Benjamin Barber wrote a piece in 1992 that later became a book, titled Jihad vs. McWorld. Its basic tenet is that the world is comprised of two main competing axioms: that whose political processes are governed by the global, corporate, free-market entities (McWorld) and that whose traditionalism and tribalism manifest in the form of nationalism and extreme religiosity (Jihad).
Trying to put aside knee-jerk reactions to simply the word Jihad, what does China look like through this lens? On one level, it is extremely corporate and increasingly globalized. Local brands mimic global brands. Fashion and taste look Westward rather than inward. The beautiful 1920’s qipao dress makes occasional appearances, but nothing like the little black dress. The political processes are largely governed by money and self-interest (if you consider that local officials will sell the village’s land to whichever corporation offers the most), but things get a little hazy near the top.
At the same time, nationalism saturates the education system as well as the media. It is perhaps the strongest unifying belief that mainland Chinese people share — that they are China, and China is good. The central state requires that be the status quo. As far as unifying beliefs and spirituality go, there’s not much more beyond that, at least for now. There is local variation, but the PLA has a pretty strong hold on any physical uprising.
So China’s more of piece with McWorld, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. And not just domestically, either; it is adding to the global media contra-flow by setting up CCTV outlets outside of mainland — even in Time’s Square (CCTV being the party’s television). In a sense, this contributes to a diversified world media, one not just ruled by the Big Six (Viacom, Bertlesmann, NewsCorp, Time-Warner, Vivendi, and Disney), even if it is the mouthpiece of a corrupt authoritarian government. While China is staunch as a nation-state in the traditional sense, it simultaneously indulges glocalization of international brands while also trying to brand itself.
So maybe China’s not exactly part of the McWorld as we see it: its belief in itself as its own brand suggests something closer to Jihad, or — astoundingly — a new McWorld. Maybe what China wants more than anything is for McWorld to look like McWang. Same beast, different language. Let’s just wait and see how their burgers taste.