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China Inside Out

Pál Nyíri
Joana Breidenbach

Chapter 1. Anthropological Concepts for the Study of Nationalism

Aihwa Ong

Texte intégral

The anthropological perspective

1China has been a very unique subject of study. There tends to be no comparative aspect to how we approach China and perhaps a kind of reluctance to apply to it a social theory that is developed in other parts of the world. I think it is extremely important to have that kind of comparative aspect in order to be engaged in a conversation about what China is like in other parts of the world.

Dokötter on Ong’s chapter
This lecture contains a whole panoply of notions that are very popular in cultural anthropology. Even if you feel a bit overwhelmed by the number of names and concepts, it is very useful to pay attention to them. You also have an opportunity to see how anthropologists think and work, the sort of knack anthropologists have for deconstructing all sorts of things that we considered to be unproblematically natural.
It is undeniable that anthropology has had the biggest impact on other fields of social research since the 1980s–90s. The whole postmodernism is very much fueled by what anthropologists have developed in the last 10–20 years. I also use the notion of denaturalization: to denaturalize the nation or culture means no longer to see them as fairly unproblematic givens that you can more or less classify and examine, pretty much like an entomologist will look at different sorts of insects. You have to have that sort of anthropological reflexivity, a self-reflection in examining the very basic units of analysis that you deploy in your own world. There is no way escaping anthropology. That was possibly the case 10–20 years ago, but it no longer is the case. Even in the so-called hard economics no one would be a fool to think that you can more or less ignore this sort of cultural anthropological insights.

2This chapter will first talk about anthropology, which is my discipline, and present my approach to the subjects of the nation, nationalism, and transnationalism.

Techniques of being human

3Anthropology is fundamentally the study of humanity in terms of the techniques that make us human. And when we talk about techniques, we mean a whole range of things: mechanical techniques like stone tool-making as well as poetry, religion, morality that people make up for themselves. So, anthropology is in fact the study of the different ways of life in history and around the world. By looking at the different ways, we constitute ourselves as human beings, and the ways our technologies shape our lives and values, we can address issues of what is at stake for humanity as a whole.

Relativism: contextualization of subjectivity

4You will often hear the term “relativism.” Early anthropologists have been criticized for applying their ideas of being human to others. An anthropologist, an upper-class American, in the Brazilian jungle? This is crazy! Today, anthropology wants to appreciate the different ways in which people imagine and make their lives. In other words, to deconstruct “human nature.” There is no such thing as human nature: it is what culture makes of it. As a result, we want to think about the human subject as someone who is produced in particular historical and cultural circumstances.

5In other words, to study humanity you have to look at the variety of techniques—material and symbolic, cultural and social—through which we make ourselves as particular kinds of human beings. Modern technologies shape our societies and our values in ways that go beyond our ancestral cultures, which have in most cases been eroded and are now recast within technical forms of power—state apparatus, market rationalities, bureaucratic systems, and related dominant discourses. Thus while there is a tendency to think of nationalism as somehow purely cultural and primordial in origin, when we deal with modern nation-states, these modes of cultural knowledge are always selectively modified and shaped by modern political rationalities and technologies.

Reflexivity and responsibility in anthropology

6The other point I want to emphasize about anthropology is reflexivity. To be reflexive is to be mindful of how you construct knowledge. The anthropos, the human, is the object of knowledge. We study humanity, but we are also members of humanity. So we are studying ourselves indirectly. Perhaps you can say in sociology you study society but in anthropology, the object of knowledge is humanity. But humanity is also a technique of knowledge.

7So the anthropologist studying the people is very aware that she is also producing knowledge about the people. As a result of the relationship between knowledge and power, as social scientists, academics, or policymakers, we all produce knowledge that directly implicates the subjects that we study. Anyone who wants to talk and write with authority is in a domineering position. So we are extremely aware of how responsible we are when we try to study something: that we are in fact disturbing it. Reflexivity is a sense of dilemma that anthropologists have as modern human beings been studying other modern human beings (Rabinow 1984).

8But as a result of a tradition of studying people perceived to be very different from ourselves, anthropologists have tended to defend their way of life against the encroachments of modernity. As humanists, they have tended to be very critical of modern reasoning and techniques as objectifying and dominating strategies that have led to the destruction and misrepresentation of premodern cultures. Many anthropologists are very critical of rationality as expressed in the state apparatus, capitalism, and other systems of domination and transformation. They also tend to be critical and skeptical of instrumental knowledge, because they are aware of the tendency to obliterate or to deny other ways of thinking about being human, other forms of morality. Anthropology wants to defend other moral worlds, other ways of being human. It will always be pluralistic in its approach.

9However, the simple opposition between what’s “traditional” and what’s “modern” can no longer be sustained in an age of globalization. Max Weber was concerned with economic action and technology in transforming posttraditional society, but today, technical power has evacuated and colonized contexts of traditional knowledge. Neither the anthropologist nor the subject of her study stand outside of modern technical power; they are enmeshed in its many webs and apparatuses. So we must make technical power our problem of investigation (as opposed to being merely critical of it); we must study how various forms of modern power—bureaucratic, political, economic, and scientific—shape society while at the same time produce the uncertainties and social crises that come to define what is human and humanly defensible (Ong 2001).

Modernity and nationalism

10It is not possible to talk about Chinese nationalism either as something unique to the history of China or simply in terms of general categories. In this chapter, I present a number of ideas and theories as background for how to think about nationalism in a historical and comparative global context.

11One of the fundamental issues in the social sciences today is the rejection of very broad, homogenizing pictures of societies. When I study the “Chinese nation” I see the convergence of different perspectives and experiences. Frequently, we assume that the current official view is the standard one; but the perspective of different generations, classes, and subnational groups may be very different. At any one time, there is a set of contestory claims and definitions linked to different positions of power, which should be identified. When it comes to state definitions of nationalism, it is relevant to link them to processes of reception and legitimization.

12Thus it is necessary to be conscious of the categories you apply, to question every single category you use. Nationalism is a modern idea. It is not a homogeneous term that applies to all times and all places. When we talk about nationalisms, we are really talking about the historical period since the 19th century, when transformations in the way society was organized gave people a sense of being modern.

Max Weber: modernity against tradition

13There is a variety of theoretical entry points into the discussion. Some of the thinkers I consider central to anthropology are Max Weber, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and Michel Foucault. Let us take Weber, the least controversial one for scholars in other disciplines.

Duara on deconstruction
To ”deconstruct” means a way of epistemological understanding that social reality is constructed by the observer, in one way or the other, and our goal is to take it apart to show how that construction was made, as opposed to the positivistic understanding, which says that reality is given, and our job as scientists is to understand it.
For example, when Karl Deutsch (1961) talked about communications being important for the nation, we have to see that in Deutsch’s historical context, communication was totally controllable by the nation-state; it was in a sense part of the ideology of the nation-state. Deutsch didn’t entertain the possibility that you could have both means and media in communication that might produce different types of sense of community and identity. In this sense, the ideology of the nation, then of the nation-state, and perhaps of just the nation now, is still very much with us, and it is very hard to get beyond it, because we have been formed by it, just as Deutsch had been formed by the nation-state of the early 20th century. Some other generation will tell us how these constraints operated in our case.
We can try and understand what our own constructions are formed by. We used to use the term ”immigrant,” but in the United States today we generally avoid that term and use ”migrant” instead. ”Immigrant” is a part of the ideology of the nation-state, which says that immigrants have to be assimilated and transformed. But we had not been conscious of that until recently. The moment you start calling them migrants, the whole notion becomes transformed and challenged. We are suddenly aware of how the nation-state constructed it.

14For Weber, the study of modernity is the study of the problematic confluence of culture and economy. Weber is extremely concerned about questions of rationality. For him, modernity is fundamentally about techniques of rationalization in bureaucracy, in the economy, and in other spheres of life. There is a kind of crisis that arises in the modern period, with society becoming progressively more organized and rationalized. Culture is in crisis, culture is progressively suppressed, driven underground; people no longer know what it means to be human; there is a loss of one’s cultural compass. You don’t know what is happening any more: you lose your answers to the big existentialist questions.

15Weber uses the term “disenchantment of culture.” You go to Budapest or Singapore, and it all seems similar. You find the same potato chips. Everything is the same, and culture seems to be receding in the face of modern technical forms and practices.

Benedict Anderson: print capitalism

16This crisis of culture on many different levels, for many people and groups in society, has to be part of the discussion on nationalism. Nationalism is a modern version of cultural production. It is an attempt to define culture in relationship to the territory of a nation-state. There is nothing natural about nationalism; it has to be produced. Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities is about nationalism as a form shaped by a collective imagining enabled by modern technologies.

