China and the Globalisation

By Anthony Giddens

Professor Martin Albrow and The Global Age

Professor Martin Albrow is one of the foremost sociologists in the English-speaking world and one of the greatest experts on globalisation, perhaps the most significant driving force of our times. In his pioneering work The Global Age (1996), written when the term ‘globalisation’ itself was quite new, he set out the main dimensions of the profound changes that had begun to transform world society. In its most fundamental meaning, ‘globalisation’ refers to the intensifying interdependence of individuals, institutions and states across the globe.

One dimension is economic – the spread of a world marketplace, a massively complex division of labour between and within companies and their workforces, coupled to financial institutions of global scope. However, globalisation is also political and cultural. Increasing globalisation confers many benefits, at the same time as it opens up new stresses and strains. Think, for example, of the case of China itself which, when the country opened itself out to the wider world some three decades ago, travelled all the way from mass starvation to a level of prosperity that once would have seemed inconceivable. There are still many who live close to the breadline. Yet in China’s prospering cities today one of the main health issues is the very opposite: rising levels of obesity, a condition not of scarcity but of abundance.

Is Globalisation Really Going Backwards

Many in current times speak of globalisation going into reverse. The reverberations of the global economic crisis are still being felt, especially in Western countries. Whole segments of those countries have not shared in the rising levels of abundance experienced by the majority. There are significant cultural divisions too. Cosmopolitan values – a welcoming of cultural diversity, equality between the sexes and a comfort with geographical mobility – have flowered in many larger cities. In other regions, especially those which have not shared in rising prosperity, there has been a marked reaction against these values. Resentment against immigration, hostile or racist attitudes towards ‘foreigners’, and towards ethnic or cultural minorities, has again become commonplace. These are the attitudes that have helped fuel the rise of populist parties in the West, parties which explicitly set themselves against globalisation and wish to return to the more traditional nation-state. The most significant consequence in global terms is the ascent of Donald Trump to power in the United States, a leader who wants to reverse what he sees as America’s declining power and who blames globalisation for the US’s problems rather than seeing it as the source of its relative prosperity.

Make no mistake, however: globalisation has not gone into reverse and short of calamity there is no chance of it doing so. Whatever its stresses and strains, the world is more and more interdependent every day. One of the prime reasons is the rise of the digital revolution, which has moved globalisation – ie, interdependence – to a wholly different level. The celebrated Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan, writing many years ago at the outset of the digital revolution, coined the term the ‘global village’ to describe the trajectory of world society. How right he was, but even he could never have guessed how far that process would develop. Consider on the level of everyday life. Someone takes a plane to London. That trip that takes only some ten hours or so, an everyday miracle which depends upon global satellite systems circling high above the earth. On arrival she calls her parents on her smartphone. It is another everyday miracle. She can see them and vice versa; and they can talk almost as if they were in the same room. Moreover, they can do so almost for nothing. And of course political leaders and billions of other ordinary people can do the same thing.

The global village is what I call a ‘high opportunity, high risk’ world, where we do not know in advance how that balance of opportunity and risk will play out. The opportunities are everywhere, China’s rise to world influence, and probably world leadership, being among them. They are of a scale that human beings have not experienced before, as witnessed in myriad scientific and technological advances, moving faster than ever before precisely because of globalisation. To take just one example, this could be an era of massive innovation in medicine, because of the capacity of scientists to collaborate across the world and be in instantaneous communication with one another. Yet the risks are also without precedent in previous periods of history, in some large part because they too are globalised – we just do not know at this point whether as a species we can deal with the combined threats of climate change, a world population approaching ten billion, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, mass migration and the potential for global pandemics.

What is China’s Role in This Changes?

In this book Albrow does a remarkable job of shedding light on these extraordinary changes and on the pivotal role that China is likely to have in shaping their further evolution. As the United States pulls back from its former global role, China not only can, but must, assume a pivotal position in shaping world society for the better. The progress of the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative will be only one element in determining whether China’s new world role will help heal divisions and promote peaceful global cooperation. That initiative has to demonstrate that it is a vehicle for free co-operation, not an imposition of sectional power.

Albrow fruitfully deploys the thinking of Xi Jinping in showing how all this might be achieved, but links that thinking in an impressive way with Western traditions, old and new. Max Weber, who a century ago sought to pin-point the cultural origins of Western capitalism, at the same time was fascinated with Eastern religion and culture. His writings, the author shows, still provide core ideas for a rethinking of global co-operation today. We should reject the idea that our hyper-modern world of can be stabilised and pacified only by hyper-modern concepts and technologies. Almost the contrary is the case. In rediscovering the deep roots of shared civilizational values we can shape a global ethics that can be the foundation of a resurgence of global cooperation.