Those of us who live in let’s say less than dominant countries (nations which have never been economic or military superpowers) like to believe our history was remarkably unique. Realistically speaking, however, that is usually not entirely true. Why? Simply because an economic superpower does not merely export products and services, it also tends to “export” its worldview and culture to a very significant extent.
A textbook example to this effect is represented by Hollywood, with it being downright saddening from the perspective of individuality to think about how many “local” symbols have been, are and will be influenced by Hollywood. The same reasoning is just as valid when it comes to books or anything else culture-related, with even staples of local cultural expression being at least marginally influenced by the culture of the (regionally or globally) dominant superpower.
This is true for the United States, was true for the United Kingdom and the list could go on and on (whether we are referring to the Roman Empire, Ottoman Empire, etc.)… will it be just as true when it comes to China?
If history is to offer any guidance in this respect, the answer is a nuanced “yes” because while China has indeed done its share in terms of let’s say culture exports, it has never really had an all that proactive attitude.
This approach (or better-stated lack thereof) dates all the way back to ancient times, when China considered all foreigners nothing more than inferior “barbarians” who would eventually end up gravitating toward China. As mentioned on other occasions as well, even the Zhōngguó name of China stands for “central state” and illustrates rather nicely that for the better part of its history, China considered itself the center of the proverbial universe.
To put it differently, China always behaved as if it was inevitable for other (perceived as inferior) nations to gravitate toward it, culturally and otherwise. If you believe you are the only game in town and other countries have no choice but to adopt your superior way of being, why would you choose a proactive missionary approach?
For the most part, influencing other nations was never one of China’s top priorities.
Other than engaging in soft domination of its neighbors and applying well-crafted diplomacy to protect its interests, Chinese “expansionism” tends to stand out though… strangely enough, a severe lack thereof of if you will, its lack of desire to reach out.
This state of affairs even led to a type of political rigidity which resulted in a fair bit of suffering, with the loss of the Opium Wars being relevant in that respect. Simply put, a China which flat-out refused to engage in meaningful commerce with technologically superior European powers (thanks to the First Industrial Revolution, on which China missed out due to a severe lack of desire rather than shortage of opportunities) ended up essentially being forced to trade at gunpoint, which led to the most politically humiliating period of its history.
After the period in question was behind it, the newly formed People’s Republic of China was in no hurry to export its ideology either. Instead, it focused on what were perceived as vital internal struggles. After the Mao Zedong regime ended and Deng Xiaoping took over, a game-changing attitude adjustment with respect to openness did indeed take place but it revolved primarily around an increased desire to learn from the dominant West rather than an attempt to somehow “convince” the West to learn from China.
As the effects of Deng’s policies manifested themselves and China’s economy grew tremendously, this growth was not matched by an equally increase in China’s desire to influence other nations. For the most part, China embraced a worldview which revolved around not meddling in the affairs of its trading partners.
Fast-forward to the present, where we find ourselves dealing with a China which has indeed embarked on a journey of expanding its geopolitical influence, primarily through (infrastructure) investment projects such as the BRI, AIIB and so on. Once again, however, the “spirit” of keeping the meddling in the affairs of other countries to a minimum prevails. Even more so, China uses this as a selling point when comparing itself to… of course, the United States.
As time passes and China’s economic dominance increases, it is expected for this to act as a let’s call it gravitational force, with weaker nations embracing many aspects that pertain to the Chinese status quo but… and therein lies the key to understanding this nuance… they do it because they perceive it as being in their (primarily but not exclusively economic) best interest. As peculiar to the point of ironic as it may seem, it does indeed seem that more and more proverbial barbarians are gravitating toward the central state.
Can China influence other nations? Most definitely.
Does China desperately want to directly influence other nations? Most definitely not.
Will China ultimately influence other nations? That is pretty much inevitable, despite the fact that as explained throughout this article, it is likely to happen indirectly.