Anderson’s Imagined Communities
Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1991), based on Anderson’s study of Southeast Asian politics, is, along with Ernest Gellner’s work, perhaps the most-cited recent theory of nationalism. Anderson argues that nationalist consciousness was made possible with the breakdown of three defining characteristics of premodern society: sacred scripts, divine kingship, and the conflation of history with cosmology. Together, these had made for an unselfconscious coherence in society that broke down with the spread of print media in the capitalist market. Print capitalism permitted an unprecedented mode of apprehending time that was ”empty” and ”homogeneous”—expressed in an ability to imagine the simultaneous existence of one’s conationals. Travel and the territorialization of the faith relativized this community by defining it as limited, and the decline of the monarchy transferred sovereignty to the community. To be sure, many of the characteristics of nationalism evolve historically through a succession of modular types of nationalist movements. But he believes, nonetheless, that nationalisms have a defining systemic unity embodied in the unique type of self-consciousness of the people imagining themselves as one. (Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 52-53.)
Duara on Anderson
Many theorists of nationalism say nationalism is a purely modern phenomenon. Some people say that the very idea of identity is a modern idea. That is behind the work of Benedict Anderson as well.
By nationalism he understands how people in different parts of a territory who have never seen each other conceive of themselves as an intimate community, as somehow belonging on the same side of ”we vs. the other.” Since you have never met each other you have to imagine that you have. This imagining yourself as part of a community is what we mean by identity.
Anderson argues that this kind of identity is a modern phenomenon. In premodern societies, say in Manchu China, people saw themselves very much as part of a village or the lineage or the clan. Their sense of community was much more face-to-face. Anderson says the ability to think of a more abstract territory as part of your entity is new.
I might differ with him in that I think that it was possible to think of an imagined community earlier. When the Manchus invaded China, or even earlier, with the Mongol invasion, you had a sense of a Han Chinese identity that distinguished itself from the Mongols or the Manchus. But the difference is that this was not conceived in the same relationship with the territorial nation, with the boundaries, as the later nationalism that is the product of the nation-state system. The new elements are the idea of a completely homogenous political body with no competing sovereignties and how that idea of a nation is circulated.
Frank Proschan on Anderson
In the Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 999-1032 (November 2001).
Since its appearance in 1983, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism has taken on almost talismanic status, ritually invoked for its quasi-magical efficacy in thousands of scholarly discussions of nationalism and ethnicity. (The Social Sciences Citation Index shows 1,424 citations by authors to Anderson’s work prior to 1999.) Anderson’s book has given focus to a line of argument in which not only nationalism but ethnicity are seen as reflexes of the Euroamerican colonial enterprise. Anderson proposes what we might call an ”appendency theory” of ethnicity, holding that ethnicity is a phenomenon that is secondary to, contingent upon, and necessarily later than the modern nation, and that therefore it could not possibly have existed prior to the colonial conquest and the creation of nation-states. In this view, ethnicity itself is a recent product of modern history—of the colonial or postcolonial era, the age of the modern nation-state and the capitalist world system.
(...) I would argue, following Ronald Atkinson’s discussion of the roots of Ugandan ethnicity, that it is equally wrong ”to overlook or underemphasize [the] basic reality [that] however powerful the colonial experience was, it did not occur in a historical vacuum, and it neither erased nor totally overwhelmed all that had gone before” (Ronal Raymond Atkinson, The Roots of Ethnicity: The Origins of the Acholi of Uganda before 1800. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994: 17). The denials by those I will call ”appendency theorists” of the possibility of precolonial ethnicity are in part a result of their privileging of certain categories of evidence—specifically those embodied in printed texts—and their neglect of disciplines such as ethnology, folklore, oral history, and historical linguistics. (...) I insist that in some (even many) cases, indigenous local peoples had already themselves imagined ethnicity well before the colonial era and well before the domination of print capitalism, the world system, or the modern state. The imaginings produced during and after the colonial era must then be seen as adoptions, transformations, modifications, or adaptations of pre-existing local conceptions (...)
Proschan’s argument is based on his study of the origin myths of the Kmhmu, a highland people concentrated in Laos and Vietnam. In these myths, humankind is reborn after a deluge as a sequence of ”distinct but interacting ethnic communities, distinguished one from another by skin color, language, territory (...) cultural traditions, economic activities, and access to political authority.” In late versions of the myth recorded by Proschan, this sequence includes not only local peoples but also French and Americans, each endowed by various resources whose origin is explained in the myth.

17This was also true for the Chinese empire, which comprised very dispersed and diverse peoples. According to Anderson, it is the emergence of what he calls “print capitalism” that gave rise to the possibility, through the common printed material, for people to imagine themselves as members of the same nation. Print capitalism is Anderson’s reinvention of Marx’s theory of the primacy of material forces. Printing, a technology for the dispersal of information, was the necessary technology to unify the territory. This was a new kind of imagining, transcending earlier forms of imagined communities based on religion, civilization, and face-to-face interactions.

Ong on how minorities are framed by majority nationalism
Let us take the example of Dru Gladney’s discussion of the Uyghurs (pp. 275-79). All nationalisms have to accommodate a multiplicity of different groupings, and the political (and usually demographic) majority group tends to impose a hierarchy of different ethno-racial groupings. Officially, China claims to be a multinational country, but all nationalities are part of the Chinese nation. In Taiwan, you have the distinction between ”Taiwanese” who are descendants of historical Chinese immigration, ”mainlanders” who are Mandarin-speaking descendants of immigrants who came to Taiwan with the Kuomintang in 1949, some dialectal groups also from the mainland who distinguish themselves from the others, and the Austronesian aboriginal groups.
Both the mainland Chinese and the Taiwanese constructions aim at framing multinational polities, but the way they are framed is quite different. They involve a different kind of rationality, different kinds of discourses, which converge in different ways. Confucianism is involved in China, it is involved and used in a slightly different way in Taiwan, where, since 1949, it has been held up as part of the state ideology. On the mainland, however, Confucianism has been severely attacked during much of the post-1949 era, but in recent years of market reforms, it has seen a resurgence as the government has sought various ways other than communist ideology to define China’s distinctiveness and the political legitimacy of the rulers.
Particular series of classifications, the serialization of knowledge is absolutely critical to the project of nationalism. I grew up in Malaysia, and the whole sense of who was Chinese, Indian, Malay and so on was constructed by census categories derived from British colonial rule. These categories structured your identity in legal and social ways. Anthropologically speaking, it was not always clear-cut what exactly was a Chinese, because people had a mix of ancestry. Southeast Asia has historically been a region known for its blurring of ethnic boundaries. I am someone who could be called a Straits Chinese, a person who is very mixed culturally and in other ways and who could not fit neatly within the census category of Chinese. These categories then came to solidify identities in very specific ways. All citizens have to carry an identity card of a given ethnic category—”Chinese”—a tag that carries with it all kinds of assumptions.
It is thus important to consider what influences shape ethno-racial formation. There may be the effect of a state apparatus that designates different categories of minorities, there may be forms of ethnic self-identification; there may also be the effects of markets and popular culture. For instance, after decades of concealment, some Thai subjects have come forward to reveal that they have Chinese ancestry. The economic boom in Southeast Asia and the rise of ethnic Chinese networks have made it more acceptable to be ethnic Chinese as well as Thai (Blanc 1995).
There are thus time and place coordinates that should modify homogenizing views of the nation and ethnic identity. The point is that the answers you come up with will be very specific to a particular set of perspectives, the actors, and the kinds of events or situations that shape overarching representations.

The geo-body of the nation

18Just as nationalism is an imagined process, so is the birth of the nation. The Thai scholar Thongchai Winichakul argues that the modern nation arose from the imagining made possible by modern technologies for defining and hardening the boundaries and territory of the Siamese kingdom. He links the modern period with the idea of a “geo-body.” In the late 19th century, when the Siamese kingdom was trying to become Thailand, a modern country, it hired European cartographers so that they begin to map out the current configuration of a piece of land that was then given an English name: Thailand. The notion of the nation had to be mapped out physically before it gained a symbolic, as well as a material existence for its people. This is what Thongchai calls a geo-body (Thongchai 1994).

19Thus we have the convergence of collective imagination and specific modern technologies—print media, cartography, engineering—that make possible the political and spatial form of the modern nation. A third element is the nationalist discourse, one that often harks back to an originary ancient nation, people, myth, and culture (Smith 1991). Nationalism is thus also imaginary in this sense of a ghostly presence, some ancient wellspring of identity that can always be claimed in the service of enforced solidarity and unity. This imagined primordialism haunts you, especially during times of war, providing you with the deep resources for defending “your motherland.” The new nation is also haunted by what Anderson calls “the spectre of comparisons,” a process whereby one’s nationalism is deeply conditioned by comparisons with those of more “civilized” or more “powerful” others (Anderson 1998). This happens also in other times of great transition. For instance, the current Chinese jingoism—as expressed by leaders and by college students demonstrating against America—has arisen along with the emergence of China as a giant economic power. It is important to note that at other times, talk of nationalism actually has no effect on your everyday life and sentiments.

