The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Essays And Short Takes

American Culture Facing China’s Rise

Can We Make Room at the Top?

Jeffrey C. Alexander and Hans Andersson

Shanghai, Jimmy Rivera/flickr.

For the US, China’s rise presents an extraordinary challenge. Many called the twentieth century the “American Century,” just as the nineteenth was the “British Century.” Yet, in 2007, the United Nations found that no fewer than a dozen countries have advanced beyond the United States in overall development per capita in the twenty-first century. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has not yet accomplished this feat, and whether it ever will remains to be seen. What is apparent, however, is that the PRC already has a far larger pool of labor and human capital than the United States, more telephones and internet users, and a faster-growing gross domestic product (GDP). The “communist” country’s GDP has increased more than tenfold since the institution of “Reform and Opening” in the late 1970s. Though still lagging behind the United States when the measurement is GDP per capita, the PRC more than doubled its per capita gross national income from $930 to $2,000 between 2000 and 2006, and breakneck growth continues. At the same time, Beijing is pouring money into infrastructure and high-tech research—savvy choices that have already yielded such apparent results as a testable ballistic missile defense system.11xSheng-Wei Wang, “China’s Ascendancy: An Opportunity or a Threat?” Washington: International Publishing House for China’s Culture, 2007: 53–8 and 61–3; and Andrew Jacobs and Jonathan Ansfield, “With Defense Test, China Shows Displeasure of U.S.,” The New York Times (12 January 2010), http://www.nytimes. com/2010/01/13/world/asia/13china.html. To this litany one could add much, but the point is clear: the United States  appears to be losing its place as the world’s material hegemon, and the country rising to replace it is China.22xFor the United Nations’ measurement of the United States’ “Human Development Index” (HDI), see “Human Development Report 2009,” The United Nations Development Program (2009), reports/global/hdr2009/. On China’s rise, see Nicholas Eberstadt, “Will China (Continue To) Rise?,” The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition, ed. Gary J. Schmitt (New York, NY: Encounter, 2009) 131–2 and 153–4.

America has not ignored this development. In its imminent confrontation with the PRC, America theoretically has a range of choices, from hostility to indifference, from amicability to deference. But in this choice, neither the political, social, and cultural elites of the United States, nor its people, are entirely free. How America has long viewed China exerts no small influence on which path Washington will follow in its material and cultural relations with the People’s Republic. 

Let us assume, for normative if not for empirical reasons, that the ultimate desire of America’s people and elites is peace with the Chinese. For this to come about, how the US views and speaks about the PRC will have to undergo a deep cultural change. In the democratic discourse of the United States, there is a striking binary that divides the civil from the uncivil. Americans will have to resolve their ambivalence about contemporary China and move from uncivil to civil discourse. This will be difficult, for Americans have persistently equated civilization with being not only capitalist but democratic, with being just like their own country, the United States. 


To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).