June 7, 2013 6:19 pm

How the west has won

China may be conquering the world economically but the west is winning the battle of ideas
An illustration that depicts western cultural dominance©Luis Grañena

You’d almost think the west was in decline. In Syria, Qatar funds the rebels while Russia keeps the regime afloat. Eastern purchases of western brands roll on: Chinese bidders are now swallowing the French holiday company Club Med, and probably Smithfield, the world’s biggest pork producer. By 2016, China should be the world’s biggest economy. No wonder the British government frets about losing “the global race”.

Yet looked at in another way, the west only gets more dominant. We are winning the battle of ideas. Our universities, media, books, celebrities, brands, our principal language, even our dreams dominate the global conversation. “Western culture” isn’t superior, but its stuff fills the average human being’s head. In the long run, that probably matters as much as economic might.

I noticed it visiting Moscow last month. Most western expatriates I met there had come for money (the Muscovite “salary bonus” and “tax bonus”) and had parked their wives and children back home. Meanwhile, rich Russians were sending their children to British boarding schools and American colleges. Neither group seemed to see their future in the country that paid them.

You still don’t get many westerners grooming their kids for Russian or Chinese universities. Indeed, in the Shanghai rankings of the world’s best universities, American colleges and Oxbridge fill the top 19 positions. The best institute from an emerging economy, Moscow State University, ranks 80th.

In all sorts of fields, China, Russia and other rising economies still lack cultural influence. Their opening to the world has simply given western culture more lands to swallow. That partly reflects the dominance of English. The language continues to benefit from the triple whammy of its simplicity (except for spelling), the British empire and the American century. When you need to learn 3,500 characters just to read a Chinese newspaper, few people will bother. That’s why the world’s 35 most popular news websites in web information company Alexa’s rankings are in English. No wonder al-Qaeda staged its biggest recruiting event in an English-speaking media capital, New York, though even then its non-western ideas made few converts.

It’s the same story in books. Translations from English fill shelves worldwide. Brazil’s three bestselling books in 2012, for instance, were the three volumes of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy. Fourth was the American novel Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. Meanwhile, few Chinese books get translated at all. Even the most exportable bit of Chinese culture – its supposed devotion to education – had to be popularised in English by an American author of Chinese descent, “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua. Western brands rule too: no Chinese, Russian, Indian or Arab names make Forbes’ top 100 of the world’s strongest brands.

. . .

Western cultural products promote western celebrities. A British friend of mine reports a bearded student approaching him on the street in Isfahan, Iran, years ago and asking: “You are from England? After Israel and America, you are our biggest enemy. Do you think David Beckham should play on the right for Manchester United, or in the centre?’’

Our universities, media, books, brands and celebrities combine to sell the western way of life – which implicitly includes democracy. The American dream remains a potent idea despite being no longer accessible to most Americans. The European dream – a lower-income version of the American dream but with more free time – is encapsulated in the Club Med brand. The Chinese purchase of it is the ultimate tribute.

Meanwhile the new Beijing-pushed “Chinese dream” (a phrase the Chinese government apparently borrowed from the American columnist Thomas Friedman) has less appeal. You don’t get many people sneaking illegally into China, except from North Korea. If the aspiration offered by China and Russia is simply good incomes for ordinary people, then western countries remain decades ahead.

Western cultural dominance doesn’t depend merely on wealth, English and first-mover advantage. It’s also built on freedom (yes, the word deserves rescuing from its contamination by George W. Bush). Unfree countries rarely develop lifestyles that are envied abroad. Moreover, Russia and China actively discourage their people from producing ideas for the global conversation. That’s why the emerging countries with exportable cultural products are mostly democracies. South Korean, Mexican and Brazilian soap operas sell abroad, as do Korean pop and Indian movies. Admittedly, non-democratic tiny Qatar has created a more influential global TV station than either China or Russia, but it chiefly influences other Arabic-speaking countries.

China and Russia won’t easily gain more global cultural influence, unless they become English-speaking democracies. For now the west rules the global conversation. That matters. Although many dictators admire the Chinese political model, their subjects mostly prefer democracy. You don’t see anyone in Cairo, or for that matter New York, taking to the streets to demand that his country be led by an unelected communist party with a history of mass murder.

China and Russia must worry that when their economies stall, this era will end much as the cold war did: the appeal of western life brought down the Berlin Wall.

simon.kuper@ft.com

Twitter @KuperSimon

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