Karl Polányi: the “double movement” of market and society

20The form of the modern nation-state is linked to its role and responses to the spread of capitalism. Karl Polányi is a famous sociologist who, escaping from Nazi Germany, went to New York where he wrote a book entitled The Great Transformation (Polányi 1957). The book presented his understanding of what had led to the Great Depression in the 1930s. Polányi argued that the progressive spread of market capitalism had the tendency to break up social relationships. People became atomized; social obligations were no longer honored. Society was stripped from its former forms of social protection. Then, after a tremendous crisis, such as in England in the 19th century, the state had to step in a modernizing society to provide the social protections that were being dissolved by market economy.

21Polányi uses the term “double movement” of market and society. All modern states face the fundamental problem that as capitalism progresses, the state has to assume the role of introducing social policies to protect people, otherwise societies would disintegrate. In the originary capitalist economies, these attempts to protect society resulted in the establishment of the welfare state (Polányi 1957, Marshall 1965).

Features of contemporary globalization

22In the past two decades, the term “globalization” seems to have become the current framing of social and intellectual problems. Social scientists, scholars in the humanities—and everyone else for that matter—cannot seem to avoid the term, no matter what their specific projects are about. While there have been heated disagreements over what globalization means, there is also a radical sense of urgency across the social sciences that we are confronted with new empirical realities and with a new set of problems that pose new demands on conventional tools and modes of analysis.

23One set of approaches across a number of disciplines has treated “globalization” as designating a new unit of analysis or spatial form through which familiar categories can be studied. For instance, some approaches in sociology have maintained a focus on structures of connectivity and spatial integration. There is a focus on how the logic of global capital is repatterning urban landscapes and how multilateral agencies are shaping an emerging global civil society. One synthetic work in this trend is Manuel Castells’ Information Age Trilogy (Castells 1996-98).

  • * This article is a revised version of Joana Breidenbach and Ina Zukrigl (1999), “The dynamics of cu (...)

