Culture Wars in 2020 and Beyond: Is a China – West Cultural War Unfolding?


The average investor who is interested in being up to date on “all things China” so as to make better choices tends to spend asymmetrically more time crunching economic numbers compared to endeavors that, in our view, would enable him or her to meaningfully “get” China from more than one angle. As such, their perspective on China is superficial at best, with “ignorant” being a more precise term for quite a few Western investors.

Why don’t investors spend at least a bit more time on the cultural dimension?

Perhaps the answer revolves to a large degree around the Western investors in question simply assuming that just like everyone else, China is more than happy to limit itself to absorbing Western culture. That Hollywood, fast food and a wide range of other Western symbols just as accurately describe the manner in which the average Chinese citizen chooses to see life.

Is that the case?

On the one hand, it is undeniable that Western culture has had an impact in China, especially on the younger generation. The origins of this phenomenon arguably lie in the Deng Xiaoping days, with Deng understanding that from an economic perspective, a version of socialism with Chinese characteristics that embraces certain Western values (market-related ones, for example) represents the way to go. A dramatic shift from the reluctance to the point of fervor manifested by Mao Zedong, especially in the earlier part of his rule, as case studies such as the disastrous Cultural Revolution make clear.

From the previously mentioned economic perspective, Deng Xiaoping was most definitely correct. Simply put, it would be difficult to envision a China as economically dominant as it is today in the absence of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and even his most ardent critics cannot deny that the economics of it all tend to add up.

What do Deng’s critics have to say, in that case?

For the most part, many put a type of cultural nostalgia on the table and choose to point out that the transition to a system which revolves around China attaching itself to the deeply interconnected and Western-dominated global economy came with let’s say a few cultural compromises. While today’s China has most definitely not embraced all Western values (unfortunately, human rights and other crucial topics can be included on the list of values Beijing has remained opaque to), it is true that quite a few status quo Western elements are hard to ignore in China: consumerism, Internet habits (with the Great Firewall of China being remarkably ineffective at limiting the access of the more Internet-savvy citizens to the let’s call it “real” Internet), movie and content consumption, habits that pertain to interpersonal relationships and the list could go on and on.

To put it differently, Deng’s critics sometimes point out that in exchange for economic benefits, China risks losing the proverbial culture war and to many Western observers, such statements most likely seem downright peculiar. Shouldn’t it be more than enough for China that it managed to escape quasi-poverty and become the #2 economy worldwide by nominal GDP?

The answer is… well, complicated.

We need to understand that yes, China is indeed far better off than 50 years ago and for a country such as the United States or from the perspective of the human life span, it does indeed seem a lot. But we cannot forget that China has a historical track record to check that spans not mere decades or even centuries but downright millennia.

In fact, all we have to do is look up resources such as the Angus Maddison database (which tracks nations all the way to the very distant past from the perspective of the percentage of the global GDP represented by their GDP… interesting data but for the most part, economic figures related to the distant past are mostly a function of that country’s population up until let’s say the Industrial Revolution days) and realize that for the better part of its very long history, China along with India accounted for over 50% of the global GDP.

Therefore, it would be quite ignorant to call China’s 21st century economic performance a fluke.

Furthermore, even China’s name (Zhongguo or “Central State”) makes it clear that China’s dominance pertained to more than just the economic dimension. For the better part of its history, China chose to never reach out to foreigners because they were perceived as “barbarians” who would ultimately gravitate toward the Central State anyway, so why bother reaching out?

To put it differently, history tends to make it crystal-clear that cultural dominance was considered a given for China throughout its history, with critics of Deng and post-Deng leaders believing more should be done on this front.

However, it would be a mistake to assume China is manifesting laziness on the cultural front. On the contrary, efforts are being made not just to ensure that the Chinese population isn’t “over-exposed” to Western values to the point of Beijing being heavily criticized for its opaqueness, but China is also reaching out to “barbarians” this time around. For example, yours truly (as a European) has started learning Chinese at the Confucius Institute, a state-controlled entity that operates in many jurisdictions and has the goal of exposing the average Westerner to all things China.

From oftentimes overly restrictive legislation to outreach measures which even end up revolving around China buying its way to not just economic but also cultural influence (with Africa being a compelling case study to that effect and more information about the case study in question being available by clicking HERE), China is clearly being active in this department as well.

Active enough?

That will remain to be seen. While China is poised for dominance when it comes to the economic dimension and will most likely end up representing the number one game in town in that respect eventually, the cultural one tends to always be… well, unpredictable.