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A Chinese Century? Not Quite

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In the narrowest sense, a superpower has the military might to force the world to acquiesce to hegemonic resolve (for example, the Soviet Union). Then there are economic superpowers that influence capital flows and global growth rates. When they struggle, the world does too. Finally, there are soft superpowers, nations that "own" universal values.

American strengths and weaknesses. In response to the brouhaha over the American debt ceiling, a correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt wrote in July, 2011: "Out of the American twenty-first-century crisis could come the downfall of the dominant power of the twentieth century." His sentiments, perhaps overheated, are a reminder that nothing lasts forever. It is to be hoped that America's disorientation, triggered by the rise of China, political polarization, and a hangover of material self-indulgence, is not permanent. Even if GDP growth slows due to protracted deleveraging, the combination of a growing population and high per capita income ensures continued economic sway. America's military budget, currently eight times that of China, will continue to underpin geopolitical clout, even as the country's status of as an 800-pound gorilla diminishes in a multi-polar world.

American values -- as opposed to its political system -- will have global appeal for generations. Individualism -- the encouragement of society to define oneself independent of society -- does not travel well, but respect for the dignity of the common man touches all hearts. Iconic American brands such as Nike and Coke, vessels of hope, will never go out of style. American pop culture will not be challenged. Superstars -- from Lady Gaga to Michael Jackson to Angelina Jolie to Johnny Depp -- epitomize self-actualization, an aspiration that transcends culture.

China's soft power gap. China will undoubtedly evolve into an economic superpower. Its economy, within decades, will become the world's largest. Per capita disposable income will be constrained but aggregate spending power will be massive. China's industrial tentacles will be felt everywhere; traditional Chinese medicine will become more popular; and university students will learn Mandarin.

But China will not easily capture hearts and minds. The Chinese are ethnocentric. In large ways and small, an instinct to narrowly defend interests can be off putting:

First, the country maintains a chip on its shoulder regarding indignities suffered at the hands of foreigners between the Opium War and the establishment of Communist China in 1949. Strident outrage erupts whenever any country "hurts the feelings of the Chinese people."

Second, in a pinch, the government lapses into bullyboy petulance, throwing economic and military weight around the region. Diplomatic relationships with Japan and India are tetchy, largely because China remains brittle and insecure. Decades-long territorial disputes are unresolved.

Third, although Chinese society is more civil than a few years ago, daily life is still dog-eat-dog. Charity organizations are underdeveloped due to the party's reluctance to grant authority to any entity not under its direct control. Families, unprotected by rule of law, fend for themselves at the expense of individuals outside the clan. Anyone who fails to conform to convention -- for example, the handicapped or mentally ill, homosexuals, and AIDS patients -- is socially ostracized. Spitting and burping in public is commonplace. In crowded elevators and airplanes, mobile phone users lack volume control.

Fourth, Chinese, a language in which written and spoken forms are completely unrelated, remains a temple of linguistic exclusivity, a walled garden, frustratingly off limits to everyone but the most disciplined and determined foreigners. Every character requires memorization; every sentence must conform to structural imperatives.

When in Rome? Despite fascination with the world, the Chinese do not assimilate easily. China tries hard to be open -- road signs are bilingual, English is a passion, trade links are robust, macroeconomic policies during financial crises were constructive -- but, emotionally, the nation stands apart. Information is controlled. Defensive instincts militate against free and easy exchange of ideas. Until trust is established, foreigners are treated with polite suspicion. Manufacturers that acquire Western companies have difficulty integrating domestic and international management teams. The global footprint of China's state-controlled English-language news outlets is growing, but broadcasts are so dull international viewers tune out. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, impressive in scale and moving in ambition, lapsed into mawkish cliché when gears shifted from celebrating China's glory to preaching "One World, One Dream."

China's ability to leverage the assets of other cultures is peerless. Its superhighways are modeled after America's and major web portals are copycats of Western sites, tweaked for local users. The Party has also integrated itself into the fabric of the global trading system as a check against domestic weaknesses (for example, poor corporate governance, pliable standards of financial transparency). But, unless deemed "safe," foreigners are still confronted with awkward silences and robotic smiles. Bonding at the national level is a long ways off.

China will be an economic superpower only. There will be more than one tiger on the mountain.

Note: This article is adapted from my upcoming book, What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China's Modern Consumer, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in May, 2012.