THE BLOG
07/15/2016 02:17 am ET Updated Jul 15, 2017

Icons And Identity: An Introduction To China's Engagement With The World

Xi Jinping's foreign policy hinges on realizing "the China dream." But, beyond a nationalistic desire to "stand tall" on the global stage, few Westerners can articulate the underlying dynamics and motivations of Beijing's increasingly assertive behavior.

This article takes a humanistic approach by asking two questions: Which Chinese do the Chinese themselves revere and what does this reveal about the country's place in the world moving forward?

China does not boast many icons. But they exist - people who capture the public's imagination to such an extent they generates universal admiration. In China, an icon is, without exception, an individual who transcends conventional definitions of what it means to be Chinese. He "reinterprets" Chinese identity without abandoning it. In doing so, he brings glory to the country, enabling the masses to stand tall on the global stage.

Yao Ming is an icon.
The Shanghai Sharks superstar was selected by NBA franchise the Houston Rockets as their first-round draft pick in 2002. Despite injury that ultimately brought his career to a premature close in 2011, Yao was selected eight times as a starter for the Western Conference in the NBA All-Star Game. In China, he is a mega-star because he won big in the US and did so by deploying a quintessentially Chinese style of play - lingqiao, or "flexible skill." Yao did not emulate the style of NBA trash-talking but leveraged clever resourcefulness and understatement, two aspirational personality characteristics, to make his mark. On the basketball court, the new generation's altar of cool, Yao brought home victory and worldwide applause. (In contrast, sprinter Liu Xiang's iconic potential evaporated when he withdrew from the Olympic hundred-meter sprint in front of a global television audience.) By reinterpreting, not discarding, traditional Chinese values, Yao made the nation proud.

Zhang Yimou is an icon. He is the most celebrated "fifth generation" film director, renowned in the West since his 1987 debut oeuvre, Red Sorghum, the first Chinese film to be nominated for an Academy Award. The Chinese took longer to come around. Until recently, Zhang was often criticized for presenting a quaintly traditional view of China, pre-digested for foreign consumption. His acclaimed movies such as Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, were said to romanticize "feudalism." Stories of concubines and landowners, saturated with color, reinforced an archaic view of China. Public indifference toward Zhang began to change when Hero, a 2002 epic martial arts masterpiece, became an international hit, particularly in the US. The eponymous protagonist, a master swordsman who prevents the assassination of China's first emperor, represented an incarnation of the ultimate Chinese truth: the sublimity of unity versus the evil of chaos. Zhang did not approach deity status, however, until he staged the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The three-hour extravaganza, broadcast to billions, was a declaration of China's emergence of a 21st century cultural power. For the first time in modern history, the world understood that China's values - and not just its economy - would be a force to be reckoned with.

Bruce Lee is an icon.
He is the closest thing Chinese men have to a spiritual savior. He developed his own kung fu philosophy - Jeet Kune Do or "The Way of Intercepting Fist" - by fusing various schools of classic martial arts techniques. Lee's style, a quintessentially Han combination of defensive power and under-the-radar masculinity, elevated the chop-socky Hong Kong martial arts flick to a new level of international popularity. Born in San Francisco and raised in Hong Kong during the 1940s and 1950s, Lee's fame made Chinese feel big. He died in 1973, just as the country was about to emerge from its darkest period in history, an era of political and economic emasculation. Inured to, but bucking against, impotence in the face of Western hegemony, Chinese males needed a role model who personified masculine grace: lithesome agility, "defensive offense," the ability to transform harmony with the external world into explosive power. Today, almost forty years after his death, Lee almost transcends iconic status.

The idolization of Yao, Zhang and Lee suggests a profound ambivalence between the Chinese people and the outside world. On one hand, the nation craves engagement with and acknowledgement from the international community. On the other hand, China has an inferiority complex, exacerbated by two hundred years of humiliating economic decline. Fiercely nationalistic and culturally absolutist, the country has a chip on its shoulder. The Chinese do not feel safe. They wonder whether the nation's economic ascent is sustainable and, if not, whether the world will gang up on them. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, China needs to "trust but verify."

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China's relationship with foreigners will always be paradoxical. Pragmatic engagement, ethnocentric isolation and "defensive offense" will continue to uncomfortably co-exist.

Despite recent belligerence, China has rejected isolationism. It has assiduously pursued leadership roles in multinational organizations such as the World Health Organization, the G20, the World Economic Forum and, most recently, the International Monetary Fund. The "One Belt, One Road" is development strategy and framework proposed by President Xi that focuses on connectivity and cooperation among countries primarily between the the PRC and Eurasia.

In return, many overseas companies, from mobile phone and auto manufacturers to airlines and hotels, have achieved sustainable profits and broad scale in the mainland market. Compared to Japan, regulatory hurdles are simpler, although still opaque and, according to the America Chamber of Commerce, becoming more onerous since 2013. Still, on the street and in the lanes, foreigners' are surprised by the friendliness and openness of ordinary Chinese. Eyes are bright, thirsty for knowledge.

