Skip to content

The Masses Are Coming! -- Some (Very Old) Chinese Perspectives on Globalization

The diagnosis that the only cure for globalization is the total rejection of the well-connected and populous world and a “return” to a world of isolated and small political entities already occurred in China twenty five hundred years ago.

In recent years, globalization has been increasingly perceived as a threat, and the longing for the good old days has been growing—the “Brexit” being a latest symbol. To reflect on this, let us take some very old Chinese perspectives, for “globalization” and various reactions to it already occurred in China twenty five hundred years or so ago. 

Before this early “globalization”, the Western Zhou dynasty (roughly from 1150 B.C.E. to 770 B.C.E.) occupied roughly the northern half of the eastern part of today’s China. To its people, this was the globe, or the civilized world. Although the Zhou King was called the “Son of Heaven”, who, presumably, ruled over all under Heaven, i.e., the world, the “world” was actually divided into smaller and autonomous fiefdoms whose rulers, other than the first generations, were hereditary. When the fiefdoms became too large for their rulers, they were further divided into smaller and autonomous fiefdoms. Migration between fiefdoms was very limited, because the farmers were attached to the land that belonged to some local lord. Political and social mobility was also limited as well, because everyone was born into a class, with specified political duties and social roles. But during the so-called Spring and Autumn and especially the Warring States periods (roughly from 770 B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E.), this old world order collapsed, and a version of globalization occurred. To be clear, I didn’t mean to say that there are no significant differences between what happened then and what is happening now, but that there are enough similarities. Similar to globalization today, during this early globalization, people had far more freedom moving from one (now-de-facto-independent) state to another, from one class to another, or from one social and political role to another, hoping to find a better life of their own choosing. Agriculture-based free market economy and commerce developed, and bigger and bigger political entities emerged—though largely through conquests, and not through peaceful negotiations, as exemplified by the emergence of the E.U.. As a result, people of a state became far more populous and well-connected.

In spite of all the new opportunities, concerns and complaints emerged. There was nothing like the Brexit, though. For there were no international regimes that would allow political and legal negotiations, other than the power-based realpolitik. States and peoples didn’t have rights, as they are understood today. Nevertheless, authors of the Daodejing—aka the Laozi, a classic from that period—called for a total rejection of this globalization, and for a “return” to a simpler world. According to them, the chaos of their times was characterized by constant wars and other forms of struggles, and they were caused by people’s greed that had been running out of control. But it is a fool’s errand to call for self-control by the human race, because in a populous and well-connected world, greed is too powerful for most human beings to control. They can’t control their greed because the masses are either too stupid or too weak-willed to see the danger of greed and to resist it. Greed is too powerful because of the fierce competition among a large number of people and because of the concentration of wealth, which is made possible by a large number of well-connected people and makes possible further competitions—a vicious circle. Therefore, the only solution is to “return” or enter a world in which each community consists of few people who, due to the limited size, couldn’t maintain and find no use in advanced technologies, and these communities are isolated from each other, making competition and concentration of wealth impossible. Indeed, when Europe went through a similar transition from its medieval, “feudal” world into a well-connected, “plebeianized”, and populous world, the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau made a similar response. For him, human virtues were doomed to be corrupted in such a world, and our only salvation lies in the return to the republican era, in which the world was divided into small republics (like his home state the Republic of Geneva) To be sure, Rousseau’s republics are different from the small and isolated communities in the Laozi. But what is common to both is the diagnosis that the only cure for globalization is the total rejection of the well-connected and populous world, and a “return” to a world of isolated and small political entities. Any halfway measures are temporary fix at best.

Taoist Manuscript.jpeg

If they are right, the question now is, are we ready to pay the price? For the Brits, the break-up with the E.U., even the Scottish independence should be considered merely a first step, and the U.K. should be divided into far smaller and homogeneous units until there is little significant communication and migration among them left, because it is really hard for a country to maintain an open domestic market and society while closed to the outside world—a country of fundamental contradiction and incoherence can hardly hold itself together for too long. Since each unit is small, not only will new technologies not be invented, but it will be nearly impossible to keep the old ones. That is, people have to be ready to live a truly simple life, a life that will eventually reject all modern technologies. 

Seeing the high price of rejecting a “globalized” world, and thus considering the coming-to-be of such a world inevitable, the so-called Chinese Legalist thinkers embraced this new reality fully. They advocated a centralized and unified government and bureaucracy, and the state of Qin achieved this by conquering all other states and unifying the whole world under one centralized government. In fact, Europe might end up with a similar centralized and unified government if Napoleon or Hitler had won the wars against the rest of Europe.

But a Europe united by Hitler would be a worst nightmare for the human race, to say the least, and a Europe united by Napoleon wouldn’t sound too much better to many, either. In spite of envisioning an eternal empire, China’s Qin dynasty quickly collapsed as well. But the next dynasty’s attempt of decentralization led to instabilities and wars, and the centralized bureaucracy had remained a key element to the traditional Chinese regimes since then. To cure the excesses of the centralized regime, however, Confucian arrangements were introduced into government. For the Confucians, the legitimacy of the regime and of the ruling class is grounded in the service to the people, and whether people are satisfied with the services offered should be determined by the people as well. In today’s world, a Confucian could be happy with using one person one vote to let people’s will expressed. But different from today’s over-reliance on one person one vote in the political decision making process in democratic countries, Confucians are also suspicious of common people’s intellectual and moral capacities. At the same time, Confucian thinkers such as Mencius also believe that every human being has the potential to become a morally and (maybe) intellectually superior person, while in reality, only the few can actualize their potentials. Therefore, the state should offer all the opportunities to educate people intellectually and morally. Then, there should be selection mechanisms to identify those with merits that are relevant to serve the people, and they should be given more power in the political decision making processes. In the case of U.K.’s EU referendum, we can imagine that some kind of majority vote of a Confucian meritocratic upper house (not the house of lords if lords are nobility by pedigree) can override a majority vote by the people or the parliament. Moreover, while acknowledging the utility and desirability of a “globalized” world that is facilitated by some centralized power, Confucians advocate some form of autonomy of local communities. As a later Confucian Gu Yanwu beautifully put it, the political ideal is to embed the spirit of “feudalism” (that symbolizes local autonomy) in the framework of a centralized political system.

Different traditional Chinese regimes also experimented with different mixtures of centralized government and local autonomy. Maybe we should learn lessons from all these attempts, in order to search for an ideal balance between centralization/globalization and local autonomy, and between equality and hierarchy.

Somewhere ironically, a successful model of such a mixed regime is precisely the constitutional framework developed by the British. In the modern age, among European nations, the U.K. first developed a more centralized bureaucracy. But at the same time, it rejected the French model of absolutism and that of extreme equality, and maintained many feudal features, including political hierarchy, that played important checks and balances to the centralized government and offered the human race a different possibility of modern political regime. Even today, in spite of its imperial past, only the U.K. sent three “national” teams to the recent UEFA Euro 2016. Different traditional Chinese regimes also experimented with different mixtures of centralized government and local autonomy. Maybe we should learn lessons from all these attempts, in order to search for an ideal balance between centralization/globalization and local autonomy, and between equality and hierarchy.

Dr. BAI Tongdong is a professor of philosophy at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and his most recent book is China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom (Zed Books, 2012).