View from the Wall

China's New Reality: Globalization


Beginning in the late 1980s, Chinese people slowly became aware of an expression frequently appearing in the Western media, a word they could not quite define—globalization. Just as they could not associate the term AIDS with themselves, the Chinese people could not connect with the term globalization. At the time, a great majority of the Chinese had never even met a foreigner. Traveling outside China was extremely difficult, regardless of where one was going, and most Chinese had no idea what a foreign country even looked like. Applying for a passport and traveling outside the country were not issues an average Chinese citizen contemplated.

Twenty years later, China is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Tens of thousands of "foreigners" from around the world come to China daily for business and pleasure. Name brand consumer goods can be easily acquired in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and products labeled "Made in China" saturate every corner of the world market. The world came to China, and China has integrated into the world. Globalization is now a reality of life in China, a leading trait of Chinese society. At the same time, however, Chinese ideas and opinions on globalization continue to develop. When one sees globalization as a force affecting societal changes and the progress of history, its subsequent impact must involve not only China but the entire world as well. In China, specifically, globalization will spark conflicts and challenges never before seen. These conflicts and challenges have manifested themselves in the following areas.

Economic

The economy leads the key components of globalization, and the local market and global economies are intimately linked together. In a country such as China, where modernization and socialist ideals are embraced simultaneously, open reform is an essential step toward globalization. Under socialism, the economy is characterized by control and structure within a controlled economic system; the government regulates financial information and directly manages all resources. Hence, reform in a socialist economic system works to shift a controlled economy toward market economy. The process of accomplishing this transition is to gradually replace governmental economic power with free market demands. As a result, the challenges for a government making this transition are numerousagencies and departments must be eliminated, governmental employees must be dismissed, and so on. The government is forced to adopt new management styles and can no longer freely order around industry. Of course, the government still has a role in overseeing the economy through legislation and market monitoring; however, its basic function has changed. Roles the government played and grew accustomed to are no longer applicable. In short, the government now treads unfamiliar water.

One significant step toward globalization China took was becoming a member of the WTO. While it is true that WTO membership does not equate to a completely free market, this degree of openness in China is clearly unprecedented. To enjoy the privileges and benefits of WTO, China must adhere to the organization's rules and regulations. For example, management regulations and systems have to be modified or completely overhauled. The impact of membership in WTO on the Chinese administration's policies and practices cannot be overstated. "Reaching an international standard" is not merely raising product quality, but also represents a paradigm shift in the relationship between government agencies and businesses. Complying with a standard forces both the central power and the manufacturing sectors to become more "transparent." Hence, the administration faces economic challenges both internally and externally. Faced with the need for continuous economic growth, the enormous pressure of population growth and an increased demand for jobs, the regime has little choice but to "forge ahead with reform" in order to keep up the legitimacy of the Communist Party.

Political

Globalization implies the expansion of individual space far beyond the physical boundary of a particular country, through communication and interaction with the rest of the world. Any one country cannot create policies or safeguard political power without the influence of the rest of the world. In determining its domestic policies, the Chinese government is under the watchful eyes of a volatile, complex and anti-Marxist world environment. Traditional Chinese notions of national sovereignty, national interests and national security are all being challenged by globalization. Issues once considered purely domestic such as human rights, private property and energy consumption are increasingly taking on an international and global flavor. National politics can no longer be conducted in a conventional, closed-door manner, totally isolated from the outside world.

As globalization weakens the long-held ideal of national sovereignty, China recognizes its need for a stable environment for growth. To secure this environment, China has to adapt its domestic policies to a global reality. One example is voting rights. China has implemented citizen elections at the rural community and township levels on a trial basis. Of course, there is still a long way to go before getting to national presidential elections, but these trials are a start. As a result, democracy and freedom are no longer abstract theories, but goals pursued daily by ordinary Chinese citizens. In everything they determinedly "defend their personal rights." This defense of personal rights may very well be the most significant sign of China's political awakening.

Cultural

Culturally speaking, globalization utilizes the worldwide mass media and its extensive network to influence the views and opinions of the Chinese public. Driven by capitalism, globalization not only brings China the material progress of the West but cultural progress as well, causing far-reaching effects on Chinese society. After China opened its door to the West, popular Western culture flooded in. Music, fashions and contemporary ideas and values all put down roots in China. Culture globalization, to a certain degree, is already an established fact. At the same time, clashes are inevitable, such as the clash between contemporary and traditional cultures, between market and controlled economic theories and between capitalism and socialism. Hence, as China globalizes culturally, the influx of foreign goods such as literature and entertainment is countered with a vigorous promotion of traditional Confucianism. The government hopes the cultural heritage of Confucius and Lao-Tzu can minimize the power of cultural globalization.

Social

Globalization also revolutionized Chinese society at large by altering value systems, contrasting disparity between the poor and the rich and transforming ideas about marriage and family. Following economic expansion, many social phenomena emerged that had never been seen before. For example, new definitions of marriage and family gave rise to a new set of issues such as cohabitation, homosexuality, a high rate of divorce, DINK families (Double Income no Kids), "second wives," and cross-continent marriages. Another change has been the major population migration in the form of migrant workers moving to the cities, the wealthy leaving the country and inland Han Chinese moving into minority regions. Any influx of people brings with it property value inflation, transportation nightmares, increases in crime, consumer wastes and environmental contamination. These are the major challenges facing the Chinese leadership.

Spiritual

When compared with all the challenges mentioned above, the one aspect of globalization that causes the Chinese government the most concern and makes them feel the most helpless is the change in Chinese people's moral and belief systems. On one hand is the decline and deterioration of traditional morals and ethics; on the other is the people's increasing hunger for religion. Two researchers at East China Normal University conducted a survey in February 2007 and reported that the actual number of people who have a religious belief is three times the initial estimates. This means China could have over 300 million people of faith. All five of the state-recognized religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity, and Catholicism) are growing, with Christianity growing the fastest. The government is completely powerless in light of this growth. Disillusioned with communist propaganda, the Chinese people are searching for a new set of beliefs, giving folk beliefs and newly recognized religions the opportunity to flourish.

In conclusion, globalization affords China growth and prosperity but also presents new challenges. While benefiting from globalization, China has also restructured itself and assimilated fully into it. It is still too early to tell whether globalization in China is a blessing or a curse. One thing is for certain, though: China now is not the China of the 1980sand there is no going back.

Image credit: Starbucks in China by dunhilaryu, on Flickr.

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio