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Towards a New Globalisation under Chinese and Indian Hegemony

The final day of ANZCA 2017 begins with another set of keynotes. We start with Daya Thussu, whose focus is on the global media and communication environment. Globalisation is central to this, but the discourse of globalisation itself is now changing, and this forces us to rethink the whole notion of 'the global'. Daya focusses here on developments in China and India, in particular, as representatives of the wider group of BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), where these processes are especially apparent at this stage.

These are very different countries with different political and media systems, but the rise of these nations is altering the global status quo in significant ways. The share of the global GDP held by the two countries has risen considerably over the past 25 years (though more rapidly for China than India); both countries also have substantial numbers of expats living in nations such as Australia; and a growing number of companies – especially from China – are now listed in the Fortune 500 (while at the same time, U.S.-based companies are in decline); four of the top ten companies are Chinese, and they operate in key strategic areas such as banking and telecommunication.

The difference between China and the United States is especially stark. China is now the largest trading partner for some 124 countries in the world, while the U.S. holds that distinction now for only 56 countries; China has also focussed strategically especially on previously underrepresented countries such as the African nations. Partly in pursuit of this strategy, China has also embarked on the 'Belt and Road' infrastructure project to build a new 'silk road' (incorporating road, rail, and shipping) to connect it more directly with its major global markets.

Where these countries lag behind is in communication and media – much of the global infrastructure here remains dominated by American companies and interests, but this too is beginning to change. Increasingly, people in countries with large populations are no longer predominantly watching U.S. media; outlets from Al Jazeera to Russia Today have started to provide a widely visible counter-narrative, in English and other languages, to counter American perspectives. China's own network, recently renamed from CCTV to CGTN, now has a strong international presence, too – but (in part due to its focus on 'constructive' rather than critical news) it has yet to become a major source of original news.

China Radio International, another part of this strategy, operates slightly differently by working with 'client' radio stations around the world that draw on its content. Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, now has almost as many bureaus as the major international services – but here, too, the focus on 'constructive' news has meant that it has yet to break a major new news story. Its content is often bundled into the broadband infrastructure development deals that China has made in developing countries.

India's media power is based less on such news and information offerings, and more on entertainment – especially on Bollywood, the largest film industry cluster in the world. This focusses equally on cinema exhibition and on digital access; it serves English and Indian languages as well as Arabic and Chinese. There is now substantial interest in Indian film in China, even in spite of the severe import restrictions that China maintains for foreign movies. In all of this, India also draws on its huge, English-speaking global diaspora.

Its presence in the global news space is almost negligible, however; while there are many domestic news channels (often of questionable quality, though), its major news brands attract very limited interest outside of the Indian diaspora itself, and appear to have no real interest in breaking into the global market.

The greatest transformation is perhaps taking place in online media, however. The Internet used to be strongly U.S.-dominated, but today Americans make up only a small fraction of the global userbase; in terms of total numbers, Asian-based users now dominate by a considerable margin. Projections for India alone are that by 2020 (or sooner), there will be 600 million Indian Internet users; part of this is driven by the continuing rapid growth of mobile Internet use, and the very strong pro-business agenda of the current Indian government.

The Chinese Internet is more complicated, due to prevailing government restrictions that exclude international players; as a result, though, it has also seen the development of local equivalents to virtually all major Internet brands from Google to Facebook. These companies are now ready to take on their international counterparts in the global marketplace, and this may end up undermining the present dominance of U.S. brands in the open market.

As this happens, how might it change the global discourse? What brands, products, services, content, practices, celebrities may it produce? Have media and communication studies kept pace with this? These days, China and India are still treated as distinct case studies that diverge from the global trend – but what if they are the global trend and the conventional Anglo-American framework is increasingly unrepresentative for the global media environment?

Many of our current frameworks for understanding the global media industry are still rooted in Cold War paradigms. There have been efforts to de-westernise media studies, of course, but if this leads merely to the creation of collections of country case studies that are still perceived through a western lens this is not enough. There is instead a need to internationalise media studies, recognising the unprecedented growth of media in the non-western world, and indeed to overcome the west/non-west binary (which is unfortunately also still perpetuated by prevailing research funding models that require the participation of a 'non-western' research partner as a condition of funding).

The prevalence of traditional versions of globalisation – globalisation with an American accent – now appears to be coming to an end; indeed, in a number of western nations there are now strong, populist anti-globalisation movements which build on the fact that globalisation is seen not to have benefitted lower-class domestic populations. But the geo-political context is changing, and China, India, and the other BRICS countries are becoming more prominent and continue to promote a free global market economy.

It is perhaps unexpected to see the head of a state-controlled capitalist system like China's advocate for open markets, while the U.S. president promotes a protectionist 'America first' message, but there we are. This might herald the beginning of a new form of globalisation, aided in good part by more media flows from BRICS countries: these may be both counter and complementary to global content: providing a slightly different discourse about global issues but without fundamentally opposing the existing narrative. Such processes will be part of the further de-Americanisation of the Internet, in both technology, content, and governance.

What is likely to emerge from this is also a reformulation of the development discourse, in which China and the other BRICS companies become much more important sources of international aid, and through this extend their soft power and build global alliances. They are drawing in this not least on their experience in mitigating poverty within their own countries – China, in particular, has lifted nearly 700 million of its own people out of abject poverty in recent decades. But such aid is focussed centrally on economic development – not on democratisation or the development of strong civil society structures.