Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Kev's Thoughts On... China's hero-worship as a reflection of its Unilateralist or Multilateralist attitude

China as a Unilateralist or Multilateralist nation: A reflection of Hero-worship?

This question of China as a unilateral or multilateral nation is a popular discussion point with those familiar with Asia Pacific foreign affairs. For some reason I was dwelling on this issue the past few days; I think as a consequence of watching some American movies and news reports.

My point of interest is the incessant need for Americans to erect heroes in every situation; the need for clear protagonists and antagonists. When watching American movies it is almost a certainty that the main character and the major struggle is identified within the first twenty minutes. In television syndication, it is even shorter.

The fact that there are protagonists and struggles is not the issue, rather it is the American tendency to enunciate a singular protagonist and a singular struggle for the audience to quickly and easily identify with. While fictional stories may be forgivable, I find it a little bit disturbing to witness current events and historical accounts framed with singular heroes and singular struggles. When dwelling on this, I found that there is a visible correlation between a culture of hero-worship and a nation’s tendency for unilateralism. The lone cowboy, the American soldier righting other nation’s wrongs, even the pure-hearted politician making idealistic orations to make the world a better place. In viewing American iconography in this perspective, it is clear how a unilateralist-prone populace could arise.

Thus my thoughts turn to China. The question of whether China is prone to become a Unilateral or Multilateral nation depends on the identity and perspective of its popular culture. This I feel, can be observed from the state of a nation’s hero-worship. If popular culture is fixated on hero-worship that promotes protagonist-antagonist framework, then unilateral sentiments can be expected; that is, if popular culture is given a chance to voice its opinion. So what about China? What is the extent of it’s hero worship?

Looking at socio-cultural history, certain figures quickly rise to recognition: Emperor Huang Taiji of the Qin, Zhu GeLiang or CaoCao of Three Kingdoms Period, Confucius, and more recently, Mao Zedong. Definitely hero worship. Yet in examining these acclaimed Chinese heroes, I see a stark difference between them and their American counterparts. The Chinese heroes were heroes because of their domestic accomplishments. The Huang Taiji was the first emperor to unify China, Zhu GeLiang and CaoCao tried to do the same, Confucius taught filial piety, the preeminent Chinese domestic philosophy; and Mao Zedong is still celebrated for rebuffing the Japanese and resolving civil war. China indulges in hero-worship, but the perspective is predominantly domestic. And within China’s hero-worship, it is not always clear singular heroes over singular struggles. China’s emphasis and celebration has always been around order and civility. It has been about celebrating architects of the domestic system. You will be hard pressed to find Chinese heroes celebrated for their foreign policies. China’s isolationist past is clear evidence of this notion.

With China’s rapid development in recent years, and its necessary integration into the world stage, has the nation’s hero-worship changed as well? And what does this indicate about China’s future as unilateralist or multilateralist? Hu Jintao’s actions are visibly multilateralist, with the entrance into the WTO, participation in ASEAN +3, the North Korean WMD talks and increasing partnerships within Africa. But the Chinese people now look to popular culture instead of politics for their heroes.

Perhaps the most promoted and well-known hero today is the basketball player Yao Ming. He still reigns supreme. The on-going joke he replies when asked by reporters why his jersey is currently selling only second-best in China: “Because everyone already has one of mine.” Since the last Olympics in 2004, a plethora of other athletes have followed in Yao’s footsteps and have been aggressively promoted to the Chinese public. In fact, Chinese heroes in all sporting industries are popping up, even in the world of golf, snooker and F1 racing.

In the business realm, Chinese heroes have also arisen to carry the torch of China’s aspirations. People like Li YanHong and Robin Li, founders of, or famed entrepreneur Joe Chen, founder of Oak Pacific Interactive, which owns many popular Chinese social-networking sites, or Pan ShiYi and wife Zhang Xin, the Donald Trumps of China. These and many others make headlines beyond the business section.

And then there is the pop culture. China now embraces an integrated landscape of Asia-Pacific stars. From Hong Kong and Taiwan to Japan and Korea, many regional overseas celebrities have fan followings in Mainland China. The most interesting example is Takeshi Kaneshiro, a Japanese-born Taiwanese-Chinese, the Brad Pitt of Asia. He, along with Jay Chou and many others are setting the standard for being a trans-regional superstar. Mainland China is also coming up with their own home-grown stars too. Not only in movies but specialized categories, Mainland Chinese are defining themselves. Lang Lang, the international concert pianist is one example that comes to mind. Then there are also the real global international Chinese names. Ang Lee just won the top Golden Lion award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival last month (Aug. 2007) for his new erotic spy thriller, ‘Lust, Caution’. His equally famous counterpart, Zhang Yimou, was the film festival’s jury chairperson. Among other directors considered for the top title were Chen Kaige and Jia Zhangke.

China’s hero-worship is certainly diversifying in recent years, mimicking its entrance onto the world-stage. What I see from these examples of contemporary Chinese heroes, and many others unmentioned, is a Chinese hero-worship in the context of regional and international competition. The Chinese popular success-story is the Chinese winner of a competitive international forum or contest. Whether in athletics, business, or pop-arts stardom, its about individual example of excellence on the world stage. What does that mean for the unilateral vs. multilateral discussion? If nation-states indeed act based on the support of their general populace, then a population like China’s, who at the moment most identifies with being the best while following the rules of an international competition, would most approve of its own nation acting like a winner within the guidelines of the global architecture. This attitude falls within the middle of the unilateral-multilateral spectrum, where China would find popular support to act as a multilateralist when it comes to managing and improving the global infrastructure, but also find popular support to act as a unilateralist when it comes to playing the competitive game within established frameworks.

And thus we see China’s foreign policy reflect it’s hero-worship: entrepreneurial, opportunistic, and striving to be ‘best-in-show’ on the world stage. A nation that has no quivers about dancing around the unilateral-multilateral scale because that’s just how it’s people likes it.

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