Breidenbach and Zukrigl about the dynamics of cultural globalization
The myths of cultural globalization*
Two powerful scenarios dominate the public discourse about the cultural consequences of globalization. The one very common scenario represents globalization as cultural homogenization (for example Benjamin Barber’s [1992] McWorld vs. Jihad). In this scenario, globally available goods, media, ideas, and institutions overrun the culturally distinct societies of the world. In a world where people from Vienna to Sidney eat Big Macs, wear Benetton clothes, watch MTV or CNN, talk about human rights and work on their IBM computers, cultural characteristics are endangered. As these commodities and ideas are mostly of Western origin, globalization is perceived as Westernization in disguise. The other scenario is that of cultural fragmentation and intercultural conflict (encapsulated in Huntington’s [1993] Clash of Civilizations and most recently ”confirmed” by the ”war on terrorism”).
But can we really reduce the processes of cultural globalization (i.e., the process of worldwide interconnections) to these two stereotypes? What about the meaning that local people attach to globally distributed goods and ideas? Why do people drink Coca-Cola and what sense do they make of the soap operas they watch? Do they really trade in their century-old life worlds for the kinds of Madonna and Bill Gates? And how does the homogenization scenario fit with its rival, that of imminent cultural fragmentation?
In order to gain a clearer picture of contemporary global cultural changes, we have to study cultural practices worldwide. Objectively measurable figures concerning death rates, intercultural marriages and marketshares have to be understood in their wider social context. They have to be related to specific worldviews, gender relations and the local meaning of death and wealth.
An ethnographic approach to globalization
But how does one study these intersubjective aspects of life? Many of the writings on the cultural aspects of globalization generalize from experiences gained in the West to other parts of the world. What we need instead are decentralized perspectives, ethnographic thick descriptions from local communities all over the world, combined with the predominantly quantitative data obtained through the perspectives of economists, political scientists, and others. What people say and what they actually do or mean are often very different matters.
Good ethnography combines detailed empirical research with larger political and philosophical questions. The anthropologist, who goes into ”the field” for an extended period of time, attempts to take the perspective of the people he/ she studies and represent his/her findings to a wider audience. The resulting ethnography is a translation, shifting between the perspective of the cultural insider and the cultural outsider (the latter will most often coincide with the scientist and his/her audience). Anthropology tries to take a holistic approach to the society in question, i.e., to overcome the artificial separation of analytical categories (such as politics, culture, and economy) common to other disciplines. Single phenomena are studied in their social context and the interpenetration of different aspects of human life, of, for example, legal propositions, worldviews, rituals, and social structure are of central concern.
To gain a better understanding of the cultural aspects of globalization, some findings of the anthropological record will be introduced in the following four hypotheses.
Four hypotheses
1. Different peoples interpret globalized goods, ideas and institutions in highly diverse
ways and integrate them in various ways into their own lives. Societies don’t passively give in to foreign and global influences. Instead, anthropological research has stressed the ability of societies to incorporate what might be expected to threaten them. Various strategies of dealing with foreign influences have been identified. The most prominent of these are resistance and appropriation.
Regarding resistance: the state often tries to prohibit foreign influences to enter its territory. The Iranian State doesn’t allow its citizens to own satellite dishes; France tries to protect the French language from being Anglicized and invents new French words for fast food and the Internet (formule rapide and entre-reseau). But imported goods, institutions and ideas also meet resistance from social movements or certain sections of society (ranging from protest against the Miss World beauty contest in Bangalore to the ”net-war” of the Zapatistas in Chiapas).
But more often than offering resistance, people incorporate and appropriate foreign influences into their lives. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1988) has written that people often use foreign goods and ideas to become more like themselves. We see in the current anthropological literature a great variety of case studies that demonstrate this process of appropriation.
Let’s take McDonald’s. McDonald’s certainly is a very globalized institution, popular in over 100 countries, serving 30 million customers a day. Sociologist George Ritzer (1996) has even named a homogenization theory after this fast-food giant: the ”McDonaldiza-tion” of the world. But when you look at ethnographic studies of McDonald’s in East Asia or Russia (Watson 1998), the scenario of a global homogenization loses credibility. Yes, some aspects of the rational, fast, and standardized McDonald’s system have been accepted in most societies and the chain has effected small but influential changes in dietary patterns. But what comes out of the fieldresearch is that the meaning of McDonald’s has been changed enormously by its various customers.
Businessmen in Beijing are able to circumvent a typical Chinese dilemma: banquets in Chinese restaurants are highly competitive. People try to outdo one another by offering the most expensive dishes and beverages. It is typical for a host at a banquet to worry that customers at neighboring tables might be enjoying better dishes, thus causing him or her to loose face. Such competition does not exist at McDonald’s, where the menu is limited and the food standardized. For people without a lot of money McDonald’s has become the best alternative to host a meal.
Often the success of a global good has unexpected reasons. One reason very many people gave for eating at McDonald’s were the clean and spacious toilets, which since have raised the general sanitary standards in East Asian restaurants.
Western fast-food chains have pushed a number of more traditional snack vendors out of business, but instead of leading to an Americanization of taste, it has initiated a boom of local fast foods. In Beijing, a local chain opened over 1000 outlets that serve Chinese meals like roasted duck and dumplings. And in Moscow the Russkoie Bistro, which sell the traditional pirozhki as a take-away snack, draw more customers than their model and rival McDonald’s.
The appropriation of global goods and ideas can be demonstrated in various spheres, from Western concepts like sustainable development and human rights to media technology and media content. The same point applies to all these instances: the intentions of the producers (of goods or ideas) are changed by the people consuming them. This does not mean that people are not affected in very deep ways by imports-they are-but it means we cannot be sure in which way.
2. Globalization leads to a new cultural diversity
As a result of the increasing cultural contact, a number of traditional practices, whole ways of life and worldviews disappear. Special fishing techniques of the Inuit are forgotten, and it is estimated that just 10% of over 6,500 languages spoken today will survive. At the same time globality leads to the emergence of new cultural forms: cultural traditions mix and create new practices and worldviews. Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (1991) uses the term creolization, connoting the creativity and richness of expression of these ”cultural bastards.” The term refers to cultural expressions that do not have historical roots, but are the result of global interconnections.
More and more individuals stress their multicultural biographies, from writers like Salman Rushdie to Tiger Woods, shooting star of the international golf sport, who calls himself ”Cablinasian” to point out his ancestry in black, Indian, and Asian cultures. Writers with a multicultural biography were among the first to express those changes called creolization: authors like Hanif Kureishi, Keri Hulme or Emine Sevgi Osdamer mix languages and express in their writings the diversity and richness of their cultural influences as well as the conflicts that form part of this creolization process.
In the shadow of the much-discussed ”guest worker” generation, new communities like the Latinos or Afro-Germans have emerged in Germany. There is an estimated number of 400,000 Germans with black and white ancestry, who identify themselves as Afro-Germans. Latin American-born residents marry, work, and mix with Germans. Ecuadorian women share their flats with German homosexual men (not to be imagined in their place of origins) or make Germans fly to Brazil to get introduced to Daime rituals in the Amazon forest. Germans change their lifestyle equally: they get inspired by Eduardo Galliano, learn salsa dancing and study Spanish. The Latino community has no or very little political impact, but it is changing German society in a fundamental and subtle way. Beyond that, locality itself loses its importance. New transnational communities come into being. They are bound together by common interest, profession or social and cultural similarities rather than by origin or geographical closeness. Migrants, exile communities, and refugees set up long-distance communication or economic links and send self-recorded tapes and commodities back and forth.
Both processes, the creolization of local societies and the formation of transnational communities, demonstrate the inadequacy of our concept of cultures as bounded and fairly static units. As a consequence of this image we often conceive of cultural change as loss. But ”culture is not an attribute to be gained or lost, but (... ) a process or struggle by which all peoples of the world attempt to make sense of the world” (Miller 1995b: 269). The image of the world as a mosaic, consisting of clearly defined and separated single stones (the cultures) has to give way to the idea of culture as a flow. The metaphor of cultural flow allows for acknowledging cultural similarities and differences irrespective of origin and geographical place.
3. The emerging global culture is a reference system that organizes cultural diversity worldwide.
The emerging global culture consists of universal categories and standards by which cultural differences become mutually intelligible and compatible. Societies all over the world are becoming on the one hand more similar to one another, on the other hand more different. Anthropologist Richard Wilk (1995: 117) has called this new reference system ”structures of common difference.” By this term he refers to a new global hegemony, which is a hegemony of structure, not of contents. Global structures organize diversity. While different cultures continue to be quite distinct and varied, they are becoming different in very uniform ways. Most of the global categories and standards circulating today originate in the West, but spread because people everywhere appropriate them and use them to express themselves and fight for their own ends. In the process, the hegemonic structures themselves are transformed.
Certain ideas, stories and histories (including such diverse things as the institutional-ization of human rights, the death of Lady Diana or the demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa) are available to an increasing number of people in most parts of the world. They are distributed mainly through the media and the millions of people on the move, like migrants, refugees, tourists and businessmen. Media and people on the move force people to reflect their own way of life in the mirror of other ways of life. Consequently, very many people develop a ”comparative consciousness.” This has the potential of creating common ground, a kind of lingua franca for very different people all over the world.
But it is very important to keep in mind that global culture does not exist in a power vacuum. Most of the structures and standards circulating today originate in the West, and the West makes a sustained effort to assure their survival. Yet other countries (such as Southeast Asian politicians and intellectuals) challenge this dominance. The diffusion of many Western ideas and institutions is a fact. But after a successful appropriation, the origin of concepts and ideas is increasingly unimportant. Finally, the dialogue about cultural differences and similarities is forced upon Western societies as they themselves undergo an immense internal process of pluralization and become more and more multicultural. Identity politics and cultural differences are no longer problems somewhere else, but in our own neighborhoods, so cultural differences have to be confronted head-on and dialogue and new forms of conflict resolution are inevitable. It is unlikely that the structures of the global culture will be unchanged after a sustained dialogue.
4. Culture is one of the most prominent global concepts, and it is appropriated in highly diverse ways.
From 1970 to 1980, the number of North American Indians has increased from 700,000 to 1,400,000. This is not the result of a population explosion but reflects the rapidly growing number of North Americans who acknowledge their Indian ancestry and their cultural roots openly. Over the last twenty years a ”culture of cultures” (Sahlins 1993) has emerged, representing an important frame of reference for communities worldwide. Indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, transnational alliances like ”black people” but also interest groups like homosexuals or businessmen. They all call a specific ”culture” their own, even though originally some indigenous peoples like the Hopi or Kapayo Indians did not have a term in their mother tongue and had to borrow the word from one of the colonial languages.
The culture concept is used by groups to fight for recognition, financial support, or economic and political rights. In order to succeed, many of those ”cultural activists” have realized that they have to pronounce their demands at a global level. They seek support from the growing number of transnational organizations that are dedicating their work to the preservation of cultural rights. Nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International or the World Council of Indigenous People act as informational mirror sites and present powerful transnational pressure for groups against national governments or companies.
In order to be heard, national minorities or indigenous peoples fighting for acknowledgement and rights have to adapt to the global reference system. This requires that cultural characteristics are presented in a standardized manner. The categories of what we introduced earlier as ”structure of common difference” include language, life-style, world-view, or rituals. Only by using those standardized categories Brazilian Indios are able to correspond with Penan in Borneo or Dutch workers take sides with the Penan against the international timber trade. The spectrum of the use of the cultureconcept is broad: Depending on time and context cultural identities are expressed stronger or weaker. In Germany we are Bavarians, in France we are Germans and in South Africa we are simply ”from overseas.” In minority communities in Britain’s largest Asian metropolis, Southall, British-Asian youths refer to their ethnic or religious identity as Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh more openly after incidents of racial attacks. Around Christmas time, Germans develop a deep sense of Germanness by performing ”typical German traditions.” Being adjusted to the various contexts, culture is manipulated in flexible ways.
Up to a mere decade ago, most minorities felt inferior to the majority population, and most societies took their own way of life as an unquestionable state-of-affairs. Living in a globalized world goes hand in hand with a newly arising consciousness of one’s own cultural characteristics. By stressing cultural difference as a fundamental characteristic, a number of ethnic groups and national cultures manipulate the idea of culture to legitimize exclusion and racism.
Most groups, however-from the Dalit in India to Native Hawaiians-instrumentalize the culture concept not for exclusion but to gain recognition and protection of rights. The Ainu, known to be the first group to settle on Hokkaido, fought for a long time to be officially recognized as an ethnic group in Japan, a state that proclaims officially to be a homogeneous nation-state. Using the interest of the growing number of tourists in Japan, the Ainu started to build traditional villages, schools, and information centers, where tourists could experience ”traditional culture.” By deciding which cultural aspects to keep alive and which ones to drop, the Ainu identity is reconstructed in a selective way that is far from being authentic in a strict historical sense. To forge their identity, Maori, Maya, and other indigenous groups have used the same strategy and put themselves on the market.
In South Mexico’s Chiapas region the Mam-speaking Indians (Castillo and Nigh 1995) have created a market niche by reinvention of the principles of their traditional social organization and agricultural methods. In the past, the Mam never defined themselves as a single ethnic group. They were spread over two countries, and on the Mexican side, they were fairly acculturated and had only few Mam speakers left. Though having small plots (ejidos) for subsistence farming, nearly all Mam worked as farm hands on large commercial farms. At the beginning of the 1980s, the NAFTA agreement was signed and the Mexican government started to support a change towards an export-driven agricultural production. Soon many farms were hit by the negative consequences of the ”crops for greater value” policy: the overall profit decreased while the amount of imported food had to be increased, health problems arose that were seen as a result of the pesticides and chemical fertilizers, food quality worsened, and due to growing debts, there was a sharp rise of poverty in rural communities.
Facing this development, the Mam decided to return to traditional methods of farming. Exploring the past, they ”discovered” their ”old ways” of organic farming (farming without pesticides and living in harmony with their environment). Values such as reciprocity and collective action were found to be close to the principles of 19th-century-based British cooperatives. A reinvention of tradition combined with a consciously defined identity as ”the last descendants of the Mayan people” provides a lucrative niche in the global market. Searching for markets, the cooperative ISMAM turned to Native American businesspeople for advice on marketing, production, and the formulation of a corporate image. The annual profit of $7 million secures the communities a sound economic base. Further, eighty Mam communities are involved in a joint-venture agreement with North American Indian investors to build an eco-tourism facility on the Chiapas coast.
Conclusion: the dialectics of cultural globalization
Let us summarize some of the dynamics of cultural globalization as they emerge from the anthropological record. Cultural globalization is a highly dialectic process, in which globalization and localization, homogenization and fragmentation, centralization and decentralization, conflict and creolization are not opposites, but sides of the same coin. Cultural change is not only a story of loss and destruction, but also of gain and creativity: as a result of increasing interconnection, old forms of diversity do vanish, but at the same time a new cultural diversity comes into existence.
Certain concepts and structures of the modern world are being diffused globally. Every country has its national anthem, bureaucracy, and school system. People everywhere in Bolivia, Switzerland or China discuss the relevance of human rights. At the same time, cultural peculiarities take on harsher edges, as their different practices and worldviews are compared to and compete with one another. It’s in light of this process that identity politics (as described in Proposition 4 above) gain in importance.
Different worldviews and lifestyles come into touch with one another and can lead to an increase in stereotypes and conflicts. At the same time these different lifestyles and orientations mix, leading to a creolization of ideas, goods, and institutions. German school authorities have to deal with Turkish clothing regimes and gender relations and solve resulting intercultural conflicts. The Popmuzik of young German-born Turks (which combines elements from Western and Arabic musical traditions) is highly popular with youngsters in Berlin and Istanbul alike. Globalization leads to new transnational public spheres, to new communities, which often transcend national and regional boundaries (global Hinduism, Latino communities, youth cultures, the professional cultures of businessmen or artists-to name just a few). At the same time, national communities are increasingly pluralized and fragmented, as fewer people in a neighborhood share the same cultural inventory, fight for the same values, and speak the same language.
Globalization and localization are-from this perspective-one process. The local is increasingly a spin-off and part of the global. Cultural peculiarities, e.g. the national cultures of Singapore and Germany, Trinidadian or Swedish economic practice, Italian fashion and Californian cuisine have been and are what they are because of their participation in a global world system, and cannot be understood outside this global context. If globalization is seen from an individual point of view, it again appears as a double-edged sword: the possibility to compare one’s own life with many other possible lives can cast individual misery in an even sharper light, lead to discontentment and insecurity, and make people vulnerable to the gruesome practices of urban warfare and ethnic cleansing. On the other hand, the availability of many different worldviews and lifestyles can lead to a fruitful dialogue and be experienced as an enormous chance for self-realization and the enrichment of society.

