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The Ugly Side of Our Globalised World

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Sometimes, it takes art to bring an issue alive. Sometimes, what it takes, in fact, is a play. Two weeks ago, I saw a play that was so beautiful, and so thoughtful, that it reminded me what theatre was for. It was called The Blue Dragon, and it was, as well as being, like all good art, about love, and life, and hope, and disappointment, about living in a globalised world.

The play, which was performed partly in English, partly in French, and partly in Mandarin, was set in Shanghai. It revolves around a Canadian artist and curator whose gallery, in a once industrial, and now artistic, quarter of the city faces demolition, his young Chinese artist lover, and his Canadian ex-partner who has come to China to adopt a baby. When the adoption falls through, because the money for what was clearly always a purchase disappears en route, and when the young Chinese artist discovers she's pregnant with a baby she doesn't want, and can't afford, the Canadian woman spots an opportunity.

The play explores the clashing expectations of people who see procreation as a consumer right, and people who expect it to be controlled, and circumscribed, by their government. More importantly, it shows a world where the march to progress is relentless and ruthless, and the price paid by its citizens extremely high.

The Chinese artist ends up working in one of the "art factories" in southern China, painting 15 fake Van Goghs a day. Fifteen fake Van Goghs isn't, she says, enough. The man opposite does 25. Painting 15 fake Van Goghs, or even 25 fake Van Goghs, may well be better than making touch screens for smartphones, where you have to stand in silence for 12-hour shifts, and sleep in dormitories surrounded by wire netting, so you don't kill yourself, which you might otherwise be tempted to do, but it doesn't, at least from the depiction on the Barbican stage, look like very much fun.

Something about that play, and about the way the Chinese artist, or I suppose I should say the actor playing the Chinese artist, hunched over her easel, knowing that when she finished this canvas there would be another one, and then another one, and that something that had once been a pleasure, and even a form of self-expression, was now just something that had to be churned out, like all the other products in the factories around her, and so fast that when her baby screamed, she didn't have time to soothe her, and for so little money that she could hardly feed her, brought home to me, in a way that no newspaper article has ever quite done, what it means for something to be "made in China". What it means for the Chinese, and what it means for us.

The market for fake Van Goghs in this country isn't quite as big as the market for iPhones, or iPads, or laptops, or handbags, or pretty much everything that's made in China and sold here for a song. We like the prices we pay for the iPhones, and the laptops and the handbags, because they're the kind of prices you pay when the person who's making them is paid 160 dollars a month. What we don't like quite so much is the fact that we can't make any of these things, and sell them for the same kind of price, because we can't pay our workers 160 dollars a month, and so, increasingly, we can't make anything, and the people who used to make things can't.

If the people who used to make things can learn how to use a computer and read out a script, then we can put them in a place where they can answer phones instead. The trouble is, they want to be paid more than £1,000 a month, and other people can answer phones, in places like India, and the Philippines, and get paid less than £100 a month, and businesses, whose shareholders earn a lot more than £1,000 a month, prefer to pay people less than £100 a month. So it's better to have the phones in India or the Philippines than in Newcastle or Cardiff, though it may not be better for people in Newcastle or Cardiff.

This is what it's like to live in a globalised world. It means that anything that can be shipped, or flown, into your country, or connected through a telephone line, or an internet connection, can be done much cheaper somewhere else. If it can be done cheaper then it probably will be done cheaper, because people who like making money don't just want to make a little bit of money. They want to make an awful lot of it.

In a globalised world, where labour is cheap, and technology is changing everything, so that even the one million books that will be given away tonight to celebrate World Book Day will soon seem like relics from a distant past, and where much of the West is struggling with deficits created by a global banking crisis, and is cutting jobs, and where it's looking as if there won't be enough money to pay the pensions of the old people, or enough young people to make up the gap, life is going to get harder. It's going to get harder for everyone except the rich.

In this new world, it's hard to see how policemen, for example, will be able to carry on doubling their £50,000 salary with overtime, and having the extra £50,000 paid by people who never get paid anything for their overtime. And it's hard to see how Tube drivers, who are in the top 10 per cent of earners, will be able to carry on getting paid triple rates of overtime when the people who are paying it are working weekends and bank holidays at the standard rate.

You can't blame the policemen, or the Tube drivers, for wanting what they've always had, and you can't blame trades unions for wanting to protect the rights of their workers, which is their job, but we, like the people fighting for democracy in the Middle East, are seeing history unfold, and if we want to shape it, we're going to have to face it, and if we want to maintain the standard of living that many of us have taken for granted, we're going to have to get pretty damn good at something the world wants to pay for, pretty damn soon.