After centuries, when Zheng He's exploits were forgotten even in China, he has deservedly entered the pantheon of the world's great explorers. The admiral has been adopted in his homeland as a symbol of an old, outward-looking, adventurous China—all things, perhaps, which it is once more. But the memory that China once traded with the world is not the only lesson of Zheng He's life. Here's another: when he died, so did China's global ambitions. Mandarins decided that oceangoing voyages were a waste of time and money; soon the great naval shipyards in Nanjing had been broken up, and China retreated into a self-absorbed attitude of mind that it would not lose for half a millennium. It's a cautionary note, a reminder that the waves of trade that knit us together can ebb as well as flow. There is a famous passage in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, written by John Maynard Keynes in 1920, which every student of globalization knows by heart. Keynes describes life as it existed in 1914, when a man in London could travel the world freely, invest wherever he wanted, and "could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep." Not only that, Keynes' Londoner "regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement." It was not to be. World War I brought the modern world's first great era of globalization to a jarring halt; trade atrophied, and legislation like the Smoot-Hawley tariffs passed by the U.S. Congress in 1930 gave a legislative imprimatur to protectionist sentiment.
Could such a moment be upon us again? Are the walls around national economies being built once more? From the numbers, the argument seems absurd. World trade is growing healthily, by over 7% a year. The U.N. Commission on Trade and Development estimates that the value of global flows of foreign direct investment grew by a remarkable 29% in 2005. Yet a quick look around the planet might lead to the impression that globalization is in crisis. Ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington next month, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told China that it must shape up on a host of issues if it is to continue to benefit from its trade with America. (See story.) Last week, indigenous people in Ecuador protested against a proposed free-trade agreement with the U.S. that they thought would deliver their economy and culture to the colossus of the North. In Seoul, the attempt by U.S. corporate raider Carl Icahn to get a seat on the board of tobacco company KT&G has, says Jang Hasung, dean of Korea University's business school, "reignited anti-foreign-investor sentiment." The sale of a controlling interest in Shin Corp., owner of Thailand's leading telecommunications company, to Temasek Holdings of Singapore has been one of the catalysts for the Bangkok demonstrations against Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose family controlled Shin Corp. In France, an effort by the Italian gas company Enel to acquire Groupe Suez appears to have been thwarted by a hastily arranged, government-sponsored marriage between Suez and Gaz de France. The very idea that a state-owned company from Dubai might take over P&O, a British company that controlled six ports in the U.S., gave most members of Congress an attack of the vapors; Dubai Ports World has now said that it will sell P&O's U.S. assets to an American buyer. Even in Britain, where the economy has been "Wimbledonized" for years (London has a great tennis tournament, but no Briton ever wins it) and where, says Robert Wade of the London School of Economics, there is "an unusually deeply held belief in the merits of free trade and free investment," there are limits. When Russian gas behemoth Gazprom started stalking the British supplier Centrica, officials let it be known that "any new ownership would face robust scrutiny." Put all those straws in the wind and you've got a flying haystack. "We're at a point here," says Kenneth Courtis, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs Asia, "where if this is just a little pop it doesn't mean very much. But if it's the beginning of a trend, it's big."
Free trade—which is at the heart of globalization—has never been uncontroversial, even if economists regard its tenets as revealed truth. Those who gain from trade—the great undifferentiated mass of consumers who enjoy a range of products from around the world sold at prices that reflect intense competition—are by definition less identifiable than those who lose from it. Nobody lobbies a legislature to thank them for cheap T shirts; any group of workers in the industrialized world whose job has just been "lost" to China's Pearl River Delta can be assured of a hearing on the evening news. And just as in the 1980s, when U.S. legislators had panic attacks after Japanese investors overpaid for everything from Hawaiian beachfront hotels to the Rockefeller Center, the foreign ownership of key domestic industries is promoting a backlash. "Countries are still trying to keep some poles of industrial strength within their economies," says Courtis. "I wouldn't have any problems whatsoever if the British apparel industry was taken over entirely by Bangladesh firms," Wade says. But as for "strategic industries" like energy, water, airports and aerospace, he continues, "then you do have to pay much more attention to the consequences of fast-growing foreign ownership."
Among economists, there's a common admission these days that élites have been woeful at explaining the benefits of globalization. "We haven't been very good at showing how a lot of new job creation comes through foreign investment, which is often the greatest driver of employment, technological progress, and benefits to consumers," says Ian Goldin, a vice president of the World Bank and co-author of a new book on globalization and development. Columbia University's Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prizewinning economist, adds a further thought: nations, he says, want to pick and choose between bits of globalization that benefit them and those that don't. "We believe that exports are good but imports are bad," says Stiglitz, "we believe in trade but only on one side, and that if things were fair we'd outcompete everybody. There's a kind of hypocrisy."
National ambivalence about the new global order can be seen most clearly in France. In his first speech to the National Assembly last year after becoming French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin said, "Globalization is not an ideal; it cannot be our destiny." In the last few months, de Villepin has championed a policy of economic patriotism, putting in place a takeover law that gives the government a veto on deals in 11 sectors of the economy deemed to be strategic. They include biotechnology, arms manufacturing and casinos. But de Villepin's boss, President Jacques Chirac, blustered last week that it was "absolutely absurd" to think of France as protectionist, and he has a point. For much of the 1990s, France was the largest recipient of foreign investment in the European Union; by the end of 2003, one in seven French employees worked for a foreign company, compared with just one in 20 in the U.S.
Such numbers persuade Goldin that globalization's boosters should not panic. Recent events that stress the rebuilding of national economic walls, he says, "are tiny compared to the overall trends in investment, trade, tourism or other forms of interchange." Sometimes, to be sure, complaints about trade and foreign ownership mask other issues. Thais may have marched on the Singapore embassy chanting "Thailand's not for sale!" but it was Thaksin, and his windfall from the sale of Shin Corp., that they had in their sights. "If [Singapore] took over a glass factory," says Kasit Piromya, a former Thai ambassador to the U.S., "it wouldn't be a problem. But this was a deal with the Prime Minister."
Perhaps above all, those who believe in the ineluctable march of globalization insist that technology—the Internet, ever-bigger container ships, multi-nation sourcing of goods that depends on sophisticated logistic software—will continue to bring the world closer together. And so it will, probably. But remember: that rudder post in Hong Kong was on the stern of a ship more than 120 m long, or six times the size of the little craft that Columbus sailed across the Atlantic a few decades later.
Yet once it had decided to turn its back on the world, all the Ming dynasty's magnificent technology was not enough to compel a change of mind.