VIENNA – For a European these days, thinking about the future is disturbing. America is militarily overstretched, politically polarized, and financially indebted. The European Union seems on the brink of collapse, and many non-Europeans view the old continent as a retired power that can still impress the world with its good manners, but not with nerve or ambition.
Global opinion surveys over the last three years consistently indicate that many are turning their backs on the West and – with hope, fear, or both – see China as moving to center stage. As the old joke goes, optimists are learning to speak Chinese; pessimists are learning to use a Kalashnikov.
While a small army of experts argues that China’s rise to power should not be assumed, and that its economic, political, and demographic foundations are fragile, the conventional wisdom is that China’s power is growing. Many wonder what a global Pax Sinica might look like: How would China’s global influence manifest itself? How would Chinese hegemony differ from the American variety?
Generally, questions of ideology, economics, history, and military power dominate today’s China debate. But, when comparing today’s American world with a possible Chinese world of tomorrow, the most striking contrast consists in how Americans and Chinese experience the world beyond their borders.
America is a nation of immigrants, but it is also a nation of people who never emigrate.
Notably, Americans living outside the United States are not called emigrants, but “expats.” America gave the world the notion of the melting pot – an alchemical cooking device wherein diverse ethnic and religious groups voluntarily mix together, producing a new, American identity. And while critics may argue that the melting pot is a national myth, it has tenaciously informed the America’s collective imagination.
Since the first Europeans settled there in the seventeenth century, people from around the world have been drawn to the American dream of a better future; America’s allure is partly its ability to transform others into Americans. As one Russian, now an Oxford University don, put it, “You can become an American, but you can never become an Englishman.” It is, therefore, not surprising that America’s global agenda is transformative; it is a rule-maker.
The Chinese, on the other hand, have not tried to change the world, but rather to adjust to it. China’s relationships with other countries are channeled through its diaspora, and the Chinese perceive the world via their experience as immigrants.
Today, more Chinese live outside China than French people live in France, and these overseas Chinese account for the largest number of investors in China. In fact, only 20 years ago, Chinese living abroad produced approximately as much wealth as China’s entire internal population. First the Chinese diaspora succeeded, then China itself.
Chinatowns – often insular communities located in large cities around the world – are the Chinese diaspora’s core. As the political scientist Lucien Pye once observed, “the Chinese see such an absolute difference between themselves and others that they unconsciously find it natural to refer to those in whose homeland they are living as “foreigners.”
While the American melting pot transforms others, Chinatowns teach their inhabitants to adjust – to profit from their hosts’ rules and business while remaining separate. While Americans carry their flag high, Chinese work hard to be invisible. Chinese communities worldwide have managed to become influential in their new homelands without being threatening; to be closed and non-transparent without provoking anger; to be a bridge to China without appearing to be a fifth column.
As China is about adaptation, not transformation, it is unlikely to change the world dramatically should it ever assume the global driver’s seat. But this does not mean that China won’t exploit that world for its own purposes.
America, at least in theory, prefers that other countries share its values and act like Americans. China can only fear a world where everybody acts like the Chinese. So, in a future dominated by China, the Chinese will not set the rules; rather, they will seek to extract the greatest possible benefit from the rules that already exist.
Ivan Krastev is Chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a Permanent Fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna.