Wed Oct 26, 2:54 PM ET
JAKARTA, Indonesia – As students bustled in and out of her Mandarin
language school, teacher Yue Xiaoyan said a desire to learn Chinese was
awakening in the world.
“More and more people are starting to realize that Chinese is a really,
really important language,” Yue said.
From Jakarta to Vancouver and on to New Delhi and Chicago, surging
interest in studying the Chinese language is just one gauge of the
greater magnetic pull that China exerts after two decades of galloping
economic growth. China is wielding more clout around the globe, shaping
up as a counterweight to the United States in fields as divergent as
diplomacy, trade and language.
China’s negotiators are chalking up numerous free-trade accords with
other countries, yanking the momentum from the United States, while
Chinese leaders travel the globe to red-carpet welcomes from trading
partners pulled by China’s growth locomotive.
Economic vitality is at the heart of China’s ascendancy, adding luster
to a nation that was stagnant and impoverished only a generation ago.
Now, China launches men into space, fields a modern military, finances
some of the world’s daring architecture and jostles for influence in
international market of ideas.
It still doesn’t come close to challenging the United States in “soft
power,” that combination of cultural and economic vibrancy, marketing
pizzazz, diplomatic heft and idealistic vision that made the last
century one of American pre-eminence around the globe. But in odd and
disparate corners, from the NBA courts, where Yao Ming dribbles and
other players sport Chinese tattoos, to the Eiffel Tower illuminated in
red to honor the Chinese New Year, the Middle Kingdom’s influence is
China’s rise coincides with a decline in favorable public opinion
the United States, particularly in Asia, that’s seemed stark since the
2001 terrorist attacks and the American invasion of Iraq two years
“There is a lot of discontent about U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific
region and around the globe. In some areas, China is seen as a
force and a nonthreatening one,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a China expert
at New Zealand’s Canterbury University. “Any power that can stand up to
the United States gets sympathy from many countries.”
China isn’t seeking a confrontation with the United States, but it’s
jousting for influence in some of the far corners of the world. It’s
also leveraging its economic growth to kindle global enthusiasm for
studying the standard Chinese dialect, which the majority of Chinese
A subsidiary of the Education Ministry aims to set up 100 Chinese
language institutes around the world, which it calls Confucius
Institutes, and staff them with native Chinese teachers. The goal is to
quadruple the number of foreigners studying Chinese to 100 million by
2010. So far it’s set up 32 institutes in 23 countries.
While promotion of the standard Chinese dialect underscores the
sophistication of China’s public diplomacy, in other areas the nation’s
“soft power” lags. It’s failed to leverage the panda bear, the Great
Wall or anything else into a powerful global symbol. China has few
companies, cultural icons, movies or brand names with the ubiquity of
MTV, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola or Microsoft.
East Asia neighbors South Korea and Japan outpace China at creating
global companies and pop music stars. Chinese acupuncture and kung fu
have been around for decades without taking off in the West as Japanese
sushi, karaoke and “lean management” techniques have in recent years.
In Europe, where store shelves sag with Chinese-made imports, average
people are unlikely to be able to name any famous Chinese cultural
figures, with the exception of Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong actor and
“Hardly anybody can name a Chinese writer,” said Steve Tsang, a China
scholar at St. Antony’s College, part of England’s Oxford University.
China’s diplomacy has proved effective, even strikingly successful, in
other arenas. As U.S. trade talks limp, China is in free-trade
negotiations with Australia, South Korea, Pakistan and a handful of
other nations. Late last year, it struck a free-trade agreement with
Thailand, Malaysia and eight other Southeast Asian nations.
By boosting trade and avoiding sensitive issues, Beijing has cast
as a benign alternative to Washington. Even energy-rich Canada and
Australia, longtime U.S. allies, increasingly are turning to China.
In a move that shut out the United States in a major East Asian forum
for the first time, China endorsed the idea of holding an East Asia
Summit, which will be attended by the 10 member countries of the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan, South Korea,
India, Australia and New Zealand. The first meeting is in Malaysia in
In another achievement, China now mounts an alternative to the annual
World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. China’s Boao Forum, which
draws a thousand business and political figures each year, has become a
major event in Asia to network and discuss the region’s future.
Many foreigners come because they envy China’s economic success, but
leave inspired by its ideals.
“What is appealing about China to Southeast Asia is not the cultural or
political systems. It’s mainly economic,” said Sheng Lijun, a China
expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
have the impression that they are successful now because they are
adopting the Western system: capitalism.”
Only moving away from strict one-party control might broaden China’s
“soft power” and deepen its allure to foreigners, perhaps even drawing
prominent foreigners to send their sons and daughters there for study
instead of Japan or the West.
“If you do not have a good political system at home, you cannot attract
support from your neighbors,” said Yan Xuetong, a political scientist
Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “If China wants to increase its soft
power, it must have political reform.”
In some ways, China’s global clout is climbing just as foreign
influences pour through its own borders. Many urban Chinese hunger for
foreign films and music and chafe at the tight lid on the Internet.
“All the bands I see coming to Beijing are Taiwan bands or bands from
Hong Kong,” said Brady, the New Zealand scholar. “I think the Chinese
are being very much affected by globalization.
“Their great fear is cultural invasion and invasion of political views
that are different.”
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