10,000 miles. Dali to Kunming to Chongqing to Xian to Xining to Hami to Urumqi to Yili… five days of changing trains and hopping buses to arrive at the Kazak border. Only to be repeated in reverse order two weeks later!
My youngest son, Bryce, was in Almaty for the past two months refining his Russian. He has added this beautiful but challenging language because of his interest in Central Asia. Having been a long time reader of the memoirs of the Western explorers and spies who frequented this area during The Great Game confrontations of the nineteenth century, I lived vicariously through his ability to function so effectively in his third language. As a father, it is humbling but extremely gratifying to rely on your son for all communications and travel planning. Bryce was a confident and competent guide, and he proudly exposed me to the beauty of this area. Over two weeks, we trekked in the stunning, alpine-like mountains towering over the pristine lake of Issy Kul, hiked the Grand Canyon’s smaller sibling, the Charin Canyon of eastern Kazakhstan, and were charmed by the European feel- the tree-lined streets, outdoor cafes and placid parks of Bishkek- the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
The most puzzling thing, however, was the complete lack of any Chinese presence. Throughout our travels, I saw five Chinese visitors, all of them in the breakfast room at the Ramada Hotel in Almaty. I saw three Chinese restaurants, two in Almaty, one in Bishkek. I came across not a single Chinese tourist along the shores of and in the mountains above the stunning Issy Kul lake. Kyrgyzstan’s scenery rivals Switzerland’s, and its culture- captured so beautifully in the faces of the Asian-Turkish peoples- is a striking blend of East and West.
Why no Chinese? I was struck by the locals’ lack of interest in China. Crossing the border from Xinjiang, not a single border guard spoke Chinese. I had to translate for two Chinese businessmen crossing for the day. The guards then took me aside and wanted to take selfies with my son and me. We left the border to shouts of “Chicago Mafia” and “Go Bulls”.
America’s soft power is pervasive. Crossing a border that represents the first link on China’s One Belt One Road project and not seeing more interest in China is disappointing. Immediately after entering Kazakhstan, a new, four-lane highway leads all the way to Almaty and beyond- all built and supported by China. (Many argue that these projects burden the recipient countries with onerous debt but the benefits of this type of infrastructure to the host countries are immense).
While not an apologist for certain Chinese policies, I am a supporter of much of the investment that aims to link Europe with China. Like the famed Silk Road before it, the One Belt One Road initiative will open up many new economic opportunities for Central Asia. There are many aspects of Chinese society that deserve to be acknowledged and learned from, for example, its reverence for the family, belief in the importance of education, and a social contract that makes the cities among the safest in the world. None of this is being highlighted across the border.
Again, I am not naive to say that China does not have its flaws, some that go against the so-called enlightened models that we have in the West. I am arguing, however, that it behooves China to resolutely enhance its soft-power. In a country where stability and economic progress are valued over unbridled individual freedom, China must address the binary opposition beliefs that define the West and proclaim ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’ as the main values of importance. Levi-Strauss’s binary opposite of freedom is unfree/oppressed. And China, even with its miraculous economic and political changes (I was put under house arrest 18 times in the eighties and not once since) of the last three decades, is being painted into the latter category. Those of us who remember the China of the eighties and nineties can only look on with admiration at the positive changes in this country. When we make said arguments, most Western pundits dismiss us and 95% of the Chinese population as being brainwashed.
China is losing the soft power battle because it is allowing the West to define the ‘most important’ societal values. America positions its provocative cultural freedom as a value that should be pursued at all costs, while not fulfilling the basic tenets of the social contract: our streets are among the most violent in the world, our education system constantly underachieves, and equal opportunity for all seems elusive at best. We belittle China because of its censorship but allow our own media to be discredited and our sources of news and information to be so dichotomous that our political decisions are solely informed by visceral values. There is not one form of freedom: China’s aforementioned focus on education, hard work and on the stable transition from a rural- to an urban-based economy are values that fulfill the government’s social contract in the eyes of most Chinese citizens. The freedom of mobility in China, embodied in the prodigious high-speed rail system and the safe and welcoming streets, are every bit as valuable to me as my ability to watch Youtube or use Facebook. American soft-power is sexy but it covers the ailments of a society that is not delivering the same benefits to the majority of the people.
China will never be able to compete in the soft power battle unless it redefines what is considered success. Thirty-five years of interaction with China has certainly led me to believe that China is winning in the most important social sphere- the improvement of the lives of its citizens.
This article was written by Brian Linden.