Thursday, November 18, 2004

 

China's long march to dominance begins

In an earlier post, I predicted that at some point, ambitious young people in India would start learning Chinese instead of English, which would signal the beginning of the end for US influence in that part of the world. This story mentions Thailand (and a couple of other countries) not India, but the prediction still holds, the trend is unmistakeable.
Chinese Move to Eclipse U.S. Appeal in South Asia

By JANE PERLEZ

CHIANG RAI, Thailand - In pagoda-style buildings donated by the Chinese government to the university here, Long Seaxiong, 19, stays up nights to master the intricacies of Mandarin. The sacrifice is worth it, he says, and the choice of studying Chinese was an easy one over perfecting his faltering English. China, not America, is the future, he insists, speaking for many of his generation in Asia.

"For a few years ahead, it will still be the United States as No. 1, but soon it will be China," Mr. Long, the son of a Thai businessman, confidently predicted as he showed off the stone, tiles and willow trees imported from China to decorate the courtyard at the Sirindhorn Chinese Language and Culture Center, which opened a year ago.

The center is part of China's expanding presence across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where Beijing is making a big push to market itself and its language, similar to the way the United States promoted its culture and values during the cold war. It is not a hard sell, particularly to young Asians eager to cement cultural bonds as China deepens its economic and political interests in the region.

Put off from visiting the United States by the difficulty of gaining visas after 9/11, more and more Southeast Asians are traveling to China as students and tourists. Likewise, Chinese tourists, less fearful than Americans of the threat of being targets of terrorism, are becoming the dominant tourist group in the region, outnumbering Americans in places like Thailand and fast catching up to the ubiquitous Japanese.

As the new Chinese tourists from the rapidly expanding middle class travel, they carry with them an image of a vastly different and more inviting China than even just a few years ago, richer, more confident and more influential. "Among some countries, China fever seems to be replacing China fear," said Wang Gungwu, the director of the East Asian Institute at National University in Singapore.

Over all, China's stepped up endeavors in cultural suasion remain modest compared with those of the United States, and American popular culture, from Hollywood movies to MTV, is still vastly more exportable and accessible, all agree. The United States also holds the balance of raw military power in the region. But the trend is clear, educators and diplomats here say: the Americans are losing influence.

As China ramps up its cultural and language presence, Washington is ratcheting down, ceding territory that was virtually all its own when China was trapped in its hard Communist shell. "The Chinese are actively expanding their public diplomacy while we are cutting back or just holding our own," said Paul Blackburn, a former public affairs officer of the United States Information Service who served at four American embassies in Asia in the 1980's and 90's.

As Washington cuts back, China is providing concrete alternatives. The Chinese president and Communist Party chief, Hu Jintao, made clear the importance of China's cultural offensive to Beijing when he addressed the Australian Parliament last year. "The Chinese culture belongs not only to the Chinese but also to the whole world," he grandly offered. "We stand ready to step up cultural exchanges with the rest of the world in a joint promotion of cultural prosperity."

The invitation is being accepted by growing numbers of Asian students who are taking advantage of proliferating opportunities for higher education in China. No longer are status-conscious Asian families mortified if their children fail to qualify for elite American universities, parents say. A berth in a Chinese university is seen as a pragmatic solution, even if the quality of the instruction falls short of the top American schools.

In Malaysia, students of non-Chinese background are flocking to primary schools where Chinese is taught, a reversal of a more than three-decade trend, said N. C. Siew, the editor of the country's major Chinese-language newspaper, Sin Chew Daily.

In Indonesia, the elite long favored American universities. The founding generation of government technocrats was called the "Berkeley mafia" because so many were graduates from the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

Today, the numbers tell a startling story, especially in Indonesia, an American ally where relations with China have been historically difficult. Last year, 2,563 Indonesian students received visas to go to China for study, according to the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, a 51 percent increase over the previous year. By comparison, only 1,333 Indonesian students received visas for study in the United States in 2003, the United States consul general in Jakarta says. That was a precipitous drop from the 6,250 student visas the office said it issued in 2000 and part of a worldwide decline after 9/11.

The difference in ambition is noticeable, others say. "China wants to be more influential here to replace America," Vanchai Sirichana, the president of Mae Fah Luang University, where the Sirindhorn Chinese culture center was opened early this year under the patronage of the Thai royal family. "China is very aggressive in terms of contributions."

Mr. Vanchai said he had proposed a balancing act to the American ambassador to Thailand, Darryl Johnson. "I said, what about collaboration between the American government and universities in this area, because our door is open," Mr. Vanchai said, describing a conversation when Mr. Johnson visited the campus this year. "He just laughed; there was no answer," Mr. Vanchai said, indicating that the ambassador's reaction was one of sorrow. A diplomat on Mr. Johnson's staff confirmed the incident. He said the ambassador's hands were tied; there was no money coming from Washington.

Outgoing and articulate, Ngoh Eng Hong, 28, is as good a weather vane as any to read the shifting cultural winds in the region. Ms. Ngoh says she has no question where China is headed. "The world revolved around the United States for a very long time," she said in an interview. "I think people are beginning to understand that one day China can become another superpower."

Today, while the Singapore government still sends a handful of students on scholarships to the top universities in the United States and Britain, it has introduced a parallel program to send equal numbers of its best students to China and India.

The cultural exchange flows both ways. Middle-class Chinese students whose parents cannot afford the steep fees in the United States are coming to campuses in Southeast Asia. At Assumption University in Bangkok, Chinese enrollment was only 50 students five years ago. This year, 800 Chinese students are studying there. Most of the Chinese students pay $2,000 to $3,000 in annual fees, said Kamol Kitsawad, the registrar.
This won't seriously affect America for awhile. But we'll look back in ten or twenty years and wonder how we lost our dominant position. Those of us who were paying attention, however, will know how it happened.
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