24By many anthropologists, globalization has been studied as flows of populations, cultures, money, and the media, and their effects on new spatial forms including the production of postnational cultural orders. The problem seems to be one of studying cultural difference when “cultures” are no longer clearly defined. Culture is despatial-ized; it is no longer confined to its national territory but located in transnational spaces (Gupta and Ferguson 1992). This has given rise to new transnational cultural spaces that Appadurai has called “ethnoscapes” and “mediscapes” (from “media”) (Appadurai 1996). There is also the suggestion that with global flows and the ruptures of displacement, cultures are reinscribed through activities that protest or resist global and state domination (Comaroff 2000).

25Yet other anthropologists have studied social disruptions but not through these overarching structures, or investigated social change simply within the structural space, or the cultural frame. The goal is to consider globalization not merely a shift in the unit of analysis, nor the intensification of flows of capital, people, rational forms, practices or values. The point is to go beyond the “new container” models of studying globalization, to an explicit articulation of emerging problem-spaces within which we confront questions about structural changes, and how they shape new social forms, and even new forms of life, health, and well-being of humanity.

Exploding the frame of analysis

26One of the social effects of global forces is a reconfiguration of the global landscape, so that taken-for-granted frames of analysis—for example China—have obviously exploded. You have to be familiar with the boundaries of China, our conventional frame of analysis, but it is obvious that in this posttraditional moment, no culture or place is shielded from the varied effects of globalizing forces. You never could generalize all across China easily, but even less so today because there are all these networks, complex kinds of configurations, spatial and temporal effects that intensify flows. There are institutional and organizational changes, the emergence of multilateral agencies, United Nations, human rights regimes. They control communications and regulations. There is the emergence of international regulatory agencies. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), and for the benefits of membership, the country had to bow down to its regulations. And of course there are the transforming effects of capitalism, consumer society, electronic networks, and other modern technical systems that are radically changing China as a polity, economy, society and culture.

27There is a sense of reflexivity as Chinese subjects deal with new social connections, practices, knowledge, and information (for an analytical framework combined with ethnographic studies of Chinese in different sites around the world see Ong and

28Nonini 1997). At the same time, Western countries dealing with China have to take into consideration that it is a very different place. There is the sense among American corporations in China that you have to be more open to difference and to take into consideration the concerns of other societies even though you may not share their values. We have myriad instances of how different ways of doing things are converging in a variety of sites as a result of globalizing encounters.

Modernization in the West

29In Europe and America, modernization brought convergence and conflict between democracy and capitalism. The spread of capitalism made it very hard to spread democracy, because the divisions between the rich and the poor increased. The welfare state was supposed to compensate for those differences.

30In the United States, the continual influx of immigrants since its founding finally led to the public recognition of the nation as multicultural in character. Successive US administrations have tried to formulate what were distinctive American attributes: a spirit of the frontier, individual rights, freedom, self-reliance, income-earning, and the right to vote (Shklar 1991). At the same time, dominant American discourses also supposed that individuals belong to one cultural “community” or another. They were supposed to be Polish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, and so on.

31In the past two decades, there has been a breakdown in the assumption that immigrants will have to be assimilated into dominant white cultural majority. Following the example of the black civil rights movement, many minority and immigrant groups are resisting imposed ethno-racial categories and the obligation to give up their cultural beliefs, practices, and languages.

How are ethno-racial groups classified in relation to the dominant ethno-racial group in various countries? Can such classificatory systems be sustained in contexts of extensive multilateral relations networks?

32Multiculturalism, at least in rhetoric but usually more, has become the norm in many institutions and places. In addition, the “politics of recognition” have led to claims of “cultural citizenship”: the right to be full citizens and culturally different at the same time (Taylor 1994, Ong 1999a).

33When we use the term postmodernism in culture, we allow a fragmentary nature of understanding what culture is. Postmodernism is a sense of profound dislocation of one’s culture and tends to be related to a sense of alienation. In many cases in North America, culture is postmodern, but it is also nostalgic. There is a fascination with the foreign. This kind of attention reinvents one’s identity vis-a-vis the imagined Other. Communitarianism can be a reaction to the destructive effects of modernity, an expression of hatred of (post)modern secularist society, a kind of turning inwards, to the homeland: very romantic, very fanatical, in fact, the root of fascism in Europe.

Modernization outside the West

34Outside the West, modernization brought conflict between colonial rule and capitalism on the one hand, and the dominated communities on the other. Cultural difference has played a greater role in the project of modernity because modern technical power-the model of the nation-state, the market economy, the modern army, the modern sciences-came with Western colonial domination and imperialism. How to react to Western domination? You emphasize your culture and your community against Western forms of social interactions, means of governance, and systems of knowledge, and yet need to master and adopt those. Even in noncolonized countries like Japan, the reinvention of the political system involved going to Europe to study technology and use it to defend Japanese culture, sovereignty, and community against Western imperialist powers in the Pacific Ocean. In colonized countries such as India, but even in some noncolonized countries such as Thailand and Japan, the cultural community was always at the very forefront for the emerging elites undertaking the project of modernity (Chatterjee 1993, see chapters on Japan and India in Moore 1966).

35For Asian societies, then—to put it rather simply and generalize too much-culture has always been a nation-state project that cannot be separated from the project of modernizing the country. That is why it is important to separate state and nation as two different categories, and figure out how they are conjoined. They are conjoined in many late-developing countries, because cultural community is central to the definition of society. When you undertake capitalist development, you are afraid that capitalism, which is a Western form, will destroy your culture. So to defend the culture is a national project, and the national elite defines what “culture” is. For the late developing countries, then, the revolution is from above: it is the government that’s creating the revolution, unlike in the West, where the revolution has come from below. With the revolution from above, the state plays a major role in capitalist development and in defining national culture (Moore 1966).

State projects and control of national culture

In an era of globalization, do governments continue to define belonging to a single cultural nation? Who controls the cultural heritage? Who has the right to define tradition?

36There are always different intentions to define tradition. The great Taiping rebellion in China was an attempt to redefine Chinese tradition in terms of modernity, pluralism, global flows, etc. So it is important when understanding nationalism to know that it emerged from multiple points and not just to take its current political version. It is important to understand that nationalism is extremely unstable, that its statements are constantly contested, that it is multiple and destabilizing. The multiplicity of ideas about nationalism has to be introduced into any discussion of it: whose idea is this, when is it opposed, who contests it, why is it taken up by the people, etc.

37Nationalism began to be a force when Asian countries were emerging from under Western domination. It was not just print capitalism but also the fight to reclaim the homeland that gave it an incredible moral force.

Remoralizing the Asian nation

Duara on deconstruction see p. 4

38It is important to denaturalize the categories of the nation and the country; that is, not to take them as a given. When someone says “I am Chinese,” it is not an unproblematic statement. When a book about China is only about China, it is suspect. The idea of a culture that is seamless, holistic, and unchangeable: that is nonsense. It is a kind of popularization, a kind of simple anthropology for the lay public. One must be aware of culture as something that has been produced, and one must ask who produces it and in what context. One must look at national strategies and at actual practices in everyday life in order to figure out what these things mean.