However, multinational engagement - economic, political or social - is über-practical and sharp-edged. Joint ventures are meticulously negotiated; contracts demand technology transfer to domestic partners. Affairs between foreigners and locals are rooted in material gain, not romantic satisfaction. Casual chats are English practice; American Chamber of Commerce "mixers" are for networking, not finding friends.

The pragmatism inherent in China's broadened worldview is reflected by a new passion for travel. According to the Chinese Tourism Authority, outbound departures reached 120 million in 2015, up thirteen percent year-on-year. Despite limited incomes, figures will continue to skyrocket. But the Chinese do not travel to discover cultural riches. Expensive hotels and restaurants are unnecessary extravagances, indulgences that yield no return. The real motivation is buying luxury brands. According Global Refund, a company specializing in tax-free shopping for tourists, in 2015, the Chinese account for fifteen percent of all luxury items purchased in France but less than two percent of its visitors. Trips to Paris and London are expensive but they are not sunk costs; they are status investments. They reinforce identification with a sophisticated middle class lifestyle. Today's Chinese "collect destinations" and post them on micro-blogs as ego puppy uppers and use social network platform to convert "experience" into social currency.

Cyclical destiny, ethnocentric isolation. Unlike Japan, a cocooned island, China is not apart from the world. Indeed, the country fancies itself the center of the universe, a cultural supernova that sucks in anything in its path. China - as much as civilization as a nation-state - has endured for thousands of years, a feat attributed to natural order. The "idea" of China is, in local people's eyes, absolute truth. China analyzes, dissects and atomizes the political systems of other nations. It studies Western competitive advantages and applies them to local circumstances. But it is also a country in search of its own Copernican revolution. It remains unable to weave itself through the warp and weft of other societies. For example:

Other than Huawei, a business-to-business telecommunications company, no Chinese corporation has achieved significant scale in any developed market - Haier's fifteen percent share of cheap microwaves and mini fridges in the US does not count - due to, among other factors, the inability to balance marketing and sales functions;

International cuisine is a hit in public settings where middle class Chinese bend over backwards to project an image of cosmopolitan erudition. However, even sophisticated Shanghainese rarely eat foreign foods at home. According to Treasury Wine Estates, only 5% of booming red wine consumption occurs at home;

Chinese expatriates, particularly men, do not assimilate well. They often return home with a simplistic view that the West "looks down on" them. But reality is subtler. At business schools and in offices, clusters of Chinese retreat into self-effacing, gun-shy cliques reinforcing stereotypes of Chinese men as soft;

Second- and third generation American Born Chinese struggle to reconcile the imperatives of Chinese heritage - obedience to parents, obsession with "face" - with US individualism. Identity confusion sometimes results in an odd hyper-Americanism;

Oversees students, acutely aware of the deficiencies of China's memorization-based education system, nonetheless avoid Western liberal arts like the plague. The most popular majors are still engineering, math and business;

Starting in 2004, the government opened hundreds of Confucius Institutes to promote inter-cultural "harmony." Due to a dearth of effective outreach ambassadors, they have ended up as language schools;

So China's road to becoming a "soft" superpower will be long and rocky indeed.

Defensive offense. For three thousand years, China has felt "exposed." During dynastic times, nomadic armies from the north repeatedly breached the Great Wall. After the Opium war, the nation was economically vivisected by Western powers through a series of unequal treaties, starting with the Treaty of Nanjing. During World War II, Japanese armies slashed and burned their way across broad swathes of countryside. Threats to unity, perceived or real, trigger alarm bells. Hell breaks loose when we touch the third rail of Chinese insecurity - fear of territorial disintegration. But what the West sees as offensive is, in Chinese eyes, defensive. Examples abound: hysteria in response to the accidental 1998 bombing of China's Yugoslavian embassy and the 2001 downing of a Chinese plane off the coast of Hainan island; adventurism in the South China sea; anti-Japanese furor over the disputed Diaoyu islands; diplomatic lock-down each time America sells weapons to Taiwan; vilification of the Dalai Lama; and most recently outrageous territorial claims in the East and South China seas.

As long as the international community acknowledges China's right to "rise peacefully," Beijing will not threaten other nations' sovereignty. China is pragmatic. It knows expanded global clout requires the support of other countries. China is also cautious. It fears upsetting the delicate geo-political balance on which economic expansion depends. And China is proud. The nation craves global admiration and respect. Pariah status, for both emotional and economic reasons, is a non-starter.

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Will China emerge as a responsible stakeholder in global affairs, mutually accommodating on overlapping interests? Grudgingly, yes. It will do so reactively, and never without rigorous cost-benefit analysis. True, the Chinese are instinctively driven by self-interest. Beijing will vigorously protect access to natural resources. It will relentlessly pursue commercial engagement in Africa, granting concessions on human rights issues and corporate governance only if the international community makes a fuss. But red lines of "peaceful coexistence" will not be crossed. Countries will not be invaded. Beijing knows it has a lot vested in the current international order and has no choice but to take responsibilities seriously.