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Letter to Editor: Feeling the Decline of American Soft Power and the Growing Influence of China at an International Conference -- The Perspective of an Overseas Chinese PhD Student

By Zheng Liping, Free University of Berlin, Germany (People's Daily Online)    16:45, October 30, 2017

While the Western Media paid unprecedented attention to China’s 19th Communist Party Congress, as a Chinese PhD student based in Berlin, I deeply felt the growing influence of China at an academic conference held at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences on October 20-21, 2017.

It was the tenth-anniversary conference of the Graduate School of North American Studies, affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Institute of North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin. The elaborately organized event invited dozens of top scholars and diplomats from the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Germany, and so on to give remarks or present research talks primarily pertinent to American Studies and a variety of salient problems America is faced with at present. The meeting’s theme was “The Fault Lines of Democracy.” Surprisingly, some scholars’ talks and discussions touched upon China frequently. As one of the only two Chinese doctoral students present at the conference, I actively took advantage of the occasion to offer my Chinese perspective to the international audience. Two interrelated issues relevant to China are worth sharing here: exceptionalism and national narrative in globalization.

The Dimming Halo of the American Dream and American Exceptionalism

Most scholars pointed out that liberal democracy in the era of Donald Trump was in jeopardy and underlined that America was not as exceptional as it used to be. From their viewpoints, under the leadership of Trump, many things are ruining American Exceptionalism, a nationalistic concept that inspires the idea of the American Dream and generates American soft power. At the core of American Exceptionalism are American values, such as democracy, freedom, and equality. Many American presidents are famous for their steadfast endorsement of the uniqueness and superiority of the American creed. For example, Abraham Lincoln called America “the last, best hope of the earth,” and Ronald Reagan proudly claimed America to be “a shining city upon a hill.” Over the course of American history, these ideas have shaped the American Dream, which means that one can obtain happiness and success through their own hard work on the land of infinite possibilities and opportunities. Therefore, most American people identify the greatness of the American nation with “a beacon to the world.” Undoubtedly, millions of immigrants from all over the world were enchanted by such soft power, symbolized in American Exceptionalism and the American Dream.

However, much evidence has shown that the attraction of American soft power seems to be weakening. On the one hand, a number of domestic and foreign policies made by the Trump Administration are increasingly marring the American image that is conventionally labeled as democratic values and its ambition as a global superpower leading also with its cultural ideology. To the astonishment of Paul Gilroy from King’s College London, who gave a talk on “Anti-racism in the Era of the Alt-right,” Trump becomes the only American president ever in history who discredited American Exceptionalism. Since his presidency in January this year, Trump has been undermining the political and cultural legacy of his predecessor Barack Obama, who is iconized as the living example of the American Dream. As U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders criticized on his visit to Free University of Berlin in July 2017, “I am very concerned about Donald Trump’s disrespect for democracy, for tolerance, and traditional American values….I am outraged at President Trump’s efforts to divide the American people up on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.” Additionally, according to the Pew Research Center’s recent Global Attitudes Survey, America’s overall image has suffered a dramatic decline among world publics of 37 nations polled, primarily due to Trump’s provocative policy and unconventional leadership.

On the other hand, the Chinese Dream, as well as the emergence of Chinese Exceptionalism, is likely to outshine the American Dream, thus attracting many international concerns in the media and academia. Clearly, Western scholars at the conference generally agreed to the fact that China was increasingly becoming powerful and assertive on the world stage and that its international clout was spreading. Nevertheless, they are very wary of this tendency of the so-called power diffusion from the West to the East, because their stereotypical idea tends to identify China with communism, which they think starkly conflicts with the superiority of democracy. As we know, after the victory of the Cold War, political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s argument of “the end of the history”—namely “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” has had a great influence upon Western people’s self-perception of the superiority of their democratic values. It is palpable that the pervasive aversion to the ideology of communism engrained in the minds of Western people not only aggravates their anxiety and fear of the Chinese nation’s great rejuvenation, but also invokes their profound reflections on the crisis of democracy in the U.S. and Europe at large. For instance, Christian Lammert—professor of political science from the Kennedy Institute of North American Studies has recently published a timely book titled Die Krise der Demokratie und Wie Wir Sie Überwinden Können (The Crisis of Democracy and How We Can Overcome It, 2017).

China’s narrative in globalization: more than prosperity

Several scholars put forward that the economic downturn of the U.S. formed a sharp contrast with China’s remarkable ascent to power in recent decades, but the U.S. should not simply attribute a range of its political and economic problems to globalization. It is highly controversial that Trump retreated from international institutions and turned to a new era of isolationism and protectionism, given that China is continuously opening its doors to the world and integrating into the international community. By providing substantial data, political scientist Marianne Braig from the Latin American Institute at Free University of Berlin illustrated that in the market of Mexico, Chinese products had succeeded in replacing the role of the U.S., which dominated the foreign trade of Mexico in the last century. Strikingly, Julika Griem, a cultural scholar from Goethe University Frankfurt, argued that strategic narratives for nation states, as well as languages, culture, and communication, did matter in globalization. Obviously, Trump’s counternarrative of globalization does not make sense.

Their discussion made mention of China repeatedly. I naturally felt an urge to speak for China on this precious occasion. My response on the spot was as follows:

You have talked a lot about China. I am from China and would like to take this opportunity to introduce more to all of you. Owing to globalization, China has created amazing economic achievements. As a great beneficiary of globalization, China has not only promoted the development of globalization, but also will keep moving forward to make more contributions to international cooperation and global prosperity. The One Belt One Road initiative, which last audience has just mentioned in his question, is the best evidence for China’s effort to boost globalization. Besides, China has much more public goods to offer to the world people. China is a civilization-state with 5000 years of history and brilliant culture. The Chinese narrative representing China’s unique national and cultural identity is embodied in China’s foreign policy and diplomacy, which are committed to the noble cause for the world’s peace, development, harmony, stability, security, and all the like. China hopes to impress world people not only with its material growth but also cultural values, which abound in Chinese traditional and modern culture. Economically and culturally, the rising China is ready to share its wisdom and experience with the world for the common good.

Joseph Nye, who is widely reputed as the father of soft power, states an important point in many of his books concerning power: “The future of power is a matter of whose story wins.” When it comes to the Chinese Dream, Chinese Exceptionalism, and the Chinese narrative, in my mind they are to a certain extent three interrelated concepts, which constitute one core concept—the soft power of China. To realize the Chinese Dream, the discourse of Chinese Exceptionalism plays a role in presenting a persuasive story-telling of China. When the Chinese Dream comes true, the world will see a more prosperous and harmonious China with both hard and soft power. 

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(Web editor: Wu Chengliang, Bianji)

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