39“Culture” as an analytical category must be problematized. There is nothing static about culture, there is nothing systematic about it. Culture is open-ended; you have to reproduce, recreate it. In many contexts, it is in fact more accurate to speak about “values” rather than “culture.” This way, we disrupt hegemonic and very dangerous discourses about unchanging cultures and the inevitable “clash of civilizations” (Huntington 1997).

Clifford on who speaks for ”a culture”
in James Clifford, ”Traveling Cultures,” in Routes. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1997; p.19.
I am always running up against a problematic figure, the ”informant.” A great many of these interlocutors, complex individuals routinely made to speak for ”cultural” knowledge, turn out to have their own ”ethnographic” proclivities ... Twentieth-century ethnography ... has become increasingly wary of certain localizing strategies in the construction and representation of ”cultures.” ... Every focus excludes; there is no politically innocent methodology for intercultural interpretation. Some strategy of localization is inevitable if significantly different ways of life are to be represented. But ”local” in whose terms? How is significant difference politically articulated, and challenged? Who determines where (and when) a community draws its lines, names its insiders and outsiders?

Asian nationalisms: tradition in modernity

Duara on authenticity
Much of the sense of moral authority is created in the idea of an authentic, of a true national community. Authenticity has become a very important word in trying to understand the power of ideologies like nationalism. And this becomes possible once you create the idea of deep histories. If you look at most nationalisms, they are very new phenomena. And the communities involved are themselves quite new, because they include some people and they exclude other people. These nationalisms, however, are now written as very deep histories: that somehow these nations have always been united, have had one single source, one origin, and the people have evolved collectively into the modern nation. This is what we call essentialization: to make something part of the essence of a people. It is deep history, the assertion that a people have always been unified, that produces moral authority. It produces the right for you to say that you should act in a certain way for the collective unity (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1992).
Authenticity as the source of moral authority
What we call ”regime of authenticity” is really a political force. Whoever gets to control what is the authentic, true nation can get people do for them what they want. So it is very important who gets to be the custodian, the keeper of this authenticity. And very often in the society there are different groups who compete. The most recent example of custodians of authenticity may be the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban believe that modernization did not capture the idea of Afghan Islamic authenticity. But you can see it in America, too. In America, where you have the militia movements who believe that true American values mean getting out of the United Nations and attacking the government because the government has lost the essence of what America is. They are, right now, not very powerful, but one can imagine circumstances when they could become more powerful.

40When we are dealing with nationalism we are dealing with strategies to define our morality, who we are as a society. In late-developing countries like Japan, China, Singapore, Korea, nationalism is part of the state project of development. These two strategies often go hand in hand.

41Weber argues that modernity refers to the spread of rational techniques of organizing into every area of life: the running of government, the economy, education. The rationalization of every area of life produces a kind of crisis. So in the period of modernity, tradition becomes something that can only be invented, because we have already become alienated from it. Modernity is a form of alienation from what used to be extremely natural. We all live now in a modern period, and we are all self-conscious about culture. Very self-consciously we try to patch together a cultural identity.

42Because the project of development is a project of modernization and it has to be justified, it has to be connected somehow to the moral character of the nation. It has to be imbued with a sense of tradition in a posttraditional society. It is an attempt to remor-alize the nation.

43Culture has always been important as a strategy of state control. Now the state needs to invent and reinvent tradition. Asian states are superb at this. They ransack the entire cultural heritage, all the religious forms in Asia, to find the elements they take up to reinvent their culture (see Chapter 2 and Chapter 7 in Ong 1999b).

44In America today we are worried about a crisis around us. So we talk about family values, religious values, Christian values, and so on. People who talk about them mean that those values are somehow particular to American culture. But they do not frame everything in those terms. In Asian nations, the tendency is to frame everything in terms of the culture. The culture is the overall framing thing. There is this total, constant enchantment with culture.

45Mahathir bin Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, would always say the same thing about our national culture.* The American way is not our way, we are much more communalistic, we care more, we are nicer, we are not vulture capitalists, we take care of women, etc. In Asia the tendency is, then, for politicians to constantly talk about culture. Every single speech is about their culture.

46It was startling to me to talk to people in China who did not know Chinese history—because they were not taught it when they were growing up—but suddenly confessed to be Confucianist. I do not know what they meant by being Confucianist, but it was like a genetic blueprint. We are Chinese, so we are Confucian.

47This biological notion of being Confucian Chinese also informs the approach to the welcome of overseas Chinese—or any person of ethnic Chinese ancestry. One of the reasons why overseas Chinese have been very attractive to mainland China obviously is that they brought investment. Some said it was the overseas Chinese who launched the capitalist development of China. There is a perception that overseas Chinese were absolutely essential again after Tiananmen, when Western investors withdrew their capital, and only Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia continued to invest in China. Hong Kong and Taiwan together (“Greater China”) have a larger investment in China than any other country.

Ong on ”Greater China”
The trope of ”Greater China” [Da Zhonghua] (was) coined by Japanese economists to describe the increasing economic integration between China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan produced by globalization. The combined foreign-currency reserves of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, together with those of China, it is claimed, would place the Chinese bloc far ahead of Japan as Asia’s first-rank economic giant. Some writers have gone so far as to claim that the overseas-Chinese community, not the nation-state, is ”the mother of China’s (economic) revolution” (Cheng Xiyu, Research Note on the ”Chinese Economic Zone,” ISSCO Bulletin 2, no. 2, 1994: pp. 3-4.).
Chinese state interests, however, are vigorously expressed in public forums and in the press. Patriotic scholars are quick to reject Greater China as a banker’s fantasy, an illusion of outsiders greedy to cash in on China’s booming economy. They fear that any ideological recognition of a wider ”Chinese” capitalist zone will undermine China as a territorially based political entity (Ong 1999b: p. 60).

48The welcome extended to these Chinese from other parts of Asia was probably because of this sense that they came with capital and helped to develop the country. At the same time, they were perceived to have preserved a Confucian traditional culture that had been lost in the mainland during the Maoist years. So people liked it: “Hey, I also have Confucian culture!” It is very funny, this labeling of the economic practices of overseas Chinese as Confucian.

The moral economy of Asian nations

49Nationalism in many Asian countries is a form of regulation. The modern state is fundamentally concerned about managing its population so that the population is productive. Biopolitical considerations are absolutely critical in shaping our sense of moral identity. In America, if you are a welfare recipient, you are a bad subject, because as an American, you are not supposed to make claims on the state. You are not productive, you are lazy. As a good American, you should not be a welfare mother, you should try to be an entrepreneur instead. The entrepreneur is the moral subject in America.

50I talk about biopolitics in two senses. One is the Foucauldian sense of an apparatus of modern state power being fundamentally concerned about managing populations to be healthy and productive. In the recent decade, North America and Australia have suddenly come to welcome Chinese people because they are viewed as agents who accumulate capital. They have come to represent the new global entrepreneur subject, the kind of person who is productive and self-reliant and wealth-making. In some ways, ethnic Chinese capitalists, managers and high-tech professionals are seen to be the new Americans, ideal citizens who contribute to the wealth of the nation. And this kind of biopolitical association is certainly kept up by many Chinese from Hong Kong and other places. You go to a Chinese restaurant, sit there, listen to the conversation, and it is about money and real estate. It is nonstop. The telephone is buzzing, and they are talking about real estate. It is this profound association with money making. That is the goal of life, that is who they are.

51As an anthropologist, I aim to investigate specific strategies and practices of institutions and individuals, and in this case I use the Foucauldian approach. Foucault sees power not as possession but as operation, a set of techniques. It shapes your sense of who you are and how you relate to yourself and your family.

James Scott on the moral economy

52The other sense in which I think of biopolitics is related to James Scott’s idea of the moral economy. Scott works on Southeast Asia and is perhaps best known for his book The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976). “Moral economy” refers to a social system in which an unequal exchange governs social relationships, obligations, and the distribution of resources, in order to secure survival for all. The economy is an exchange of resources, but it is moralized, it is not based on capitalist principles of profit making.’

53Capitalism is a system that doesn’t justify itself in moral terms. Marx talked about free capital, free market, free labor market, contractual relationships with no moral obligation. You go to the market and sell your work, and that is the end of the relationship. You don’t care whether your worker is starving. Therefore moral economy is a model that is often applied to premodern societies. Yet it can also be applied to segments of modern societies. As Polányi argues, in a modern democracy the state has to take on the job of moralizing this problem.

