The rise of China in the wake of the slow relative decline of the United States has been the overarching narrative of global studies since the beginning of this century. Is this narrative correct? China’s growth is slowing as it reaches middle income status and the United States is still overwhelmingly more wealthy and powerful than China. If China will someday “overtake” the United States, it will not happen for decades or centuries, depending what is meant by overtaking. But even this more guarded account of US decline is colored by an outdated, state-centric view of human society. The twenty-first century world-system is centered on the United States but not contained within it; individuals all over the world participate in hierarchies of distinction that are fundamentally American in ideology and orientation. Whether or not they agree with US policy, support the US president, or are even able to enter the United States, success-oriented individuals choose to live in an American world—or accept global social exclusion. This is just as true in China as anywhere else, and perhaps even more true for Chinese individuals than for anyone else.

“It is a common rule of propriety that culturally inferior foreign peoples should respect the Central Kingdom.” So begins a 1374 letter from Ming China’s founding Hongwu Emperor to a regional ruler in Japan. It continues: “One principle in both ancient and modern times has been for the small to serve the great.”

Anthony Giddens and Martin Wolf in London, Thomas Friedman in Washington, Saskia Sassen in New York, John Meyer and Manuel Castells in California … nearly all of the best-known writers on globalization come from the parts of the world that are doing the globalizing, not from the places that are getting globalized.

In Global Exposure in East Asia, Taiwanese sociologist Ming-Chang Tsai tells the story from the other side. People in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan have been on the front lines of globalization as waves of economic and social change washed over East Asia.