What Kind of Superpower Will China Be?

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The Chinese also understood the link between culture and power. Other peoples naturally looked to China, the most advanced society in East Asia, when building their own kingdoms, and they liberally borrowed legal codes and governing institutions, artistic and literary styles, and, most famously, Chinese written characters. This common cultural bond sustained Chinese influence in the region even when the country itself was politically weakened.

Xi knows this full well, and he intends to build up China’s soft power by pushing Chinese values, both old and new. “Facts prove that our path and system … are successful,” he once said. “We should popularize our cultural spirit across countries as well as across time and space, with contemporary values and the eternal charm of Chinese culture.” This is the purpose of Confucius Institutes, a state-run program aimed at promoting Chinese language and culture. In the wake of Beijing’s (supposedly) superior coronavirus-busting effort, Chinese officials and state media outlets have been relentlessly marketing their (authoritarian) governance system as superior, while denigrating the (democratic) U.S. by mocking its pandemic response.

The implication of this is that modern China will prefer other countries to be more like them, not unlike the emperors of old. In imperial times, China’s rulers tended to favor foreigners who were “more Chinese.” In the first century A.D., the Chinese historian Ban Gu developed the concept of an “inner” world—comprised of societies touched by Chinese civilization—and an “outer,” of incorrigible barbarians who remained blind to China’s light. The inner crowd was treated more benignly and participated more closely in Chinese affairs. This suggests that ultimately China will support like-minded (read: authoritarian) regimes. Indeed, it already does: It befriends illiberal governments shunned by most other countries, such as North Korea, Iran, Belarus, and Venezuela.

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