Despite its best efforts, China is still far too mysterious to take over the world

US president Donald Trump with China's president Xi Jinping at their bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, on Saturday.
US president Donald Trump with China's president Xi Jinping at their bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, on Saturday.
Image: REUTERS/ Kevin Lamarque

Last week we used a broad-stroke brush to sweep vast historical trends into a simplified story of the rise and fall of empires, leading to today's threshold at which China stands ready to inherit the reins of global leadership from a reluctantly receding Western empire - the US.

Today we abandon the brush. Instead we take up a magnifying glass, to look more closely into the landmines that lie hidden on China's road to global empiredom. For if the road is not de-mined, China shall not rule the world.

In a nutshell, China faces two hurdles: soft and hard. The soft ones are cultural, and the hard ones are institutional.

What made it relatively easy for the US to rule the world is the historical fact that, by the time Uncle Sam took over the imperial reins, Great Britain had already succeeded in turning the language of a small-island people - English - into a legitimate global lingua franca. The idea that strangers must use English when they interface on the global stage gave the US great cultural power in its engagement with the world.

Thus, the rest of humanity's diverse languages were relegated to an exotic status compared to what appeared like a proper language of international business and political intercourse - English.

By means of language, the Western empire succeeded in appropriating, repackaging and projecting scientific and other forms of knowledge as quintessentially a Western affair. Today, even the proudest Indian, African, or Arab nationalist is proud to send their children to Harvard or Oxford University.

So, if it hopes to rule the world, China must find a clever way of making the diverse peoples of the world find it both useful and cool to speak Mandarin.

Unfortunately for China, the crude-empire time when a few explorer-Englishmen, like Cecil John Rhodes, were able to break into a new, non-European society and use a gun to force a whole native population to learn English is long gone.

Succinctly stated, the biggest challenge to Chinese ambitions of global leadership is that of projecting China to the rest of the world as an attractive cultural construct from which the rest of humanity can draw modern civilizational lessons.

That China has made great economic strides - by becoming the second-largest economy in the world - is not enough of a cultural magnet.

When a culture has seized hold of the imagination of most people in the world, it is easy for the world to accept institutions erected around such a culture as exemplary, and therefore legitimate.

The institutions of global leadership - to which we referred last week, such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, etc. - were at some point viewed by most people in the world as legitimate, due largely to the hegemonic nature of the Western culture that undergirded them.

Today, China is trying hard to build alternative institutions of global leadership - such as Brics and regional financing instruments - but the institutions will remain suspect in the eyes of the world for as long as the Chinese culture that buttresses those institutions remains mysterious.

Even those countries that pretend to be China's friends - such as Russia and India - are not happy with China's ascendancy.

While China is nursing its delicate imperial strategy, Vladimir Putin is busy entertaining atavistic dreams about a return to an ancient Eurasianism whose nerve centre is Russia.

India, too, does not understand why its Indus Valley Civilisation, which is a proud Indian version of Orientalism, must be subordinated to a resurgent Confucian culture next door.

So, we are left panic-stricken in the treacherous high seas of a global leadership vacuum.

He who feigns prescience ipso facto reveals his mendacious core.

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