The West has lost its bearings. It has no sense of the future. It is in denial about the rise of China and in so far as it recognises China’s economic transformation it refuses to acknowledge that in time this will have profound political, cultural and intellectual consequences. The reason is that the West cannot imagine a different kind of modernity to its own, believing that as countries like China modernise they westernise and become simply clones of the West. But China will not be like the West. Modernity is shaped by history and culture as much as markets and technology. Chinese modernity will be very different. And as China becomes a global power, it will exercise a very different kind of influence on the world to that of the United States.
So what will Chinese hegemony look like? What will be its characteristics? There is an assumption that China will become an expansionist power in the mould of the US and the UK previously. I doubt it. Europe and the US have been typically aggressive and expansionist, the former over many centuries. In contrast, China never colonised any overseas territories even though it had the means and the opportunity. Rather, China’s most distinctive mode of expansion is likely to be cultural. There is widespread scepticism that China could ever achieve soft power on the scale of the United States. Yet China has historically above all been a great cultural power. One of the oldest and most remarkable written languages, an extraordinarily rich literary tradition, great philosophers like Confucius, spectacular periods of invention. This is why the Chinese take such pride in their civilization and view themselves as superior to others.
Of course, as a poor nation it has hitherto been unable to project itself in a modern and convincing way. But with the Beijing Olympics we glimpsed how China will appear to future generations: the beauty of the Bird’s Nest, the compelling power of the opening ceremony, the deployment of popular culture to convey a narrative about Chinese history. China’s face will be very different from that of the United States. While the latter is an extremely recent creation, based on the destruction of its indigenous peoples and thereby its previous history, China is thousands of years old. While Americans constantly find the need to re-invent themselves, the Chinese in contrast know exactly who they are. At the heart of the American psyche lie an assertive individualism and a deep suspicion of the state; the Chinese, far from seeing the state as alien, view it with reverence. For them, the state is the guardian and embodiment of their civilization. Indeed China is not really a nation-state in any conventional western sense but rather a civilization-state.
With the rise of China, we will see a profound shift in global values. The Chinese state’s relationship with society is entirely different to that in the West; individualism in the western sense does not lie at the heart of Chinese society but rather the state does. We can thus begin to perceive the kind of value-system shift that the rise of China presages: civilization rather than nation-state; the state rather than the individual; history rather than the present; cultural hierarchy rather than military expansionism. This shift will find expression in every sphere including pop culture.
Chinese culture will exercise a profound influence on the world and eventually supplant the present ascendancy of American pop culture. The process is already in motion. Over the last twenty years, European children have played Japanese games on Japanese electronic consoles for recreation; and in the school playground boxing and wrestling have been displaced by the likes of taekwondo and kung fu. More recently Chinese cinematic blockbusters like Hero have proved very popular. Soon calligraphy will become an integral part of our aesthetics. We are entering a very new cultural world.