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china friend or foe

china friend or foe

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Published by Zaheer Khan

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Zaheer Khan on Feb 08, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Neither the hopes of the total modernisers nor the fears of conser-
vatives are likely to be realised.

Not long ago, the sister of a Chinese friend brought her teenage
daughter to meet me. Alice had been six years in the US before
moving to Shanghai with her parents, father English-American. An
avid reader of Harry Potter, she had demanded the right to go to an
English boarding school and I was being asked to be her legal
guardian. She went to an ‘international’(read: American) school
and claimed to speak no Chinese, not to like Chinese food and to
have no Chinese friends.
Some might suggest that this is the logical end of China’s pas-
sion for destroying its past: young people who are able to live in a
location without having anything to do with it – truly globalised
people. They would say that Alice is just advanced, and how she
lives presages the standardised future coming to us all. Advocates
of it foresee a homogenised world culture, where the traditions that
hold us back and the differences which divide us have gone. To the
suspicious, though, transnational companies and international
agencies are really vehicles for US power, deliberately destroying
those institutions and identities which give us the strength to resist
conquest – cultural, economic or political.
In some ways China is well on the way. The elite has managed to
get people to internalise a simplistic view of what constitutes progress
and modernisation, so that they often express shame at Chinese
characteristics, worshipping and blindly believing in things foreign,
or Chingyangmeiwai. Astudy has shown that parents in the capital
have lost faith in traditional approaches to children, buying any-
thing as long as it is foreign.1With hindsight, a main achievement of


China doc 4/4/06 10:56 am Page 144

Mao Zedongmay prove to have been so to wreck Chinese cultural
traditions, habits and attitudes as to weaken resistance to commer-
cialisation. Socialism, the necessary precondition for capitalism?
Aparticular culture of foodis one of the main attributes of
Chineseness. Among some groups this may be breaking down, as
European cuisine is introduced in cosmopolitan centres such as
Shanghai, and as fast food has been taken up by a few. Whereas in
the West, fast food eateries are probably seen as the lowest order
of eating – places which sophisticates would never dream of enter-
ing on grounds both of health and civility, and an expression of
American society’s failure to preserve a healthy eating culture –
they are seen quite differently in China, according to anthropo-
logists, as an indication of modernity ‘synonymous with radical,
progressive change’.2Considering that traditional Chinese food is
nutritionally balanced and mostly fresh and healthy, even the
limited success of McDonald’s in China is difficult to explain. Does
it appeal just because it is not ‘what’s good for you’? Because any-
thing new or foreign ‘must be good’? It may be that fast food is not
really seen as food, but as a kind of exotic experience and a place
where you can hang out (in Chinese restaurants you usually leave
the instant the meal is over) with modern lavatories and little hassle.3
One Chinese described McDonald’s as being an advantageous
meeting place. ‘And the food?’‘Why spoil a visit to McDonald’s by
eating the food?’he replied.4
Globalisation works in different ways in different social classes.
Wedding parlours have long been a feature of Chinese life: couples
go there to plan their nuptials and, in particular, the all-important
photographs of the wedding. It’s rather fun watching through the
windows dozens of earnest couples poring over catalogues, while
models parade their gear and hairdressers work on their custom-
ers, all in one teeming mass of elegance and prettiness. Today,
brides mostly seek a formal photo of themselves in white; it is rather
as if an Italian woman were to dress in black for a christening.
Curiously, although the photograph may be taken wearing ‘Western’



China doc 4/4/06 10:56 am Page 145

wedding clothes, the ceremony itself will often be performed with
the bride wearing the traditional scarlet.
Transnational corporations claim that they are ‘glocal’rather
than local, that they respond to, and fit in with, local cultures.
Nevertheless, to observers they are engaged in attempting a cul-
tural transformation of China, deploying ‘a worldwide system of
image-saturated information technologies to attract customers,
including children’.5Among the results is the prevalence of com-
mercially marketed celebrations. Christmas, Mothers’Day, Fathers’
Day, Halloween, birthday parties with cakes, candles etc., Valen-
tine’s Day … all provide opportunities for spending and diminish
the specialness of traditional Chinese festivals. Whereas in rural
Cantonese society, celebrations of longevity were important features
of family life, they are now being superseded by celebrations of
youth.6All these involve children’s food and child-focused enter-
tainment. Apparently, they also involve hot dogs and hamburgers
(no traditional parent would have bought ‘composition foods’with-
out knowing precisely what was in them!) and ice creams which
have little connection with cows.
Toys and pets have appeared in great profusion, pocket money
has been introduced, and, necessitated by high-rise living and the
relative lack of siblings and nearby young cousins, as well as thanks
to the models offered by books and TV, children’s play has been
‘commodified’,7i.e. children are taken to commercial entertainment
centres. What’s more, seeing sitcoms from other countries may
even make them behave differently. Interviewed soon after the first
such American TV programmes were screened, parents com-
plained that their children had started to try to kiss them when they
got back from school! Truly, if, as Keynes said, ‘all practical men
are the slaves of some defunct economist’, then all social innova-
tors are the dupes of an advertiser’s copywriter. Yet, because we
use the same household appliances, live in the same kinds of
homes, do we begin to think the same? Is the content of a Chinese
text message made homogenous by the medium?



China doc 4/4/06 10:56 am Page 146

Meet Chinese academics today and you will find that many of
them are working on projects of, or seeking funding from, wealthy
foreign foundations and government institutions, naturally fitting in
with the agendas of their paymasters. Some are so similar to their
counterparts elsewhere as to seem part of a kind of transnational
elite, rather as Peter Berger has suggested that the financial,
media, NGO and diplomatic elites of the world have become, with
their ‘Davos culture’of common beliefs and behaviours which give
them more in common with other transnationals than with their own
fellow-countrymen.8The habits of foreign travel, with the standard
Western-originated hotel experience, entertainment habits fash-
ioned by the US culture industries, clothing designed for the world,
and food which is a mixture of styles, made to offend few, are theirs.
Even the anti-globalisers too may be globalised. When the environ-
ment activist leaves Hong Kong for a demonstration in Seattle, is
she being Chinese, American or global?
Some have argued that globalisation will be constrained by cul-
tural barriers.9Others note that in some ways traditional ideas have
become more influential. Just as Islam and evangelical Christianity
are spreading far and wide thanks to digital technologies, so Chinese
outside China can strengthen their identities and maintain their ties by
watching Chinese TV, congregating only with people similar to them-
selves, and using the internet in such a way as to become oblivious
to the Indonesian, Venezuelan or Australian society around them.
I suspect that the tug of Chinese culture is too powerful for most
Chinese fully to transform themselves into Anglophone individual-
ists at home equally in any society as long as its demands are not
too great, if that is what is meant by globalisation. Social psychology10
has interesting things to say about Chinese traits and how distinct
they are from Anglophone traits in particular, but it is enough to see
how emotionally attached many Chinese are to homeland, the cul-
ture of food, a style of child-rearing11and a particular way of friend-
ship and cooperation, to realise that this particular quarter of
humankind is not likely to go globalised. Except at the edges.



China doc 4/4/06 10:56 am Page 147


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