Recently, Americans received a wake-up call about the ascendant soft power of China. After Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, was chastised by the Chinese government for tweeting out support for Hong Kong, LeBron James, the world’s most famous basketball player, decided to weigh in on behalf of China.
This spectacle of prominent Americans being far more willing to criticise their own government than the Chinese Communist Party is not unique to sports
James was ratioed into oblivion, of course, but his supplication to the Chinese government was by no means unique. Steve Kerr, the head coach of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, withheld comment on Hong Kong when first asked about it, and later compared China’s human rights abuses to state and federal governments respecting the Second Amendment and permitting Americans to own AR-15s.
James and Kerr’s comments were more jarring because both have been frequent critics of American government policy, and of President Trump. In 2017, James referred to Americans who voted for Trump as being “uneducated.” Steve Kerr is a frequent critic of the President on Twitter.
But when China imposes its will on Hong Kong? Well, then both Kerr and James bend the knee to China. This spectacle of prominent Americans being far more willing to criticise their own government than the Chinese Communist Party is not unique to sports.
And it should scare Americans because what it indicates is that China has quite a bit more “soft power” than our own government.
Let’s begin with Hollywood.
In 2020, China and its 1.4 billion citizens will become the world’s largest movie market. Like all cultural products, American movies that air in China are subject to strict censorship, and the enormous market power the CCP now wields over Hollywood has allowed it to massively influence the content of American films and television programs.
In 2012, Red Dawn’s entire plot was re-written to feature an antagonistic North Korea instead of China. That same year, Chinese distributors ordered the director of Looper to write in a line extolling the Red State. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, a time-traveller, is learning French and saving his money so that he can move to Paris. “Go to China,” his boss tells him. “I’m from the future, go to China.” The line was inserted at the direct order of the film’s Chinese distributors.
American corporations are absolutely terrified of offending the sensibilities of the Chinese Communist Party
When the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick (releasing 2020) dropped, fans immediately noted that the patches on the iconic leather flight jacket worn by Cruise’s character in the original film had been altered: the flag for Taiwan was missing. The long awaited sequel to the American classic is being co-financed by Tencent, a Chinese company; the producers wouldn’t dare offend their Chinese masters.
The American film industry isn’t the only one feeling the pressure to appease China. Last summer, all three major US Airlines (American, United and Delta) complied with a demand from the Chinese government and scrubbed references to Taiwan from their website. Gap apologised for a T-shirt depicting what it called ‘an incorrect map’ of China’—one that didn’t include Taiwan or Tibet. And who could forget Activision-Blizzard’s recent banning of Hong Kong-based professional video game player Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai after he declared his support for protesters at the Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament.
American corporations are absolutely terrified of offending the sensibilities of the Chinese Communist Party. So are foreign governments.
The Belt Hand
On October 8th, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Beijing to discuss trade, infrastructure, and other issues. Khan wanted more investment from China; Pakistan has been one of the largest beneficiaries of China’s Belt & Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s flagship program to build a network of railways, ports, pipelines and highways linking Asia, Europe and Africa. Notably absent from discussions was the genocide of Chinese Muslims taking place a little over 1000 miles away from Pakistan.
World leaders, Muslim and otherwise, have been silent about the occupation, surveillance, and mass-detention of China’s Uyghur minority. This silence is more than troubling: it is indicative of a shift in the global balance of power, one where China is becoming too powerful to criticize. Through the Belt and Road initiative, smaller countries are becoming dependent on the continued indulgence of the Chinese Communist Party. It doesn’t have to demand foreign leaders’ silence; those leaders know that China’s continued investment in their countries is a prerequisite to staying in power.
Within its sphere of influence, China already has more soft power than the United States. And unless Americans wake up, that trend will almost certainly continue.
Cold Wars aren’t Easy to Win
Some Americans have a somewhat flippant confidence that China will not supplant us as the dominant world power. After all, we beat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. How tough could China be, in comparison?
Despite the Soviet Union’s economic weakness, the Cold War took four decades to de-escalate. In the final analysis, America didn’t so much win the Cold War as watch its opponents implode and concede
The problem with that analogy is that the Soviet Union was limping by with a completely dysfunctional economy. The Soviet Union never made things that were exported broadly—they were having enough trouble ensuring that their citizens had access to toilet paper. Even today, you can go years between purchases of items stamped with the label “Made in Russia.”
And yet, despite the Soviet Union’s economic weakness, the Cold War took four decades to de-escalate. America didn’t so much win the Cold War as watch its opponents implode and concede. That strategy doesn’t look like a winner as applied to China, because the Chinese economy works. China had the second-highest GDP in the world in 2018 and they have the fastest growing economy in the world.
China is going to be a much bigger problem for a much longer period of time.
Make Nationalism Great Again
Xi Jinping’s China, leveraging its economic might, is already changing the behaviour of neighbouring countries and American corporations to the point that those countries and companies are *far* more willing to criticise the United States government than they are the Chinese Communist Party.
If we don’t come together as a country, we will wake up in twenty years to a world in which China’s values dominate
Meanwhile, because our own country is so divided, corporations and foreign governments can choose to pick a side, with little economic consequence. Democrats are so intransigent that they’ll boycott a company for merely trying to sit on the sidelines of our culture war, to the point that opposing our own government is a sound business strategy.
This cold civil war in America is giving China an enormous opportunity. A unified, nationalistic, ascendant China will have little trouble prevailing over an America consumed by cultural infighting.
Since the end of the Cold War, America hasn’t faced an existential threat; we’ve enjoyed our position as the world’s foremost great power. An important part of our the American civic identity has consequently flourished: internal deliberative discourse. But democratic deliberation isn’t at the core of what allows you to deal with an existential threat. It wasn’t internal democratic disputes that allowed us to effectively deal with the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany—it was American nationalism.
If we don’t come together as a country, we will wake up in twenty years to a world in which China’s values dominate. Sure, we’ll still be sovereign, and our government won’t have to accede to China’s every request. But if we try to ask a neighbour to cooperate with one of our initiatives, they’ll have to ask China first.
If Americans don’t want to live in a world dominated by China’s values, we’re going to have to set aside our differences and come together as Americans. And if we’re going to do that, it’s critical to ensure that nationalism is not a dirty word.
Because the choice we face isn’t between globalism and nationalism. It’s between American nationalism and Chinese imperialism.