Integral to the misguided conception of China as unknowably complex is the sheer scale of its history. While historians of the United States, for example, need to cultivate a knowledge base which extends back a few centuries or so, scholars of Chinese history must contend with a national story of anything between three thousand and five thousand years, depending on what you consider “China” to be. Either way, the terrain of Chinese history seems deeply forbidding to the non-specialist, who is left asking the question: how much of China’s history do I need to know in order to understand the country today?
A few weeks after her inauguration, incoming Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party said that Taiwan would be re-evaluating its trade links with the Mainland. This was expected after the student-led Sunflower Movement had resisted attempts by the defeated incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, to pass further free trade agreements.
At first glance, this makes sense. The DPP is pro-independence while the KMT still supports the “One China” principle. Thus, one would expect each party’s attitude towards political unification to be correlated with their attitudes towards trade: the KMT would be pro-trade, while the DPP would be anti-trade.
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.
One would think—what with this year being the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare—that a treatment of the playwright in China would be inevitable. And so it has proved: Nancy Pellegrini’s The People’s Bard has just been released as the latest Penguin China Special.
While the communication of ideas across cultures is itself generally a good thing, it inevitably involves the transmission of both good and bad ideas.
Richard Jean So, an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, in his new book Transpacific Community, describes the development and evolution of a cultural, literary network between certain writers and activists in China and the United States beginning in the 1920s and continuing through World War II. It included on the American side, Agnes Smedley, Pearl Buck, and Paul Robeson, and on the Chinese side, Lin Yutang and Lao She. The network’s growth was fostered by what Jean So calls “a new era in media technologies and the rise of a ubiquitous discourse of ‘communications’”, which enabled literary and artistic works to be transmitted more readily between East and West.
Google vs. Baidu. Amazon vs. Taobao. Whatsapp vs. WeChat. And, most recently, Uber vs. Didi.
There is clearly a divide between China and the rest of the world when it comes to internet companies. Homegrown Chinese tech firms have fought off American challengers attempting to enter the Chinese market. Chinese firms have tried to expand their presence abroad. Alibaba had the largest IPO in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. Tencent is trying to market WeChat to non-Chinese consumers, and has invested significant stakes in Western video game companies, including an outright purchase of League of Legends’s developer Riot Games.
Jack Ma once described online shopping as a dessert in the United States, but the main course in China. That’s one of a set of key differences between developed-economy e-commerce and that of China, differences that escorted eBay out the Chinese door and kept Amazon as a minor player here, while the Alibaba Group has become the world’s largest retailer, the company with the largest IPO ever (US$25 billion in September 2014, though NTT DoCoMo’s 1998 IPO of $18.1 billion is about the same in current US dollar terms) and the nexus of around two-thirds of all parcels delivered in China. Writing for Harvard’s Working Knowledge in May 2014, Professors William Kirby and F Warren McFarlan assert that Alibaba “has done more for China’s small- and medium-sized enterprises than any government policy, ministry, or bank.”