asia. Few of us in Australia in the 1980s knew much of the Chinese Sun Wukong epic but we were blown away by this brash Asian dude with killer sideburns and a hairy chest who zipped across the sky on a cloud, bashing up demons and pissing on Buddha’s hand. We also loved his friends: a flatulent fish, a horny pig and a young male monk who confused many of us sexually. Little is known about how this series ended up in the hands of the Australian state broadcaster but every mouth-breathing, beer-swilling Aussie knows about The Journey to the West because of this show (not so Romance of the Three Kingdoms). It is as iconic as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or He-Man. Countless front-teeth were lost in big stick fights in backyards across the country because of this show. Now that is cross-cultural penetration.
What we also were probably too ignorant to realize as kids in the 1980s was that this show from the “Far East” wasn’t even Chinese – it was produced by NHK and featured an all-Japanese cast and the English-language edition was dubbed by Brits putting on bad Fu Manchu-style accents in a London recording studio.
For what it’s worth, my wife hates the show and so do most Chinese people who never saw it as children. It’s stupid and crude, it’s tacky and it’s insulting to the original epic, not to mention Chinese culture. Most insulting is the fact that the most globally-recognized adaptation of this great Chinese epic isn’t even Chinese. Yet for many non-Chinese, it is definitively Journey to the West because of its many cross-cultural access points – the disco theme song, crude jokes, sexual innuendo, the monsters – as unpalatable as they seem to some.
It also says something about what Japan learnt in the second half of the 20th century. Though now dwarfed economically and geopolitically by China, Japan has captured the imagination of the world with its animation, design and storytelling in a way China has yet to. And through its soft power (combined with its strong economic and military Cold War alliance with the U.S.), it fostered global goodwill that defies the resentment one would expect after the Japanese record of the Second World War.
To succeed in even just feeding its own 1.4 billion souls, China will need to make something that lifts the human spirit, not just its own GDP. Something that cannot be state-generated – it will need its own George Lucas, its own Walt Disney. It will need to do more than put a man on the moon – it will need to put a man on Mars. Chinese culture already has so much to offer the world beyond money or the goods made in its factories but it needs the confidence and freedom to sell it.
In other words, it will need to be a thought leader, not just for those with Chinese heritage, but for the world. Does it have the inclination to do so in this lifetime? That’s another question.
Gong Xi Fa Cai.