Article Topic: Thomas Friedman says that the world is technologically flat, but is it culturally as well? The real test of globalization is the human factor involved.
“The Other Side of Flatness”
It is hard to speak of globalization without thinking of China. As the world’s biggest player in the shifting power equation, China’s unparalleled presence and influence is felt from Wall Street to Toys “R” Us, Washington D.C. to Davos, Switzerland. With a GDP growth rate of 11.1% in 2006 and $1.202 trillion held in foreign reserves as of March 2007, China is undoubtedly modern history’s biggest economic success story. Unfortunately, it is also a country that the rest of the world understands only through economic figures and financial numbers. To truly understand the effects of globalization on China is to understand the people who are culturally connected to the nation, and with almost 40 million overseas Chinese, the rapidly changing economic and political international landscape is bound to have affected them all.
As China rises in prominence on the world stage and assumes a bigger role in international affairs, its people have sought to do the same. The main export now, besides inexpensive manufactured goods, are optimistic entrepreneurs who are emigrating to parts of Africa and Europe in search of better living overseas. One success story is 25 year old Yang Jie, who chose the untraditional destination of Malawi, a country on the African continent, as his home. Thinking that Africa was just ‘one big desert’, Yang decided to sell ice cream, and with money pooled from relatives and friends, he created his own factory. Malawi’s climate is actually sub-topical but that has not stopped his ice cream company from becoming the country’s biggest. In recent years, success stories such as Jie’s have become common across Africa. The Xinhua press agency recently estimated there were at least 750,000 Chinese working or living for extended periods on the continent, a reflection of burgeoning economic ties between China and Africa that reached $55 billion in trade in 2006, compared with less than $10 million a year a generation earlier.
Yet as Chinese businessmen settle abroad on new frontiers and prosper financially, their community faces hostile local residents that threaten their safety and very livelihood. You Xianwen, who moved to Ethiopia a few months ago to start his company ABC Bioenergy, would have chosen Zambia as a destination if not for the recent anti-Chinese protests in that country. With the influx of Chinese workers and investors flooding into the continent during a time when Chinese and African relations grow increasingly close, African countries are viewing the situation with anticipation and dread. They know that with the emergence of companies such as You’s ABC Bioenergy will provide inexpensive sources of alternative energy, sound physical infrastructure, and the commerce needed to build the African economy, but they also fear that Chinese investments will only benefit the Chinese.
The criticism African locals have of their Chinese counterparts is not unheard of. From Africa, to Europe, to Southeast Asia, the internationally expanding Chinese communities in those regions have faced censureship and apprehension from the natives with whom they live side by side. In Zambia, the anti-Chinese sentiment stems from the African community’s convictions that the Chinese should come as investors and builders, not the merchants who sell knock-off Pumas and t-shirts and compete for already extremely scarce resources in the local markets. The growing financial clout of the Chinese businessmen who eat “food prepared by cooks brought from China and even [receive] basic health care from a Chinese doctor” only seems to exacerbate an already pervasive ideology that the Chinese only care about their own profits and their own nationals.
Halfway across the world, cities in Europe are also feeling the tensions emerge between the local and Chinese community. The recent article headlines in BBC news documents the feelings of hostility as Chinese businessmen flood into Parisian and Milanese neighborhoods. Titles such as “A Pushcart War in the Streets of Milan’s Chinatown” and “Tensions Rise as Chinese Move, En Masse, into a Paris Neighborhood” signify a slow but steadily growing global phenomenon of anti-Chinese sentiment. In both cities, local residents are becoming increasingly vocal about the business practices of the Chinese and how it is affecting their respective neighborhoods. Milanese and Parisians are both complaining about the ways in which the Chinese maintain their wholesale clothing businesses. In Italy, the blue metal pushcart that many Chinese wholesalers use to ferry huge volumes of cheap shirts, shoes and jeans to idling vans and cars of local buyers have become a symbol of the war. In Paris, it is not a matter of pushcarts but rather of real estate. More than two-thirds of the 800 street level businesses in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, 550 stores and growing, are now Chinese-owned outlets selling inexpensive apparel to retailers worldwide.
Unlike the African criticisms of the Chinese, in which the latter was censured for reaping admirable profits that threatened the livelihood of the locals, the European community has denounced the Chinese’ business practices as a means to express their belief of the incompatibility of Chinese and Western culture. Residents in Milan may complain of how the blue pushcarts on sidewalks are a hazard for senior citizens and children while Parisians closely monitor their Asian neighbors for reckless littering and harboring illegal laborers, but the truth is that Europe is offended by such sudden societal change brought about by the presence of a radically different culture with extremely exclusive social norms. Just ask the locals. When Parisian Martine Cohen and Milanese Corrado Borrelli were asked to share their thoughts, the two responded that before the Chinese came, their respective neighborhoods were filled “with stores to buy thread, bread, electrical things – the kind of stores neighborhoods have.” But since then, the mono-activity of the Chinese business have forced many shops to close including “four cafes, a vegetable store, an antique toy store, butcher shops, news kiosks, and even [Cohen’s] own hairdresser.”
It is not that certain boulangeries are especially significant or that a neighborhood cannot function with out its bona fide butchers, but all the individual lines of business create a community where mutual inclusion and interaction are at the core of societal dynamics. To the Europeans, the swarms of Chinese shops have robbed them of that sense of community and the cities’ new inhabitants have failed to replace it. The Chinese, Italians say, “have stolen spaces from Italians, but they haven’t developed relationships with the residents…They shop at their own stores – their culture closes them off…and there are small things, like they speak too loudly.” The situation is especially difficult in Italy where, until recently, residents lived in peaceful cohabitation with the decades-old Chinese immigrant minority. The new breed of young Chinese immigrants, however, do not care to learn Italian and tend to isolate themselves from the Italian and older Chinese community.
This global trend is very dangerous for Chinese communities abroad, and could prove disastrous for the people in many different regions of the world, especially in Southeast Asia where ethnic bitterness has grown in the last decades due to the fact that the Chinese minority is commercially dominant in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Why has it become increasingly hard for the Chinese to integrate themselves into the social framework of their adopted countries? One possible answer is the rise of China on the international area has substantially boosted the pride and nationalist sentiments of overseas Chinese. With an economically prospering country giving them a more concrete international identity, many Chinese do not feel the need to make an effort to assimilate: the country they hail from speaks for them. In addition, the old cultures of Europe may not be able to absorb globalization as fast as the rest of the developing world wants them to.
As much as China has grown on the balance sheet, the acceptance of the country’s network of foreign nationals into the international community is still meeting resistance. Such social concerns are unfortunately the byproducts of an increasingly flat world; if factories and manufacturing plants can go into China, then its people and culture can certainly leave. The spread of the Chinese community internationally is inevitable but the question remains as to whether cultural resistance to the Chinese will be as strong as the Chinese’s need to prove themselves.