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The upheavals in globalization indicate not its end but a structural transformation
The problems we face with globalization today are not its end, but the extent to which globalization is deepening and become more truly global
By Josef Gregory Mahoney  ·  2020-05-22  ·   Source: NO.22 MAY 28, 2020
 
A factory of Fuyao Glass America, a subsidiary of Chinese auto glass manufacturer Fuyao Group, in Dayton, Ohio, the U.S., on January 6 (XINHUA)

The Economist's recent cover and lead editorial Goodbye Globalization reads firstly as a lament and secondly as a deeply inaccurate description of what's emerging and likely to come. It's not a surprising position for a magazine long committed to global economic liberalism, but in fact this apocalyptic narrative has been building for some time. Indeed, it was already a well-worn theme before the current global pandemic: having fretting for several years about China's rise and use of macro-controls, U.S. President Donald Trump's efforts to undermine global trade, and of course, the ominous local symptoms of Brexit (given the magazine's London headquarters) .

Of course, the pandemic has contributed to heightening tensions substantially between the U.S. and China, and if some of the more dramatic elements of his own account are to be believed, almost claimed the life of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Consequently, The Economist's "end times" perspective is understandable.

In some respects perhaps we are "living in the end times," but more so in the manner described by political philosopher Slavoj Žižek in his book of the same title published in 2010. Writing in part from a Marxian perspective, Žižek returns to a classical description of global capitalism culminating in a series of conflicts that can be resolved only through a renewed and more thoroughgoing globalization.

Indeed, the only way forward, Žižek concludes, is to put aside old assumptions and instead establish a progressive, inclusive vision of a shared future in ways that transcend the crude exploitations and reductive categories of being, including hegemony, unilateralism, petty nationalisms and cut-throat capitalism, that have pushed us all to a breaking point.

Calamity response

Historically, in response to periods of great calamity, the tendency among nations has been to increase competition, xenophobia and demonization, and too often has resulted in open conflict and even world war, which is also a form of globalization. There are certainly those who believe we are approaching such dangers today, and even those who either naively or devilishly desire it.

So it might seem especially tragic that so many of the institutional forms of globalization, which were created in the wake of great conflicts with the aim of preventing or limiting disasters and conflicts, and which unfortunately have been undermined substantially over the past four years, might be further eroded and even cast aside precisely when they are needed most.

U.S. hegemony

The Economist has been right at various points since Trump took office to remark on the irony of a U.S. president attacking economic globalization while the Chinese president and leader of the Communist Party of China promotes it. But the destructive efforts of the U.S. president, and sometimes just negligence or pure absence, are not the same as the end of globalization. More likely, they signal the end of a particular form of globalization, and quite possibly, according to many analysts, the end of U.S. hegemony.

It goes without saying that the U.S. has contributed in incredible ways to human development, and it would be foolish to suggest that it won't contribute further or that we should hope that it doesn't. Nevertheless, U.S. hegemony has been a major stumbling block for progress on many global fronts, and in many respects, the U.S. also has become mired systemically at home—unable so far to craft significant solutions to entrenched problems in an incredibly polarized political landscape. Indeed, what the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic at home and abroad reveals more clearly than ever before is that the U.S. is hardly capable of even leading itself.

If by waving goodbye to globalization we mean leaving behind those aspects that once advanced human progress but have now become its impediment, if we mean abandoning a self-destructive power that has lost its sense of direction, then good riddance. Without question many in the world today are experiencing a dramatic increase in difficulties, certainly with respect to health and above all, economically. But this does not and should not signal the end of globalization in every sense. Instead, it should signal an opening for a new globalization and the compelling responsibility to collectively embrace it.

Vehicles roll off a production line of SAIC-GM, General Motors' joint venture with China's SAIC Motor Corp., in Yantai, Shandong Province in east China, on November 20, 2018 (XINHUA)

A new world order

Realignments are happening and will continue, but some aspects will remain despite dire predictions to the contrary. Thus far, despite calls in Japan and the U.S. for bringing factories and supply chains back home, there has been no mass exodus of capital or production from China. In fact, foreign direct investment into China increased year on year in April after suffering a brief downturn during the worst days of the outbreak.

Furthermore, it's difficult to imagine Apple without production in China or Chinese consumers, and the same with General Motors (GM), given the incredible position of Shanghai GM in terms of global sales and profits. The same for Volkswagen, BMW and a plethora of other brands familiar to consumers in the West.

Given the existing economic integration and the advantages of continuing it, given the position China has reached and the trajectory it has established, and given the overwhelming need for increasing global cooperation, it's neither practical nor reasonably desirable to think that integration can be undone and that we might simply say goodbye to globalization. While many in Washington speak now of "decoupling" or even Cold War 2.0, in fact decoupling will hurt everyone, and likely those who decouple from China will suffer most. Consequently, most won't.

Of course, there is a deeper globalization at work that many neglect. It is the extent to which the U.S. and China are becoming more alike. Can they avoid the worst aspects of themselves in each other? Can they do so while pretending to be polar opposites and not two magnets drawn together and down the same path? And who's more likely to survive if fracturing and forced divergences persist? In fact, the problems we face with globalization today are not its end, but the extent to which globalization is deepening and become more truly global.

This is the trend of the times, and it's much bigger than pandemic and even fraught U.S.-China relations.

The author is professor of politics and director of the International Graduate Program in Politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai

(Print Edition Title: Hello, New World Order!)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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