Kuora: When it comes to cultural influence, the U.S. is soundly ahead of China

Some Americans, like FBI director Christopher Wray, have been wringing their hands about the perceived encroachment of Chinese influence in the U.S. (Wray goes so far as to warn of “espionage” in academia). But what exactly does the U.S. have to be afraid of? Perhaps it would be instructive to look at the other side of the coin: the effect of American influence in China, and how much more pronounced — “successful” — it has been. (Let this also be an opportunity to remember that governments everywhere are all probably a bit more paranoid than they should be.)

This week’s column is taken from separate answers, originally posted to Quora on April 6, 2016 —

How much truth is there to Beijing’s claims that the West is trying to impose “peaceful evolution” on China?

— and November 10, 2017:

Are teenagers in China influenced by United States culture? What do Chinese teenagers think about American trends? Is it common to be influenced by the United States in China?

There’s no doubt that leaders of Western countries — however you wish to define “the West” — all nurture a desire to see China evolve peacefully into a more pluralistic and liberal polity.

Whether any or all of those countries’ leaders wish to “impose” this on China is another question. Beijing believes that there is more coordination among the governments of the liberal Western democracies than there actually is, and probably believes there’s more coordination among different institutions and organizations within individual countries — most notably the United States — than there probably is. Beijing often alleges coordination between, say, the State Department and U.S.-based rights organizations and NGOs, companies (Google, for instance), and media outlets (e.g., the New York Times).

But are they entirely wrong to suppose some degree of coordination? Certainly when Beijing sees stories like this one — which cites then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails showing that Google and the State Department, through Jared Cohen (now president of Google’s Jigsaw), had discussed working together on a “defector tracker” aimed at helping take down Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria — Beijing sees its suspicions validated. When Google announced its “new approach to China” on January 12, 2010 and Secretary Clinton made a major speech on global internet freedom just nine days later, it looked to Beijing like coordination.

“The West” isn’t monolithic; indeed, part of China’s inability to really “get” the U.S. and other liberal democracies inheres in the very plural nature of those societies. But all the various pieces Beijing suspects may be working together — diplomats, intelligence, NGOs, media, internet companies — will of their own, without any external coordination, work independently toward goals that look mighty coordinated. They are all creatures of Western liberal values, and can’t help but want to see China evolve toward those values and their institutional representations.

As a father of two China-born children — whose full-time lived experience in the U.S. only began when we moved to North Carolina two years ago — I can say that yes, absolutely, Chinese teenagers are influenced by U.S. culture.

Korean and Japanese influence is quite pronounced among teenagers, though, and continues to rise. Japanese manga and anime are absolutely enormous, and Korean television shows and especially K-Pop have a real hold on Chinese teens. The influence of culture from China’s developed East Asian neighbors is unmistakable in China’s own television shows and its own saccharine pop confections.

But the U.S. maintains quite a profound influence culturally: Hollywood movies, premium cable television, the American pop music machine, rock music (to a lesser extent), fast-growing hip-hop, sports (especially the NBA, whose playoffs are happening now), fashion, and more. It’s something Americans can justifiably be proud of. Fretting over Chinese political “influence” in this country — whatever form that actually takes — feels like a waste of time.

Kuora is a weekly column.