For the last ten years, my world revolved around China: from teaching English to studying Mandarin to working at the Beijing office of Weber Shandwick. I guess you could say that I caught a wave, having been fortunate enough to witness several milestones in Chinese history like the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo, not to mention weathering the global recession in China’s relatively safe economic harbour.
So it should come as no surprise that I liked to entertain the notion that the world really does revolve around the Middle Kingdom. And it’s easy to understand why. From the assignments at work, where every day another brand makes history by launching in China, to everyday life, where a heated argument over taxi fares can reignite the Cold War. Even while indulging myself, I always suspected this sense of Chinese exceptionalism was merely delusions of grandeur on my part — not all that different from folks in my native Texas, where “everything is bigger” (and presumably, better).
So when the time came to return to the US, I expected to escape China’s orbit. Surely, I thought, China Central Television’s China-centric narrative on world events had infiltrated my thinking. After all, Yao Ming isn’t the most important player in the NBA. People around the world are not watching the “firsts” of China’s space programme. And the leaders of America aren’t kowtowing to China’s ruling junta just so that they won’t sell treasury bonds. Right?
I first noticed something was amiss the day after we landed, when we went to the local bank to open up a new account. The teller, upon hearing we had just relocated from China, started jotting down the Chinese numerals one through ten on the back of the form he was supposed to be filling out for us. Of course, he had studied “a little Chinese” and wanted to show off his skills.
In the weeks that followed, we gradually re-established our dwelling in the US, setting up bank accounts, buying a car, renting an apartment. We should have been settling into life in the wild, wild West, but somehow we could not escape the Far East. There was the Chinese button just below Spanish on the ATM machine, the incongruous Shanghai sequence in the new Bruce Willis’ new flick “Looper,” the Chinese businessmen hunting for Ming Dynasty relics among Texas treasures at the antique store, the downstairs neighbors chattering away in Mandarin…
It was like the end of the classic time travel story ‘Back to the Future’ when the protagonist, Marty McFly, realises that his incursion into the past had inextricably altered the present, so that the home he returned to was not the home he had left.
Had our misadventures in the Middle Kingdom somehow tilted the balance of world power? Had my double-digit economic growth-fueled delusions of grandeur been more accurate than I imagined?
Not that any of this bothered me. I was not trying to get away from China, but then again I did not expect China’s influence to follow me either.
The seemingly unending parade of China’s cultural prowess came to a head during the final debate of the presidential election, with President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney spending a full eight minutes (eons in US debate time) on the subject of China. Is the country a currency manipulator? Had policies resulted in companies outsourcing jobs there? Was the price of new policies worth borrowing from China?
The political pundits wondered whether China had now become a factor in US elections. So did I.
When I was working in China, I thought that our clients’ interest in engaging Chinese audiences just came with the territory. But when a country has 1.3 billion people, 500 million internet users, the world’s largest population of millionaires and more than 200 cities slated to surpass a million residents in coming years — and that is just the beginning (500 million internet users is less than 40% of the population) — the world takes notice. All those years, all the new brands, all the campaigns. We thought we were changing China. But were we changing China, or was China changing the world?
At the very most, we can ponder whether China has reached the point where one can say the sun never sets on the Chinese Empire. At the very least, maybe there really is something to all those Blade Runner-esque science fiction movies where future dystopian cityscapes are covered with neon Chinese brands.
Only one thing is clear: We are all living in China’s long shadow.
Tim Gingrich is group manager, Dallas, at Weber Shandwick