Nationalism and Westernization: China’s Place in the World?

Forbes: Helen H. Wang

Chinese New Year
Image by yewenyi via Flickr

The latest The Economist ran a 14-page special report on China’s place in the world. One analysis points out that China’s increasing nationalism could pose a threat to American power and undermine global stability.

The report cited that many Chinese scholars do not believe a partnership with the U.S. is realistic. As Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies of Peking University, was quoted as saying: “Most Chinese would say the U. S. is the enemy.”

I do not want to doubt the source or accuracy of The Economist article. After all, it is one of the best publications that I routinely read – a publication with the most sensible arguments and balanced views.

However, in writing my newly-released book, The Chinese Dream, I traveled all over China and spoke to hundreds of people. They are entrepreneurs, students, government officials, businessmen, office workers, migrant workers, scholars, etc. Not a single person told me that they considered the U. S. as the enemy.

In fact, many people I met looked up the U. S. as a model and admired the American system. China’s brightest young people still aspire to study in American universities. Americans are highly respected in China. A corporate lawyer in Silicon Valley told me that he was pleasantly surprised that he was treated so well when he was in China. “That’s why I like to go to China,” he said. “People there are very nice and polite to me, although they treat other Chinese somewhat rude.”

Yes, there is a nationalistic tendency among Chinese youth. Especially during the 2008 Olympic torch relay, Chinese youths stood behind their government and protested against Western media’s reportage on Tibetan unrest. Some of China’s “angry youth” called for a boycott of French products.

However, I believe that the nationalistic rhetoric by China’s “angry youth” is reactive rather than proactive. In 2009, the Brookings Institution held a special panel discussion, “Understanding China’s ‘Angry Youth’: What Does the Future Hold?” Among the distinguished panelists were Kai-Fu Lee, then president of Google China, Evan Osnos, the New Yorker staff writer who authored an article titled “Angry Youth,” academics, and other China experts. The panelists believed that much of the concern about China’s nationalism is overblown. As Kai-fu Lee pointed out, the so-called “angry youth” are not the majority, and “certainly not the ones showing true leadership.”

On the contrary, many Chinese are becoming increasingly westernized. In the United States, the discussion about globalization is often about the jobs outsourced to overseas and how America is losing its competitive advantage. Yet when I travel in China, it is very apparent to me that a major part of globalization is westernization, or more specifically, Americanization.

The Starbucks at Metro City in west Shanghai was probably the busiest Starbucks I visited in China. Situated inside a gigantic glass ball, a distinguished landmark of the area, newly minted coffee drinkers packed the place. Most of them worked in the surrounding office buildings that housed multinationals like Microsoft and Softbank. Although spacious, it felt cramped with a roomful of young men and women sipping lattes and tapping on laptops. This could be any Starbucks you would find in the United States: a stunningly inviting interior, espresso aroma filling the air, and the unmistakable music of Elvis Costello.

Westernization seems to be everywhere in China. Many young Chinese I met adopted English names and prided themselves on being westernized. Coca-Cola drinks have found their way into remote villages. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) has become the favorite meal for Chinese youth and children. I know that the best treat for my seven-year-old niece in China is to take her out to the local KFC.

Jenny Chen, a young woman who was vice president of an Internet start-up company, proudly showed me her office, where a model of Capitol Hill—not the Forbidden City—stood on her desk. Bill Gates is much more a hero among Chinese youth than he is in the United States. Pirated versions of TV shows such as Friends and Sex and the City are very popular in China. Young people celebrate Christmas more than Chinese New Year—not because they are Christians, but because Christmas is a Western tradition, considered modern and trendy in China.

China can be a threat to the U.S. if the U.S. treats it as one. There is a profound mistrust between the two countries. China suspects that America seeks to stop China from rising and interprets everything the U.S. does through this lens. America worries about China’s nationalism and sees China as a growing power that will challenge its global hegemony. Such mistrust can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and a source of global instability.

However, it need not be that way. As the same The Economist article also argues, China and America have a lot in common. Both benefit from globalization, both need each other’s markets, and both have a lot to gain by working together to solve common problems. It is in neither China’s nor America’s interests to become antagonistic rivals.

Among recent disastrous wikileaks, perhaps one cable leak from the U.S. embassy deserves more attention, as pointed out by James Fallows:

18. (S) The U.S.-China relationship was of crucial importance, said [Chinese diplomat] Dai. China would do its best to cooperate with the United States wherever possible. “If we expand the pie for the common interest, the pie will be larger and more delicious.” Together, the two sides should work collaboratively for the good of the world, especially since the two countries were “passengers in the same boat.” Dai urged careful management of the relationship and respect for each other’s core interests and concerns.

(Helen Wang is the author of The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class and What It Means to You. Available on Amazon and http://TheChineseDreamBook.com)

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