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As China rises, many rush to get on the `Middle Kingdom' bandwagon

JAKARTA, Indonesia—As students bustled in and out of her Mandarin language school, teacher Yue Xiaoyan said a desire to learn Chinese was awakening in the world.

"More and more people are starting to realize that Chinese is a really, really important language," Yue said.

From Jakarta to Vancouver and on to New Delhi and Chicago, surging interest in studying the Chinese language is just one gauge of the greater magnetic pull that China exerts after two decades of galloping economic growth. China is wielding more clout around the globe, shaping up as a counterweight to the United States in fields as divergent as diplomacy, trade and language.

China's negotiators are chalking up numerous free-trade accords with other countries, yanking the momentum from the United States, while Chinese leaders travel the globe to red-carpet welcomes from trading partners pulled by China's growth locomotive.

Economic vitality is at the heart of China's ascendancy, adding luster to a nation that was stagnant and impoverished only a generation ago. Now, China launches men into space, fields a modern military, finances some of the world's daring architecture and jostles for influence in the international market of ideas.

It still doesn't come close to challenging the United States in "soft power," that combination of cultural and economic vibrancy, marketing pizzazz, diplomatic heft and idealistic vision that made the last century one of American pre-eminence around the globe. But in odd and disparate corners, from the NBA courts, where Yao Ming dribbles and other players sport Chinese tattoos, to the Eiffel Tower illuminated in red to honor the Chinese New Year, the Middle Kingdom's influence is growing.

China's rise coincides with a decline in favorable public opinion toward the United States, particularly in Asia, that's seemed stark since the 2001 terrorist attacks and the American invasion of Iraq two years later.

"There is a lot of discontent about U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and around the globe. In some areas, China is seen as a balancing force and a nonthreatening one," said Anne-Marie Brady, a China expert at New Zealand's Canterbury University. "Any power that can stand up to the United States gets sympathy from many countries."

China isn't seeking a confrontation with the United States, but it's jousting for influence in some of the far corners of the world. It's also leveraging its economic growth to kindle global enthusiasm for studying the standard Chinese dialect, which the majority of Chinese speak.

A subsidiary of the Education Ministry aims to set up 100 Chinese language institutes around the world, which it calls Confucius Institutes, and staff them with native Chinese teachers. The goal is to quadruple the number of foreigners studying Chinese to 100 million by 2010. So far it's set up 32 institutes in 23 countries.

While promotion of the standard Chinese dialect underscores the sophistication of China's public diplomacy, in other areas the nation's "soft power" lags. It's failed to leverage the panda bear, the Great Wall or anything else into a powerful global symbol. China has few companies, cultural icons, movies or brand names with the ubiquity of MTV, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola or Microsoft.

East Asia neighbors South Korea and Japan outpace China at creating global companies and pop music stars. Chinese acupuncture and kung fu have been around for decades without taking off in the West as Japanese sushi, karaoke and "lean management" techniques have in recent years.

In Europe, where store shelves sag with Chinese-made imports, average people are unlikely to be able to name any famous Chinese cultural figures, with the exception of Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong actor and director.

"Hardly anybody can name a Chinese writer," said Steve Tsang, a China scholar at St. Antony's College, part of England's Oxford University.

China's diplomacy has proved effective, even strikingly successful, in other arenas. As U.S. trade talks limp, China is in free-trade negotiations with Australia, South Korea, Pakistan and a handful of other nations. Late last year, it struck a free-trade agreement with Thailand, Malaysia and eight other Southeast Asian nations.

By boosting trade and avoiding sensitive issues, Beijing has cast itself as a benign alternative to Washington. Even energy-rich Canada and Australia, longtime U.S. allies, increasingly are turning to China.

In a move that shut out the United States in a major East Asian forum for the first time, China endorsed the idea of holding an East Asia Summit, which will be attended by the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. The first meeting is in Malaysia in December.

In another achievement, China now mounts an alternative to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. China's Boao Forum, which draws a thousand business and political figures each year, has become a major event in Asia to network and discuss the region's future.

Many foreigners come because they envy China's economic success, but few leave inspired by its ideals.

"What is appealing about China to Southeast Asia is not the cultural or political systems. It's mainly economic," said Sheng Lijun, a China expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "People have the impression that they are successful now because they are adopting the Western system: capitalism."

Only moving away from strict one-party control might broaden China's "soft power" and deepen its allure to foreigners, perhaps even drawing prominent foreigners to send their sons and daughters there for study instead of Japan or the West.

"If you do not have a good political system at home, you cannot attract support from your neighbors," said Yan Xuetong, a political scientist at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "If China wants to increase its soft power, it must have political reform."

In some ways, China's global clout is climbing just as foreign influences pour through its own borders. Many urban Chinese hunger for foreign films and music and chafe at the tight lid on the Internet.

"All the bands I see coming to Beijing are Taiwan bands or bands from Hong Kong," said Brady, the New Zealand scholar. "I think the Chinese are being very much affected by globalization.

"Their great fear is cultural invasion and invasion of political views that are different."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-INFLUENCE

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