Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world” is a quote widely attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, and it appears to have become a reality. For more than two decades, China has been the epitome of a rising power and the sole nation ready to challenge the US in its role as global hegemon.

The era of America’s cultural supremacy is coming to an end. In Southeast Asia, China is gaining influence not only through PR campaigns like mask and vaccine diplomacy, but through its cultural exports. TikTok, pop music and the Chinese equivalents of Netflix  might seem of little consequence to hard geopolitical power struggles. But these exports are winning over hearts and minds and normalising China’s autocratic government.

Meanwhile half of Biden's voters consider America  a power in disarmament, the Empire of Evil: they destroy statues and censor books to purge themselves of racism and sexism, xenophobia and imperialism.


Southeast Asian countries are viewing the “great power competition” (between the incumbent hegemon, the United States and the rising power, the People’s Republic of China) with interest as the two superpowers engage in ideological debates and tit-for-tat accusations. In the ongoing battle for ideas, legitimacy, and recognition, Covid 19 quickly became an instrument of soft power through which China could posture and engage in public diplomacy or “mask diplomacy”  gaining goodwill and improving its image in the region, often as leverage for political favour.

Rather than coercing a country through the use of military force or economic power, soft power (firstly articulated by Joseph Nye in the late 1980s) works to co-opt and convince through the power and attraction of ideas. The pandemic era requires to rethink how soft power operates, and who is winning the battle for hearts and minds.

Saturated with misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories and new pernicious forms of ideological content, the information landscape has complicated any simple narrative of US righteousness and moral superiority.

As many in the region become disillusioned with democracy as it is corrupted by venal elites and incompetence, China’s model of autocratic-developmentalism is increasingly attractive both to elites and weary public. This has allowed China to reshape the narrative about itself and its place in the world. Mask diplomacy and  vaccine diplomacy are iterations of this ongoing soft power tussle allowing China to create new narratives about itself and challenge the US and the “liberal world order”

This is why the narrative of the situation in Xinjiang with the Uyghur and other minorities is considered an example of Western cultural imperialism and a Western media hoax designed to discredit China.

Fukuyama versus Huntington

The confrontation between the two countries has a cultural aspect. Samuel Huntington foresaw the rise of cultural conflicts when he wrote The Clash of Civilizations in the 1990’s. Huntington’s model is a response to Fukuyama’s theory at The End of History , in which the universalization of Western liberal democracy is the final form of human government.

In contrast to Fukuyama, Huntington’s model emphasizes cultural differences. He separates the world’s nations into eight groups accordingly to their cultural similarities: Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, Latin America and Africa.

His main argument is that culture shapes the patterns of conflict, bringing nations together, or breaking them apart. Thus, the most significant distinctions among people are not ideological, political, or economic, they are cultural.

Western cultural hegemony based on democracy only strengthens non-Western civilizations desire to look to resurge their cultural origins. Chinese collectivist culture emphasizes teamwork, family and group goals above individual needs or desires. Contrasty, the US values individual achievements.

Chinese communication differs from the US as well. Too much eye contact can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect whereas Americans use eye contact and direct communication. They are very straightforward, time is money and after all, there is no free lunch in Uncle Sam’s country.

It is also important to think before you speak with the Chinese since it shows respect and appreciation. Chinese communication style is indirect, while American is very direct which causes the Chinese to analyse verbal and non-verbal communication signs.

When it comes to negotiating style, the Chinese give great importance to relationships. If you plan to negotiate with the Chinese, first you need to socialize. Emotions, relationships, and optimism are off the table. Moreover,  in the unbalanced relations between East and West of the last two centuries, the Chinese are curious about us, they study us much more than the opposite. The result of our laziness and arrogance is called decline.

The cultural differences can accelerate the current confrontation between the US and China. These differences do not make either culture better or worse, only different. But Huntington says that Western hegemony is flawed as the US tries to impose its values onto other countries, without taking into consideration other cultures. Besides, the US is more concerned in keeping its hegemony, than cooperating with other countries, merging forces, and becoming stronger.

Biden's failures

Biden came to power by criticizing Trump’s realist strategy towards China. He vowed to alleviate the tensions heightened by the Trump administration against China  and to find non-military ways to resolve the disputes with this country. However, the strained relations with China  shows that Biden is following Trump’s course, which he had criticized heavily and is on the way to pursue an even more confrontational and exclusionary strategy against China than the Trump administration.

A war of words occurred between the foreign ministry officials of the US and China who met in Alaska in March 2021. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern about human rights violations against Uyghur Turks in China’s Xinjiang region, anti-democratic activities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, cyberattacks targeting the US, and economic pressures on US allies.

Blinken emphasized that all of these practices were threatening the rules-based international order, that is, the liberal international order. Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, on the other hand, reproaching the Colonisation and the Persecution of Native Americans, replied by saying that the US could no longer lecture China arrogantly and that those days were long gone.

It was quite meaningful that, among the Chinese public, the Alaska meetings were compared to the humiliating Boxer Protocol signed in 1901 between China and the Eight-Nation Alliance, which was made up of the US and some prominent European countries.