54Moral issues are no longer taken up by larger institutions. Instead, they are taken up by human rights discourses which do not justify them in narrow, old-fashioned moral terms, but in the terms of common humanity. Thus the discourse of human rights, like the newer narratives of bioethics, is a late modern kind of language for shaping ethical regimes that will determine what is and what is not human behavior in a universalizing manner.

55In advanced capitalist societies like North America it is the family where the morality is. The woman is the one who sustains the moral economy. People will give things to relatives who need help. Although the validity of the model is much more limited, parts of working class populations in particular are compelled to continue the moral economy. I started with Weber’s idea of the rationalization of the economy and suppression of local cultures; but what we have now is the progressive rationalization of morality. The ethics of universal human normativity and self-management are spread through global humanitarian interventions.

56Asian peasants illustrate the idea of a moral economy. The patron, the landlord, has a special relationship with the peasants on his land, the tenants. The relationship is structured according to the moral understanding that the patron will help the peasants when they have trouble. “Landlord, you've got to take my child to the clinic; you've got to help because my husband has just died and you've got to take care of my family.” When they do not have trouble, the peasants are happy to live under conditions of exploitation and inequality.

57So there is an understanding of unequal mutuality. It is an insurance policy: the patron is the welfare net, you can fall back on him, but in the meantime he exploits you. It is a very delicate balance of power, because once the patron refuses to honor his obligations as a patron, you can overthrow him. This is the traditional Chinese idea of the “mandate of Heaven.” The imperial house carries Heaven’s mandate to rule, but only as long as it rules righteously and humanely. If the populace manages to overthrow it, that simply means that the mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn from it for its transgressions against the Way of Heaven.

The moral economy of Asian values: The Singapore example

58I argue, with James Scott, that many Asian countries moralize their biopolitical relationships with the population in terms of the relationship of the paternalistic state to the will of the people. In Southeast Asia, there is constant talk about Asian culture and Asian values, and it is very hard to understand why that happens apart from the need to legitimize the government’s domination.

59But this legitimacy has to have something behind it that nearly works. That is the understanding that the people’s will places them in an implicit social contract with the state. Although these states have elected governments and are modern forms of democracy, they need to continue to have these relationships of exchange with the population. Hence this implicit agreement between the political elite and the population that the government will deliver.

60Singapore is a good illustration. The Singapore government proudly calls it a “home-owning democracy,” and they are right, because in Singapore there is a vast middle class, and everyone has a home. According to the government, only 45 individuals are homeless. So the promise of Singapore’s government is: you will all have the possibility of owning homes and have a wonderful, clean environment; you will have jobs; you will have savings; but you've got to vote for us and be loyal. And this kind of exchange explains why Singapore people seem to put up with a so-called dictatorial, totalitarian society. Because they are getting what they want.

61Rhetorically, this moral economy with a high level of social control, suppression of dissidence, and a high concentration of power in the government’s hands is justified in terms of spiritual difference with the West. The government says that Singaporeans are spiritually different from Americans, who are individualistic and consumer-oriented and don’t care about their families.

62It is very common for politicians in Singapore to make such comparisons in their speeches. In one of his speeches, Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore leader, talks about the difference between countries with soft values and hard values*.

63The Chinese have hard values, because they are hard working and organized and good at making money. The Malays in Malaysia and Singapore and the Filipinos are people who come from societies with soft values: they just do not try hard enough, they just do not invest themselves in this kind of discipline. So the whole talk of spiritual difference is a tool of moral discipline by the state.

64In Asia, it is even more important to moralize capitalism. In the West, where people have been used to capitalist relations for so long, the need to moralize them in a broader sense is not so pressing. In America you do not owe anybody anything. If I am rich, I deserve it, if you are poor, it is your fault. But in Asia, the government still needs to moralize inequality. Don’t you need to take care of your relatives? Don’t you need to take care of poor people? So the moral economy has to be discussed in relationship to capitalism. Capitalism is breaking down the family, demoralizing the society, and moral questions come back in different ways.

Asian renaissance and capitalist development

65But there are also very explicit, very clear material dimensions to the remoralizing project. In recent years, from the eighties to the nineties, there was an economic boom in Southeast Asia producing the highest growth of the world. In the period of economic boom, the talk about Asian values reached its peak. Before that, when the countries were beginning to develop, they talked about looking East. In Malaysia, when we started to have export-driven industrialization, the government talked about looking to Japan. It was called the “Look East” policy. You look to Japan to learn about how they can bring about the kind and gentle form of capitalism in the way Japanese are supposed to treat their workers. That was the beginning of a kind of reorientation in relation to other Asian countries. And when the boom really took off, there were Singaporean and Malaysian government leaders who were best in the English language but who began to talk about Asian renaissance, a kind of resurgence of cultural values all over Asia. They began to talk about the commonality between Hinduism and Confucianism. There were institutions set up to talk about civilizations and Confucian culture in Southeast Asia.

66And then, the currency crisis in 1998 produced a crisis in terms of cultural narration as well. So the talk is no longer about Asian values, it’s more focused. So that the Prime Minister of Thailand, who is an ethnic Chinese, ran on the ticket of a party called “Thai Love Thai” (Thai Rak Thai). There is now a return of old indigenous, local Asian culture. Because the countries now are falling back on themselves, they no longer are so comfortable depending on international capital flows as the route to economic development and no longer try to globalize the national identity. They emphasize what is specific about Malaysia or Thailand. Singapore has closed down its Confucian institute.

67So you see that all these narratives are related to the very particular, shifting conditions of the state as it aims to secure economic development within the global context. These are what Foucault calls the regimes of truth: the normalizing and regulating practices that make truth claims. These claims regulate the society and are also a way to handle foreign relations. So that when former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir claimed that George Soros was the cause of all the problems in Southeast Asia because Soros was a Jew who was playing with money: Mahathir then was not simply engaging in anti-Semitic scapegoating, he was at the same time being consistent with the narrative of Asian cultural particularity.

68The moral economy approach explains the very strong adherence to certain kinds of discourses about culture by the leaders. It always puzzles me why people agree with what the government says about culture. To me, culture is a very personal thing. When I listen to what the priests or politicians tell us about our culture, it is obvious that they only address certain social segments.

Globalization and the problem for the authoritarian state

How do new global narratives of environmentalism, risks, human rights or bioethics undermine discourses of nationalism? Can they make moral regulation of citizenship multilateral or present alternative ways of being human? What is the role of nation-states in negotiating with universalizing ethics?
What is the context of reenchantment with culture in Asia? Is Asia more receptive to such reenchantment than the West? If so, why?

69With globalization, this kind of moral economy narrative is becoming less effective because of the expansion of a public sphere, of multiple views, some of which challenge the moral authority of the state. The public discourses and modern media have introduced a higher degree of modern skepticism.

70With the opening of China to foreign investment, expansion of communications, trade, information, technology, a sense of modern skepticism is arising very rapidly among the emerging middle class. The work of moralizing the nation has become much more difficult. So a radical contingency and indeterminacy is now being introduced to any concept of nationalism in Asia as well, not just in America. The authoritarianism of Asian governments is now very problematic, because power cannot once and for all be totally justified. It has to be constantly reiterated and ascertained.

Limits of the moral economy approach

71The moral economy is an ideal type. It does not explain everything. There are people in China who are genuinely upset; they feel there is a spiritual hollowness in China, there is no meaning, so they try to look for it in another way. You see this in Malaysia as well, in the form of Islamic revivalism. When the government faced a challenge in the name of Islam, it became more Islamic as a way to control that force. But sometimes you cannot control these forces because people no longer believe the government.

Duara on authenticity see p. 18

72Another point of caution is that it is very dangerous to talk about the state. There is no such thing as the state. It is an abstraction. It is only meaningful to talk about specific state actors, their strategies and the effects of their actions.

Alternative modernities

73Another question has been posed by many people since Weber: whether the modernity that emerges in Asian countries will be the same as the modernity that arose from the West. And obviously it won’t. Every country tries to selectively take parts of Western forms, and even the same form becomes reconstituted and reembedded in the home culture. You may see the same skyscrapers and subway stations, but there will be a different texture to them, different values attached to them.

74When anthropologists used the term “alternative modernity,” there was a shock, because in the social sciences for the longest time the assumption had been that there is one modernity, and that is the Western version of modernity, the system of rational practices that originated in the West and has proliferated around the world.

75One attempt to come up with the idea of alternative modernity has been Mayfair Yang’s. Yang, an anthropologist, self-consciously sets up modern China as the product of conjoining modernist discourses.

