Against the Grain: China in a Globalised World

[one-half-first]Globalisation has brought people from different nations closer than ever before, as advances in communications technology and diplomacy facilitate trade and friendship across the globe. So how can nations retain the characteristics that make them unique in the face of the homogenization or “Westernisation” of their cultures – be it language, music, fashion or food?

Many nations, with China as the prime example, have managed to forge a strong national identity in the face of rapid industrialisation. One reason for this could be the strong sense of nationalism and pride in China, a movement that has been both state-led and organic in nature. As the country’s economy slows down and political tensions rise, nationalism has become more important than ever to the Chinese people.[/one-half-first][one-half]going-against-the-grain-china-and-globalization-1[/one-half]Recently, China has experienced rapid and sustained economic growth, only beginning to slow down in the last few years. This growth has been largely fuelled by a huge manufacturing and export industry, and recently China has started to move into innovation and development of its own. As a result of this boom, China is home to some of the world’s largest cities. In the Australian psyche, these cities are seen as crowded, polluted places, with no room for nature. While it is true that they aren’t exactly utopias, with many suffering from the anxieties and health complications of city life, by no means are they merely the centres of capitalism and labour that some in the West see them to be.

For example, in a city such as Shanghai, one can see a fantastic blend of old and new. Right next to the Plaza in Hongkou district – a six-floor cathedral to capitalism where one can buy luxury goods, enjoy fine dining and of course, sing karaoke – are an eclectic collection of convenience stores and noodle bars, where elderly patrons sit outside fanning themselves in the hot sun, or playing mah-jong in the evening. It is this contrast that characterises the divide in China between old and new, Communist and Capitalist, East and West. So how have Chinese cities maintained their unique traits in the face of this change?

China has greatly benefitted from the economic reforms carried out by the ruling Communist Party in the 20th Century. Deng Xiaoping, who became premier in 1977, is largely credited with establishing the institutions and rule of law needed to stabilise and encourage this development. The Chinese Communist Party has often followed a nationalistic line, encouraging people to be proud of their heritage, it has become a hybrid of authoritarian government and capitalism, with a freed-up economy. According to Robert D. Kaplan, people are happy to accept an authoritarian government so long as the establishment continues to deliver economic growth, which in turn, benefits the people.

However, political instability follows economic slowdown. In the case of China, when examining economic data, one can see that China’s economy, and thus the global perception of China as a powerhouse, has shifted. In the first quarter of 2016, China experienced an economic growth rate of 1.1% – the lowest since 2011. This fact, along with other measures being used to project an image of China to the globe – such as technological innovation and sporting performance – seems to be resulting in a change in people’s mindsets.

Many who observe goings on in the Asia Pacific region have seen recent tensions regarding the South China Sea Ruling, where the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China had no claim to an exclusive economic zone in a disputed region of the South China Sea. After this ruling, protests and calls to boycott foreign brands sprung up around China. While it is hard to verify the authenticity of some of these accounts, tales of Chinese patriots smashing their iPhones appeared on Weibo, the Chinese internet platform, and protests were held at KFC restaurants around the country. Previously, Western goods and brands were seen as status symbols in China. Now, it seems, in the face of political and economic instability, nationalism has become even more important to the Chinese people as a way of promoting identity and pride in heritage and culture. However, with China’s tightly controlled state media, it is hard to discern how much of this movement is a “grassroots” phenomenon, and how much is influenced by various media and government controls.

On the streets of Shanghai, an old woman washes vegetables on the street outside her small store. Nearby, I pass a Gucci store on my way to enjoy a hot pot with my classmates. There is really no logic to the blend of nationalism and globalisation, but I think, for now, the city remains uniquely Chinese.