It was indicative of how the progress made by China in international politics was received by the Chinese population and how the increasing material capacity has strongly boosted the psychological confidence.

It is not possible for the US to restrain China by integrating it into its institutional order. As China grows stronger and the US leadership is called into question, the use of exclusionary language associated with liberal ideology becomes more prevalent.

Trump realized this and did not pursue a liberal institutionalist strategy. He went for a realistic one. Biden, on the other hand, portrayed this as a weakness during his election campaign and used it against Trump.

American weaknesses

Covid cemented the alliance between the Silicon Valley billionaires and the left: the censorship of social media against Trump confirmed which side  the Big Tech establishment is.  But four years of "resistance" to Trump have polluted American journalism and all those who have aped him abroad: to bring down the monster everything was legitimate, the end justified the means.

Biden has now a tough time in his party: Ocasio-Cortez argues that migrants cannot be helped "in their home" after "having set their house on fire for so long". This is the vision of an imperialist America as the only culprit of the collapse of the countries of the South. With this ideology of the radical left, Americans are described as the Empire of Evil, condemned to become a minority in their own home to house all the dispossessed of the earth.  America thus becomes "Un-American", condemned to repent and expiate, to compensate for all the alleged victims.

We are at a time when the leftist establishment - the directors of newspapers and major TV networks, Hollywood directors, fashion writers, university presidents - consider the history of America as a long chain of crimes against humanity, where only the oppressed minorities save their souls.

In America, it is the youth themselves who are revolutionizing university campuses and conveying ideas similar to those of Xi. For the radical left, the West is a criminal civilization that has produced horrors and inflicted suffering on humanity. In America, some of the classics associated with imperialism and colonialism, and which offend minorities, are cancelled.

In America the systematic destruction of national self-esteem is underway: for the cultural revolution the founding values of the West are racism, sexism, discrimination, xenophobia and imperialism . America is a power in disarmament: half of Biden's voters destroy statues and censor books to purge themselves of all these sins.

Xi has a double advantage over Biden. Xi reached the top of power in 2012 and will remain there for a long time to come. The second advantage is that Xi uses nationalism as an ideological glue to spur the Chinese into cohesion. The majority Han strain (90% of the population) follows it with confidence.

Biden, on the other hand, rules a torn nation: almost half of America (republican) considers him a usurper. In the other half (his) there are those who think, in the throes of an iconoclastic fury, that America is genetically marked by an imperialist DNA. The left-establishment that rules on university campuses, in newsrooms, on corporate boards, has decided that the West has only horrible statues to tear down.

The politically correct representation has hidden a crucial detail: the attacks against Asian-Americans are mostly the work of African-Americans and Hispanics. The union of oppressed minorities against white racism is an ideological construction of the politically correct.

The Black Lives Matter movement had proposed introducing preferential ethnic quotas in the university to increase access for disadvantaged minorities (African-Americans and Latinos). Decisive was the mobilization of Asian-Americans who would be the designated victims with the ethnic quotas, being the first in the admission competitions, dominating the rankings of the votes and being the most numerous ethnic group in elite universities.

China strengths

China has surpassed US research investments and is close to taking world leadership in Artificial Intelligence as well. China is gaining an advantage over the United States because its state-led model of political capitalism promotes national champions in all advanced technologies.

East Asia, once again at the center of the world, teaches that the most spectacular economic performances were born above all by bending economic theories to other disciplines: history, politics, knowledge of the social context, of the prevailing ethical models, of local cultures.

The Chinese economy has favored the victory of state companies against private capitalism through a critical revision of the liberal economic doctrines, accelerated by the American crisis. Xi has rebalanced in favor of public dirigisme without altering the Chinese model: he has achieved an effective mixed economy.

In such a system, with the energetic intervention of the state, the Chinese Communist leaders see the secret of their success: China is the only emerging economy that in the last 30 years has never suffered a major crisis, recession or financial crash.

In 2021 Xi celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, confirming partialcontinuity with its historical origins. Now there is an-technocratic, meritocratic and Confucian communism, even more solid and attractive than the original communism. To stop Beijing, Biden is convinced that he needs to understand the forces of Chinese statism. But it will do well not to overlook the weaknesses of American statism.

In 2021, Xi began rewriting school curriculums to instil a deep Chinese identity and a love of one's homeland in new generations.

A mocking convergence between Xi's cultural normalization and what happens in parallel in American high schools and universities is striking. Xi wants to belittle the West and its values by creating, especially in Hong Kong, a New Man, a Homo Sinensis of the third millennium, shaped on the Confucian-Communist model, which looks to the West as a disarmed, decadent civilization, on the way to barbarism.

China's millennial diplomatic tradition educated its officials to disguise aggressive intentions behind a facade of respect and good manners until the balance of power was in its favor. For Xi, that moment has arrived. Enough of the velvet gloves: the Wolf Warrior Diplomacy has arrived. And surely the streets of Beijing will not be filled with pacifist demonstrations to stop these ideological, cultural and military rearmament.

