Back in September, Sam Crane of the Useless Tree wrote an interesting post called, Can a Black Man be Chinese? which generated quite a lot of discussion. You can read the comments following his article for more, but in a nutshell, Sam questioned whether the expansion of China's economy would result in not only greater globalization in China, but in a "culturalization" whereby, might not someday "a black person become Chinese?"
The question itself, I thought, had fatal problems, begging a lot of important questions-- not least of which is this: Does-- in fact-- globalization put forces in motion that lead inevitably to pluralistic societies?
I think we can look around the world and see that it it probably does not. Globalization can lead to various degrees of more flexible immigration policy and increased foreign labor (high-tech and special economic zones)-- but it has not--so far-- led to the birth of a gaggle of new pluralistic societies-- in the sense of say the US or Australia; New Zealand or Canada. Most developing, globalization countries seem to take different paths-- from highly restrained acceptance of foreign guest workers to out-right human rights violation disasters.
China, too, will most likely choose a course which will be markedly different from what Western observers might hope or expect--but that course will be unique to its history and cultural proclivities (with its own staggering domestic labor force, I doubt we'll be seeing any issues like that in Dubai, for example-- a place where more people probably ought to be looking).
Two things come to mind when I think about China and globalization.
One is that years ago, when I first came to Japan, I read in a guidebook what was probably a stupid piece of advice, and yet it has stuck with me all these years. That is, when Japanese go out into the world, they are shocked to see that other people actually live in ways very much like they do, while Americans going out into the world are shocked to see any place where people are doing things differently from them.
The above is obviously a huge exaggeration (the stuff one finds in guidebooks) But, then again, I do think there are many places, which I shall call the Old World countries, where people remain very conscious of the way in which their culture is unique and non-transferable; while there are other places, which I shall call New World countries, which are shaped by utopian, philosophical notions in which they see their way of life as having model-like qualities-- something to which all cultures could if they so desired strive toward; even in some cases, seeing the modern liberal democratic way as being the culmination of enlightened development.
And herein lies the tension.
I am just finishing reading Parag Khanna's tour de force book, The Second World (NYT's review here), in which he makes the very crucial point that if the US wishes to continue playing a leadership role in the world, it might have to accept the fact that it is no longer the only game in town; and that, the world is no longer in a post-Cold War state of being whereby there are only two choices to choose from: our way or the highway.
Rather now, in what Khanna calls the geopolitical marketplace, up and coming developing countries, as well as other First World Countries for that matter, can "shop around" and choose to align themselves with one of several superpowers-- or better: align themselves with more than one at the same time- keeping things interesting.
According to Khanna, currently there are three superpowers that stand as empires: the US, the EU and China. So, for example, nowadays a "second world" country in Central Asia might wish to take on aspects of China's "communitarian" traditions (which stress collective welfare and stable, centralized government over over individual, political rights, etc.).
Khanna, in what is the most interesting (to me) aspect of the book, does not see this as a negative situation per se. Indeed, I had just finished Europe-based conservative Robert Kagan's latest book, in which-- Kagan basically painting a similar picture of the current state of the world, still sings the old post-Cold War song of an increased military vigilance in order to maintain hegemony (in order to avoid the old clash of civilizations thing).
In contrast-- a breath of fresh air really-- Khanna is calling for the US to embrace this new world and to perhaps, more like Europe, start thinking more globally itself.
And, that's the rub.
I am re-listening to Dreyfus' lectures on Kierkegaard (trying to get to the bottom of the Knight of Faith), and in the first lecture Dreyfus talks about Plato's play, the Meno, in which Socrates teaches a foreign-born slave how to solve the Pythagorean Therum. Greek civilization and the heights of its cultural achievements were in fact open to everyone (as long as they spoke Greek perhaps?) A slave yes, but even still participation in culture was open to him.
Contrast this, says Dreyfus, to the ancient Hebrews, where their culture was based on a covenent with God-- they were (at least at the start) the Chosen People. Conflicted by this dual heritage, perhaps there is a belief in the universality of our culture coupled with a desire to bring others into the Covenent. (I like to call it "sharing the good news").
