In the West, we discover Chinese culture through our enjoyment of Chinese food and the occasional exposure to philosophers (Confucius), medicine (acupuncture), martial arts (Kung Fu) or films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Otherwise, little is experienced of the culture of the Middle Kingdom.
Source: IMP Awards
On the other hand, when Westerners arrive in China, they are surprised to find Western culture so pervasive. Let us explore the extent of this cultural presence.
Upon arrival at the airport, one will note that the male or female models used on billboards are often from the West. Frequently it is to promote a Western brand, but quite often it is used for Chinese products. The use of a Western model can often be explained by the desire to position the product or service at a high-end level, enticing Chinese consumers to achieve the material wealth and ease available in the West.
As the person journeys further into China, the names on a substantial number of stores will be familiar. Often Western companies have identified the Chinese market of nearly 1.4 billion potential consumers as a market that is worth pursuing, in spite of the many challenges that they will encounter. American and European labels will lease many locations in shopping malls, at times occupying more than 25% of the retail space.
Source: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg News
American fast food brands have a strong presence across China as well, with KFC (>5,000 locations), McDonalds (>2,000) and Starbucks (>1,600) leading the way.
As the days go by, one will notice the less obvious manners in which Western culture is present. Western music will often be played in public locations, even in Chinese restaurants. Western artists will tour the largest cities to capitalize on being well-known and liked. Billboards will advertise the latest Hollywood action movies. These movies will generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually in a market that will become within a few years, the second largest market, after the USA.
Source: AFP Photo / Frederick J. Brown
One will also be amazed at the number of people who have a decent notion of English. It is estimated that around 300 million Chinese are learning English. Some in a formal setting like schools (public or private), while others will do it on their own. Their goal will be to capitalize on Western opportunities, might they be work related or personal.
As one stays longer in China, further cultural influence will be experienced starting with the introduction of Western holidays. For Halloween, stores offer masks and outfits. On the evening of October 31, thousands of adolescents disguise themselves and go for a walk in the downtown core of major cities. In late November, it is common to see retail stores or banks posting “Merry Christmas” signs. Stores like Walmart and Carrefour offer Christmas trees and decorations. Commercial streets are lit up, encouraging shoppers to purchase gifts for family and friends.
As one talks to Chinese friends, a key topic of discussion is the education of their child (i.e. 1-child policy). Chinese parents take this topic very seriously, and as a consequence, foreign schools are often a preference, if the parents can afford the substantial annual fees, often equivalent to one-year salary of a well-paid individual. American and British schools and universities have established Chinese locations that use the curriculum and teachers from their home countries.
Source: Shanghai American School
In the field of literature, it is frequent to see a book or a play in its original version or translated in Chinese. Through these, Chinese people are exposed to Western values portrayed by the likes of Shakespeare, Molière, Dickens, Hugo, Hemingway and others.
Source: British Council
As one further expands its reach into the Chinese society, Western culture becomes more subtle. The presence of many multinationals operating in China and the actions of multiple NGO’s (Non-governmental agencies) further spreads the cultural influence of the West.
Where is the cultural dynamic between China and the West heading? The first observation is that at this time, the flow of cultural influence is highly unbalanced in favour of the West. This has been the case for as long as China and Western countries have interacted. How will this change in the coming years and decades? At this time, it is reasonable to believe that the material wealth, creativity, openness and social dynamism of the West will probably continue to exert pressure for the continued dominance of the West. For this balance to be more equal, substantial changes would need to occur in China.
Meanwhile, the government is fully aware of the cultural dominance of the West and is taking actions to regulate the inward flow. Strict rules have been placed on the number and the content of films allowed in the country. For foreign corporations, a series of rules clearly delineate their areas of activities, while the Communist Party of China monitors their activity through their presence within each of these corporations. For NGO’s, recently issued regulations constrain their operations.
So the approach is if China cannot match or stem the Western cultural influence, China will contain and constrain it. One must wonder if it will work.
It is to be noted that as the Chinese culture is strong, there is no chance that Western culture will subjugate it. The Western cultural experience will remain a veneer on the Chinese culture. The Chinese will continue to live with the beliefs and the behaviour that have been at their core for centuries.