Saturday, February 20, 2010
American Superpower X
The American aircraft carrier USS Nimitz steamed into Hong Kong harbor on Wednesday afternoon with all the political hoopla these actions seem to generate these days. Back when Hong Kong was a British territory, such visits were common and routine. Now, with the former colony under China's thumb once again, every gesture... and every response, surrounding the visit is scrutinized in detail by foreign policy analysts for signs of scored points in a possible new "Cold War".
In case you hadn't heard, China is a superpower now...or at least they aspire to be. President Obama recently commented that "we Americans should make no mistake, the Chinese have no desire to be number 2". In my years associated with China, I find the one attribute the Chinese as a whole share with Americans is the feeling that they are "exceptional". "American Exceptional ism" has been embraced by the American people for decades (if not centuries)and has subtly guided our foreign policy with the world. It essentially is the belief that America was "set apart" from other nations. It has a special purpose and that special purpose requires it to be above and providing leadership for other countries and cultures.
China is the only other nations people that I have met that hold a similar view of themselves. Even their name in Chinese Zhong Guo means "Central Country". In ancient times, to the people of Asia, China was the center of the world. Surrounding nations paid tribute to her and the civilization of those nations was based on their proximity to the capital of China...the farther you were, the more "barbaric" you were viewed as.
I have pondered at times why India, which will have a greater population than China in a few years and in many ways have more assets in its favor is never seen to be a potential superpower. Likewise, the Brits seem resigned to the fact that their days of global influence are over. The Japanese, once frontrunners for a UN Security Council seat, now seems deflated and simply trying to stay afloat. And although some Russians pine for lost glory, most just want to stabilize their increasingly chaotic country. The Chinese, it seems, are the only ones where the term "superpower" is bandied about.
Despite the fact that China has large domestic, economic, and political hurdles to overcome, I believe that the reason is that when it comes down to it the Chinese want it.
Many among the Chinese elite believe that the powerless place China has occupied on the world stage for the last few centuries is an anomaly that is now being corrected. The proper destiny for China, they believe, is to be the global power in the 21st century.
When I was living in Qingdao China during the Beijing Olympics I was amazed how at any given moment even the taxi drivers knew how many gold medals China had vis-a-vis the United States. They had the same "eye of the tiger" passion that Americans had during Olympics past when the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought Cold War battles on the hockey rinks and uneven bars around the world. Now when I seemed ignorant of the medal totals or of some aspect of the US-China contest, they seemed disappointed. In some way, their sense of esteem and pride was linked to their athletes performance, particularly against the Americans. I suppose, possibly, it was interpreted as feeling that China was not yet worthy to generate a rivalry. My indifference at times was deflating and often I would feign interest just to keep my hosts happy.
But, perhaps in the not to distant future, it will be me who is keeping tally of just how many gold medals have in relation to my Chinese counterparts. Heres to the hope they won't be feigning interest for my sake.