Indeed-- and this is my second problem-- it could be said that our melting pot culture itself encourages not a true cultural pluralism but rather a melting of minority cultures into the dominant culture (the concern of anti-globalizationists). As I have written about many times in these pages, I keep seeing the "two-way" Silk Road being held up in European (UNESCO) publications as an alternative-style of internationalism. I pretty much said everything I wanted to say about the topic here. In my post, I held up Penang as an example of what I see as an old-world style cosmopolitanism, but another good example would be Ladakh.
You will recall that was where my pet peeve and I were headed out of Kashmir. Arriving in what still is one of the most most remote spots in India (which at that time had only been open to the westerners for less than 20 years and had only had electricity maybe 10 years) what surprised me most was its stunning cosmopolitanism. This is from my journal from 20 years ago:
At almost 12,000 feet, there are very few trees and everything is the same dusty shade of the mountains. Another Central Asian marketplace, the Leh Bazaar is jammed packed with stalls selling vegetables, live animals, jewelry, Tibetan arts and crafts and clothing. Walking around the bazaar, you just cannot believe how many different races of people found their way to this extremely remote Tibetan place on the Tibetan Plateau. Light-eyed Kashmiris, light-skinned Central Asians, dark haired Indians and Tibetans in their furs, tall hats and turquiose all walked the streets, shopping and enjoying the warm summer weather. Of course, in this remote region, downtown Leh might as well be downtown Manhattan.
It really did remind me of New York too. The vibrant neighborhoods which for the most part are mutually-tolerant-- it wasn't a melting pot so much as a huge bazaar with two-way trade serving as the main conduit between people-- as Leh has existed right smack in the middle of the pilgrims paths and trade routes that crisscrossed the mountains on the roof of the world since the earliest days of the silk road.
Khourosh says that to get beyond race and culture and believe in something bigger is ultimately "better"-- so that (in his example) to put being Singaporean above being Tamil or Chinese or Malay is somehow the more enlightened path. But if that just means we all become globalized (Americanized in Tokyo and Sinicized Kashgar) -- is that necessarily somehow better?) And what about those places which place a higher value on social and economic rights over individual liberty and free speech? As Khanna mentions, "Mencius argued that violating the right to food and material well-being is a greater crime than denying political rights." Aren't there other cultural priorities which also make sense?
Mutual tolerance and mutual benefit over ideology; dialog based on trade and culture are perhaps some of the ideas behind this recurrent interest in the silk road. (Indeed, even the Internet is called the New Silk Road).
Khanna too speaks of the Silk Road. In fact, he also sees two forces at work (particularly in Central Asia)-- which he says are the "two metaphors for the regions past as well as its future." These two forces are a Silk Road-style conduit of East-West globalization, as well as "a Great Game laboratory of unambiguous imperial competitition." And this is, I think, the choice before us: ideology and strategic competition or free-trade and mutual tolerance.
Michael over in the Opposite Side of China talks about how really tough it's become these recent years living as an American overseas.To wit, yesterday I received this email note from a friend in Kyoto in which he laments another accidental bombing in Afganistan:
Yesterday there was another mistaken bombing on Afhangistan. In both Afganistan and Iraq, American-style justice which can be devoid of any understanding of other cultures, only breeds a cycle of hatred. For this reason, I am hopeful about the new President's election...
You know things are bad when your Japanese friends start saying stuff like that. As Michael says
I think it's safe to say that we've been exposed more frequently to the dislike/hatred of the United States that's grown over the last eight years during the disastrous Bush administration. I'm looking forward to at least four years of some pro-USA love!
A little pro-US love.... now that would be refreshing. I'm still holding out for my EU passport, though.
Khanna's book is highly recommended.
And this too (by way of languagehat)-- which made me smile and reminded me of the unforgettable music in southern Africa-- so different from the jackhammers in Hongkong (with an ocassional songbird singing) or the air blowers in Los Angeles-- or even from the quiet of Japan... nonstop music.
Finally, I added one final comment to Inside a Bronze Ding: Part 3