Xi compared Taiwan to Catalonia, recalling what happened when Barcelona tried to declare itself independent: the Madrid government ignored the response of the local referendum and arrested several local politicians, including some former ministers of the autonomous government. The European Union, the United States and the international community supported Madrid and not Barcelona.

As for the Europeans,  they are not anymore  America's most important allies; in reality the center of the world is now elsewhere: in the Indo-Pacific that embraces the West Coast of the United States, Australia, the Far East, the South-East Asia and India.

US, China and Russia

Rhetorics are used by the Chinese government talking about US or Western imperialism bent on subverting the Chinese system, bent on keeping China backwards.

Looking at the economic power of China, the United States can be almost seen as a vassal state to China. And that's the existential threat for Biden. China is now an integral part of the global capitalist system. And the Chinese government itself is a major player in the global capitalist system.

The friction between these two leading world powers has grown too wide and deep to bridge with diplomatic niceties. They disagree on almost everything from trade and security to human rights, and in the rare case they agree on an outcome, they disagree on the process.

The disagreement over Taiwan, like those over Hong Kong and North Korea, is a symptom of a far greater conflict over supremacy in Asia and indeed the world,  all of which invokes a comparison with the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

China has certainly pulled ahead of Russia, which is trying to revive its old glory and influence by any means necessary. President Vladimir Putin may play dirty games with the West, but Xi is adamant about rewriting the rules of the game altogether. China’s strongman rejects the “international rules-based order” the West dictates and insists on co-authoring the principles of a new world order.

In other words, the US may downplay Moscow’s provocations as the desperate manoeuvres of a “regional power”, but when it comes to Beijing, it has no choice but to pay attention to this bullish and bullying superpower.

China is also developing a strategic doctrine and posture worthy of its economic supremacy, and which includes conventional, naval, digital, space and nuclear military power. Xi’s 2013 multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative – BRI - (the new Land and Sea Silk Roads)  spanning more than 60 countries, has ensured China’s strategic enlargement and geopolitical expansion like never before.


The decisions being made in today's world that really matter are not being made in London, Paris, Berlin or Rome - as they were a hundred years ago - but in Beijing. The world's past has been shaped by what happened along the Silk Roads, so too will its future.

Xi said in Astana in 2013 “While the peoples of the Silk Roads are of different races, beliefs and cultural backgrounds, they are fully capable of sharing peace and development as history shows. This is not a new world being born; it is the old world being reborn.”

America is currently buffeted by the tides of fragmentation while in China a new network of relationships takes shape along the ancient trade routes . America is declining  as China reassumes the  significance its population size demands. America has only really been in the ascendant for a handful of centuries, whereas  China  has been economic juggernaut for most of its long history,   being until the 16th century the world’s dominant economy.

The rejection of Western universalism by  China challenges the idea of the nation state as the international norm for political organisation. China views herself as bearers of unique cultural norms, and defines herself as civilisational state rather than nation state also because the latter is associated with Western imperialism and  a century of humiliation following the 19th-century Opium Wars.

Xi Jinping champions a model of “a mix of socialism and capitalism with Chinese characteristics” fusing a Leninist state and a capitalist opportunistic state (a market economy built on particularistic relationships) both dipped in the Neo-Confucian culture.

Xi maintains that when the West does engage and play a role, it is invariably to intervene or interfere in ways that create more problems than they solve. The age of the West shaping the world in its image is long gone.

Understanding what is driving change is the first step to being able to prepare and adapt to it. Trying to slow down or stop that change is an illusion. What is sure, though, is the fact that the Silk Roads are rising. They will continue to do so. How they develop, evolve and change will shape the world of the future, for good and for bad. Because the Silk Roads have always done just that.


The tragic Covid parenthesis has caused an acceleration in the rise of Beijing. While the West stopped, exhausted, the tiger's economy started running again. It has exported more than ever before and has lengthened the pace in advanced technologies. It has broadened its sphere of influence.

The invasive Chinese presence all over the world is now an incontrovertible reality. Biden should have understood how difficult it is to decoupling: to begin to untie the tangle of ties built in thirty years of Sino-American globalization, when the two economies looked like Siamese twins and metaphors like Chimerica, China + America circulated.

Will there come a day when Chinese authors write our school textbooks? History and geography are not neutral disciplines. They reflect a vision of the world, a system of values, the idea we make of our place on the path of human civilizations.

We ignore China at our peril. Its history is older than ours. The origins of this civilization are traced back to 2,000 BC. In 221 BC, all of China was unified under a single emperor. This is why we should begin to rewrite the manuals for schools before they appear irremediably outdated, partial, inadequate to represent the great fresco of the human story.

The monolithic Middle Empire is now extending its reach,  corroding Western values by boasting its own. Anyway, the alarming descriptions of Beijing's detractors don't worry Xi who wants to cut the grass under the feet of any new Tienammen.

The US needs to learn from its mistakes as China has been doing for the past 100 years. Hopefully the East (China) and the West (the US) will find mutual understanding based on their common interests. If not, the tensions in US-China relations based on their cultural differences will intensify and threaten the world order.