There are many explanations as to why the renminbi has yet to be accepted as an international currency. While the primary reasons are purely economic, the “cultural” aspect is not irrelevant. Before it can be used internationally for commerce, or as a reserve currency, the renminbi needs to be recognized, accepted, and valued. Until now, the renminbi has been used out of convenience, not affinity. Its semi-convertibility in Hong Kong is only thanks to the special status enjoyed by the ex-colony, and the agreements formed using the Rmb as a basis are a reflection of the pragmatic nature of the deals, and not the strength of the currency. Despite the progress of recent years, the renminbi remains unused in international trade and the empire of the dollar remains largely intact. China has gained on the United States in several areas with its skyrocketing GDP, the trade deficit, and its massive cash reserves, but not on the strictly monetary front.
If the market is not investing in the Rmb it is not just because of its strict regulation, and if the World Bank does not add it to its portfolio there must be other reasons, considering China’s economic strength, and it appears that those reasons are related to the perceived cultural role China has played throughout history. The quality of China’s spectacular rise is undeniable, but its culture is poorly understood by outsiders and respect does not always breed friendship. China’s image is hurt by its rigid political system, unwilling to bend to minority rights and inflexible with foreign policy. In a moment of acute self-awareness, Beijing has launched a network of Confucius institutes in an attempt to promote a friendlier image.
The more than 300 Chinese cultural centers that have been opened around the world in a show of soft power are meant to display the more benevolent and harmonious side of China, but inevitably they often end up becoming tools of propaganda instead. These centers promote China, and not necessarily its culture. America’s ascension in the postwar years was characterized by the notion of The American Way of Life, values that were backed by military supremacy while still managing to spread a message of hope, with Hollywood as the driving force. Today, China’s global weight is measured in GDP and political clout. Its talented youth are being educated in the US, Canada, Australia, because they know that what they learn there will be their ticket to success.
Much in the same way that the Rmb is valued but not validated, China’s image is respected but not imitated. The distribution of China’s art, books, and films does not match its size and global importance; China is growing in every direction, but the economic branch is far stronger than the others. It will be up to the next group of political leaders to find a way to balance China’s place in the world.