Saturday, 26 November 2011

What price Tesco?

There was an interesting report in The Guardian newspaper (25 November 2011, which described the recent flood of global supermarket chains into India. The report presents local reaction and suggests the possible positive and negative effects (lower prices for consumers, investment, infrastructure versus lower prices for farmers, job losses and 'the end of traditional shopping'). Opening up to such foreign chains as Tesco and Carrefour will be problematic because of local politics, and it is possible that investors will face tough conditions.

I have never been a fan of the cultural imperialism thesis. I find it far too simplistic, and my own observations throughout East Asia convince me that global forces will operate alongside local, and that consumers will always prefer local produce provided prices are reasonable and quality/diversity are maintained. This is as true for television and movies as it is for food. I also disapprove of cultural imperialism's pessimistic view of local identity which basically sugggests that local identities are fragile, vulnerable and easily dominated or even supplanted by foreign cultures. Again, I see little evidence for this and I have confidence in coexistence and the tenacity of local cultures to survive. The best book I have read on this topic is James Watson's Global Arches East: McDonalds in East Asia (Stanford University Press, 1998; 2006). This is an engaging and convincing anthropological study of consumer behaviour in East Asia which challenges the idea of McDonalds operating as a foot soldier of cultural imperialism. In fact, McDonalds has been forced to adapt to local markets to reflect consumption habits, and not just in terms of the food offered. The experience of eating is as different in Taipei and Hong Kong as it is in Beijing and New York. Watson and his team of contributors also place McDonalds in specific cultural contexts and connect the experience of eating their with local approaches to work, family, education and ideas of 'fast food'.

Will Tesco or Carrefour change shopping behaviour in India? Of course they will, but probably only for the affluent middle classes. I suspect though that local markets and local approaches to consumption will still dominate the market place (literally and metaphorically). Moreover, partnerships such as that between Tesco and India's Tata, and Debenhams and Planet Retail suggest a more nuanced understanding of business strategies. After all, as McDonalds success is East Asia demonstrates, adaptation is the key to survival. I expect that yet again shrieks of horror about 'cultural imperialism' will sound hollow, as well as over thirty years out of date.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Chinese journalism and American soft power

On Monday November 7 Xinhua, China's state-owned news agency, celebrated its 80th birthday. Its efforts to create what China's propaganda chief, Li Changchun, described as a 'top-ranking international media organization' have been well documented, with a lot of attention devoted to Xinhua's ambition to follow the example of Al-Jazeera. I am very sceptical of this as regular readers of my blog and my other work on China's international outreach will know, so I will not rehearse those arguments again here.

What is worrying is a proposal by US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and two other Republican congressmen to require parity in the numbers of Chinese journalists in the US and American journalists in China. But here I must make an important qualification; the bill, if passed, will only refer to journalists from state or government-owned news organisations. Apparently the US in 2010 issued visas to 650 Chinese journalists working for state-owned media, while two US journalists from government-owned media were issued vias in China.

There are two problems with this:
First, parity is impossible. The US does not have a tradition of state-owned media; the only journalists this bill would affect are those working for the Voice of America and other US international broadcasting outlets such as Radio Free Asia (whose journalists cannot work in China anyway).

Second, by seeking to restrict the number of Chinese journalists in the US, the bill will damage American soft power. 'An eye for an eye' is a dangerous strategy to win hearts and minds, and by limiting the number of visas for Chinese journalists, the US is sending a strong signal to China which undermines its own soft power credentials. Not only is freedom of the press a core value, but also the proposal risks the opportunity to showcase those same core American values to Chinese journalists and their audiences. My advice: Don't throw the baby out with the bath-water.