Total lack of soft power.
I know what you’re thinking – there are bigger problems out there., and did a great job covering them, and I invite you to check out their answers as well. From an ageing population, a disappearance of low-end manufacturing to the lack of social welfare and environmental concerns – China does indeed face many challenges.
But these are challenges that all major economies are faced with, to varying degrees – the social net, for example, is still weak in the US. It’s strong in France, but we can’t finance it anymore.
The one thing that distinguishes China on the podium of the world’s largest economies, and its biggest problem, is the complete weakness of its soft power.
I invite readers of this question to think long and hard about this one. When was the last time you watched a Chinese TV show? A movie? Bought a consumer brand for the brand itself, not because it was cheap? Read a book by a Chinese author?
Now compare that with the other countries on the podium – the US, the UK, Germany, France, Japan, India. Russia is a thornier issue – it has immense soft power, but it tends to be more localized to ex-Communist countries. Still, soft power.
China has an incredibly difficult time in exporting an admiration of its culture to the world. It tried, in part, with the horribly clumsy Confucius Institutes – but the failure of those just goes to show how hard it is. Soft power is not forced down someone’s throat – it needs to be voluntarily accepted.
The truth is, China has had a few hits. A Bite of China did an incredible job in showcasing Chinese regional food – and was an immediate success.
Wechat could have been an immensely popular tool in Asia. I’m a giant fan, and maintain that it is so advanced compared to Western alternatives that Facebook’s playbook with Messenger is essentially: ‘Copy Wechat’. But then because of the inclusion of a map that showed that China laid claim to all of the China sea (the infamous 9-dotted line), users in Thailand and other countries began to shun it. Politics stepped in, and it destroyed the little soft power they had managed to create.
Brands like Xiaomi are making great inroads as well, around the concept of affordable, but still high-quality and innovative smart products. But if China had more soft power to begin with, I can guarantee you Xiaomi would already be a household name. After all, if your favorite TV stars are all wearing a Xiaomi band, wouldn’t you be curious?
There’s a reason for this, and it’s historical. It’s even in China’s name: 中国 – literally “Country in the Middle”. China has always been China-centric, and ever since doing away with Zheng He the explorer, striving for self-sufficiency.