Thu, May 18, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Will China save the world? One woman seems to think it may

By John Sutherland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Meaghan Morris is a critic who has made cultural globalization and transnationalization her particular areas of study. She is fascinated by the hot spaces where new Asia meets the postcolonial West.

An academic who is prepared to put her career where her theory is, she left her native Australia to take up an academic post in Hong Kong in 2000. Her departure elicited a full-page article lamenting the "national brain drain" in the Australian. She is now chair professor of cultural studies at Lingnan University.

Two years ago Morris infuriated neocons in the US by asserting that "China is the hope of the world." She continues to believe that the best prospect for global survival in the 21st century will come from the East: "It is a very slender hope, but it is none the less a hope."

Has Morris found what she wanted in Hong Kong?

"I came to Hong Kong because I felt I would have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate in shaping a whole new set of cultural and educational developments in the East Asian region," she says. "For me it was a question of being completely fascinated. Not just by being able to live on the edge of China as it undergoes its extraordinary transformation -- but by being able to work, in a normal everyday way with Chinese people, in a situation where there's much more interaction with Korean and Japanese cultures than in the past," she said.

That sounds like a yes. But are these cultures merging, or defining themselves more sharply in opposition to each other?

"I wouldn't quite say they are merging but there's a new sense of regional identity and regional culture emerging in direct response to a whole new set of popular cultural possibilities. An example of this, from a couple of years ago, is the Korean costume drama Jewel in the Palace. It was a massive televisual hit right across East Asia including Hong Kong, where virtually the whole city would sit at home every night to watch it. This kind of thing is producing a new sense of cultural familiarity with the larger richness and diversity of the region. I have also seen in my students in the six years I've been here a corresponding decrease of cultural literacy about Western stuff," Morris said.

Is this decrease associated with some new kind of chauvinism?

"No, it's not chauvinism. It doesn't have a national base. It's not race-based. What you are seeing is cultural trade between countries that have traditionally had -- and continue to have -- a great deal of mutual hostility. China, Japan and Korea are not uncomplicatedly good friends right now, and they certainly weren't 30 years ago," she said.

How much of a barrier is language to cultural interchange? And is that barrier insuperable?

"There are moments of insuperability but on the whole. there's a growing use of English as a regional means of communication. There is more and more teaching in English. In Taiwan and Korea, for example, new policies increasingly require all subjects to be taught in English in a certain proportion of schools, and at university level. This, it must be said, is not always the kind of English that would send anybody back usefully to European or other global cultural inheritances," she said.

Are new colonial formations emerging? And is the massive emergent power of China dominating the region?

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