We ought to know that we’ve hit a new level of denial when we become convinced that our global dominance is secured by the superiority of . . . our pop culture:
Ten years ago, I joined a U.S. trade delegation for the chance to visit, as a journalist, a remote part of China that borders both North Korea and Russia. As we traveled around, local Chinese greeters proudly pointed out the contrasting vistas: rugged empty hills in North Korea and isolated clusters of Soviet-era buildings in Russia, whereas in China, commerce and construction abounded between booming border towns. In one such town, Hunchun, population 250,000, regional officials asked me if I planned to write anything. Perhaps something cultural, I suggested. I hoped for a window onto Chinese life in this far-flung zone.Melik Kaylan, China Has a Soft-Power Problem, The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 5, 2019).
The next night they laid on a manifestly ready-made, two-hour pageant of old Manchu ethnographic music and dance, with fluttering feather fans and colorful costumes. I explained to my conscientious hosts that I had hoped for something more contemporary—perhaps portraying current life on the frontier, something about real people and ideas. My request engendered a lot of brow-furrowing discomfort. I had asked for the one thing that their country’s authoritarian system has found it almost impossible to deliver at any level: a vibrant popular culture.
China has become globally competitive in many fields with blinding speed, from the economy and military to science, medicine, sports and even in cultural areas such as cuisine, classical music and contemporary art. But it can’t seem to compete with the West in crucial mainstream genres such as movies, popular music, fashion, novels and the like. I say “crucial” because, without universalizing its culture at a popular level, China cannot ultimately sell a lifestyle for the world to emulate, a set of aspirations that people elsewhere might embrace. Nor can it make its engagement with other cultures more palatable, less like an intrusion by outsiders.
What the Chinese offered this author was the highbrow. But our tastes have eroded so badly over the last generation that we no longer even feel shame at disliking it. Indeed, we have even come to see the persistence of highbrow art in other cultures as a sign of weakness!