Friendly dragon

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jun 15 16:34:32 UTC 2005

>>From the Indian Express - New Delhi,India

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The friendly dragon

Pallavi Aiyar

Let China sleep, for when she awakes, the world will tremble, said
Napoleon famously, and indeed as the sleeping giant rouses, tremors are
being felt throughout the world. From East to West, the seemingly
inexorable rise of the Middle Kingdom, is drawing other nations to it, as
a model for development, source and destination for investment and trading
partner. The fear and distrust with which many used to regard the mainland
is increasingly being replaced by admiration, so that from Vietnam to
India, through to far away Brazil, China is now being seen as presenting
more of an opportunity than a threat.  Growing apace with its rising
economic and diplomatic strength is Beijings cultural clout or soft power.
Soft power, a term coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, refers to a
countrys ability to influence others by the attractiveness of its ideas
and values. For decades it is a term that has primarily been associated
with the US, given the ability of Hollywood glamour and Mickey Mouse
cuteness to attract across borders and the importance of English as a
global language.

However, as in the economic and political realms, the supremacy of US soft
power is gradually being challenged by the might of Chinese culture and
language. Across Asia, Chinas cultural power is on display, exported
through linguistic and gastronomic ties and consolidated through its
overseas communities. Chinese tourism is burgeoning and it is visitors
from the mainland, rather than Japan that now constitute the dominant
tourist group in Southeast Asia. Chinese cinema, art and traditional
medicine are all booming globally.

The escalating popularity of Mandarin Chinese is a case in point. Chinese
is already the most spoken language in the world, with three times as many
native speakers as English. Far from being geographically restricted to
Chinas immediate neighbourhood, its spread across the globe is being
ensured by the Chinese diaspora. Thus, for example, Chinese is now the
third most spoken language in Canada, following English and French. It is
widely predicted that within a decade or so Mandarin will have overtaken
English as the most used language on the Internet.

According to the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign
Language (NOCFL) in Beijing, there are approximately 30 million people
learning Chinese around the world and it is the mainlands stated purpose
to ensure that this number grows to 100 million by 2007. Currently, more
than 2,300 universities in nearly 100 countries offer courses in Chinese
and thousands are flocking to Chinas shores in the hope of mastering the
language. There are now more foreign students in China (estimated at over
86,000) than Chinese students abroad.

Not surprisingly, interest in the HSK, a standardised exam to test
proficiency in Chinese, similar to the TOEFL test for English, has surged.
>>From 2000, when only some 4,500 people appeared for the exam, the number
of test takers leaped to almost 22,000 in 2004. Significantly, the profile
of those taking the HSK has also changed from comprising largely academics
and linguists to include large numbers of entrepreneurs and white-collar

Driving this boom in learning Mandarin is the perception of the economic
opportunities that China offers and a concomitant sense that the future
firmly belongs in the Middle Kingdoms hands. Indeed, multinational
businesses across the mainland now routinely require foreign employees in
China to be fluent in Mandarin.

Choo Shuo Yen, a Singaporean student currently studying International
Relations in Beijing, observes the sea change in attitude towards Mandarin
that has taken place in Singapore over the last few years. In the 70s, it
was all about English because our government saw English as the most
important language of the future, he says. As a result many Singaporeans,
even those of Chinese ethnicity, could no longer communicate adequately in
Chinese. But now, its slowly being seen as a disadvantage to not be fluent
in Mandarin, says Shuo Yen. Thus, last year the official language policy
of Singapore was reformed to place greater emphasis on Chinese. Adds Shuo
Yen, Its not only ethnic Chinese, but even Malays and Indians who are
taking a greater interest in learning Mandarin.

That the Chinese authorities see language as a foundational pillar in the
projection of soft power is evident from a recent statement made by the
Chinese Vice Minister for Education, Zhang Xinzheng at a conference in
Beijing. Zhang said, The demand for a language represents the countrys
overall national power and image in the world. More importantly, it
forecasts the countrys future.

And to ensure that the demand for Mandarin continues to grow, Beijing is
planning to establish a series of Confucius Institutes to promote the
teaching of Chinese language and culture abroad. Agreements to establish
these institutes have already been reached with countries as diverse as
the United States, Uzbekistan, Kenya and Sweden.

It remains unlikely that Mandarin Chinese will replace English as a global
lingua franca. Mandarin has four tones and thousands of characters, making
it difficult to master. And while millions are now learning it as a second
language, the numbers pale in comparison to those learning English, an
estimated 375 million in China alone.

Nonetheless, there seems no denying the increasing muscularity of Chinas
soft power that both reinforces and results from the countrys economic
rise. China is now the third largest film producer in the world, after the
United States and India. Mainland directors like Zhang Yimou and actress
Zhang Zi Yi, whose film Hero made for very happy box-offices around the
globe last year, have become household names. Chinese influence on
directing style and camera work on Hollywood films is visible from
blockbusters like The Matrix and Kill Bill. The latter, star director
Quentin Tarrantinos latest movie, was in fact partly filmed in Beijing.

Last year, as France celebrated the official Year of China in France, the
Eiffel Tower was bedecked with red lights and silk lanterns to celebrate
the Chinese New Year. It would require a fertile imagination indeed to
imagine the French celebrating the Fourth of July with similar enthusiasm.
America might still be the worlds greatest power, but with its continued
focus on the war on terrorism and blunt
you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us tone, its ironically China, despite
its authoritarian political system, that is being able to project a
comparatively soft touch.


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