Discussion: Is there an ”alternative” Chinese modernity?
A discussion between Aihwa Ong, Frank Dokötter, Pal Nyíri and students Susan Lu Feng and Qiao Mu
Dikötter: Can we say there is the West and it has a modernity? We have to define what that modernity is. Does modernity mean the same thing to everybody in the West? Probably not. We don’t know. When I hear the terms ”Western society,” ”Western values,” ”Western modernity,” I find them very suspicious.
Ong: I think it is useful to suggest that there are different kinds of modernities. Modernity does not refer to specific symbols like McDonald’s. It is a complex, an assemblage of different kinds of understanding and articulation. It is an articulation of what is modern, a sort of discourse.
When I say ”alternative modernity,” I am talking about the way culture gives meaning to skyscrapers and subway stations. If you go to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, you see these incredible skyscrapers, which I consider totally absurd. This is a Western form of architecture that proclaims having arrived and Malaysia belatedly wants to be the country with the world’s highest skyscraper, but it strives to be aesthetically different. It comes to represent the country, to symbolize a kind of alternative modernity into which Malaysia has arrived: even though it is a developing country, it has bolted, symbolically speaking, to that level. So in that sense it is alternative; it is appropriated and represented in a different way. It is a very self-conscious and explicit articulation; obviously, this is proliferated around the world, but here it is the state project.
You can study the globalization of Western symbols of modernity and their local appropriation, as James Watson (1998) has done with McDonald’s in Golden Arches East. I went to Shanghai to interview the IBM chief. He says, ”In fifty years I don’t want Chinese to think IBM is American. I want them to think IBM is Chinese.” You can also look at alternative modernities from the angle of different forms of capitalism. But my focus here is on the state project of modernity, the state as the actor. So I brought alternative modernity in the context of the discussion of Asian nationalism because I want to show you that it is a state project and culturally absolutely central to this articulation of alternative modernity.
Nyíri: In the case of Russia I find that the way Russia sees modernity is actually very untrivial. Russia could see modernity in the same way as China does, as something distinct, but I don’t think this is the case. (Obviously, different people in Russia and China see modernity in different ways, but I am talking about dominant discourses now.)
When the Chinese talk about ”modern”-and they talk about fazhan, development, and xiandai, modern all the time-what they mean is wide streets and tall buildings. Some types of behavior are modern. And by comparison, in the West there is less that is modern. I think surely that is where they see spaces differently, because if you arrive in a city in Europe, you will not perceive 19th century architecture as a lack of modernity, as backward.
Ong: Students from China take on some kinds of economistic measures that to me are extremely Western and capitalistic and yet they claim to see the world from a Chinese perspective. That is why I started out talking about the moral economy, where traditionally economic exchange relationships were moralized and understood as having intrinsic moral limits and moral meaning. In transition from that to contemporary societies where the economy is paramount, Asians are more eager to be capitalistic than Westerners. They are desperate to catch up. So the Chinese have a simple idea of what is modern: skyscrapers and subways. And that kind of definition has a real effect because people understand this is what modernity is all about. But I want to stress that I am talking about state projects, not about everyday experience or the everyday perspective of what is modern.
Susan Lu Feng: I classify modernity into two levels: macro- and micromodernity. From the level of macromodernity I agree with the opinion that there is Western modernity and alternative modernity. McDonald’s is Western, and in China there is a local McDonald’s, so it will be influenced by Western society. But from the perspective of micromodernity, the flavor of the chicken has already been changed. A Chinese will know that McDonald’s is very good for us, skyline is very good for us, political system is good for us, but China will not accept Japanese or Western models. China will use some factors that are suitable for Chinese. If it is not suitable for China, it will get rid of that kind of factors. Later, a new, Chinese modernity will be formed.
Nyíri: When you say there will be a Chinese modernity, do you mean that it is something that people will perceive as such, or do you mean that Chinese modernity really has different characteristics measured by different standards?
Ong: It is not an issue of macro-micro, it is an issue of strategies and practice. McDonald’s has a corporate strategy that includes having noodles. But you want to understand the everyday practice of Chinese consumers who want McDonald’s in complex ways that are very Chinese. So you are interested in everyday practices of having a modern Chinese subjectivity that includes consuming McDonald’s in China in a particular fashion. That’s why when I talk about methods, I say you have to focus on practice because it is the practice that produces culture.
So modern Chinese popular culture now includes McDonald’s, too, which is part of Chinese cuisine now, although it has been transformed.
Nyíri: I think what you are saying is no matter how global McDonald’s or modernity is, still the way people practice it will be local. I think nobody would argue with that. But there is a somewhat different question: do you measure modernity in universal ways? If some people come up and say, ”Well, the chicken actually tastes different, therefore our Chinese modernity is different,” I think in some way this is not true, because people in China will not say ”this taste of the chicken, this is modern.”
There was a book by Michael Adas (1989), Machines as the Measure of Men. It was part of the debate about whether so-called non-Western civilizations have alternatives to the so-called Western modernities in terms of the standards of modernity. Adas was one of the early people who pointed to a Western imperialistic project of imposing the West’s own technologically oriented measures of modernity on other countries. But there are alternative systems of knowledge that have other measures. Adas does not say what those are. My problem with that book is that if you look at what the Asian governments call modernity, you will discover that it is exactly the same as the British government did during the time of Rudyard Kipling—it is again the machines.
I am a Western colonialist, I come to a city: ”What are these wooden shacks and water buffalos-this is backward. No, we have to build roads and have cars. That is modern.” If a Chinese official goes into a village, what will he say?
Qiao Mu: Maybe we have to go back to the late Qing Dynasty. Something like ”Chinese learning as base, Western learning for use.”
Nyíri: But the question is where is the base. What are the Four Modernizations that are the mantra of Chinese reform? The modernization of agriculture, the modernization of industry, the national defense...
Ong: The difference is between the analytical use of the term alternative modernity-which is the way I have been trying to use it—and the native perception. When we talk about modernity, we talk about the way the state claims to be in the condition of being modern. Modernization is the actual process, the material process in modernizing agriculture, industry, what have you.
The Chinese government has said that they haven’t modernized yet sufficiently in the political realm, but they are going to. There is explicit articulation by the Chinese everywhere of how they are modern and how they are different. The difference is that they are not interested in the kind of freewheeling American notion of political rights because they want to have some stability and control in their society.
Nyíri: Let’s go back for a second to the Four Modernizations. I.e., now these four things are not modern, so we want to make them modern. But you can’t say this is ”Chinese,” because it doesn’t say what it is to be modern. Lenin said, ”Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.” If Zhou Enlai had said something like, modern agriculture equals the electrification of all water buffalos-yes, this is Chinese; but if modern agriculture simply means that you have big fields with modern machinery, chemical fertilizers and you make a lot of money with it—then this is not ”Chinese.”
Ong: That’s why I say this is a state project. In China, the articulations of the leaders are also very important in defining what is at stake for China as a nation.
Lu: Chinese modernization or modernity can be divided into three stages. The lowest stage is material modernization, the second stage is spiritual modernization, the third stage is individual modernization. What they said was to gain the first level, to realize material modernization, there were four perspectives: culture, industry, national defense, and technology. Why they did not say we need a political modernization is because they think if they did it, it would be just like the Western-style democracy and legal system.
Ong: What you said was very interesting in how the Chinese state uses a narrative based on socialist Marxism to construct a linear form of different stages of growth. It is an orthodox, Western Marxist notion.
The point is that it is not macro-micro. It is state articulation of policy versus individual practice, consumption, popular culture. But if you want to talk about popular culture—I think what you are trying to say is that there is this emergence in urban China of a modern sensibility that includes drinking bottled water. I was surprised when I was in China that even beggars had bottled water, bottled water everywhere in China was shocking to me. So in urban China there is an emergence of modern kinds of practices, modern sensibilities very much linked to media and consumption. That’s fine, but I wonder whether there is a kind of modernity.
What you say is also at the same time abstract. How do you understand it if you are a member of China, this great country? On an everyday level it is very abstract. What is Chinese modernization—I do not know. Most people do not know what is. So that is an unavoidable abstraction, a ghost-like image: the nation is ghostly. It is not very real. It is mainly an imagined entity. And maybe that’s why a lot of people want anthropologists to focus on everyday practice: because it seems real and concrete. We are demonstrating to you how we are modern. We are modern because we drink bottled water. But there is another set of questions.
Nyíri: I rather agree with you—the question is not so much what the elite’s concept of modernity is, whether it is the same in the West and in China or not. But I think it would be very difficult to engage your run-of-the-mill capitalist, Western or Chinese, in talking about modernity. I don’t think that the elite notions of modernity are different, but the promotion of the state cultural discourse that includes modernity—that is different.
Ong: The priority for the Chinese government is the collective and the material as opposed to the individual and the political. I want to go back to this East-West discourse. When I use ”West,” I always mean it as a shorthand because it is too complicated. But I want to also point out the relational: whenever someone says, ”I am beautiful,” ”I am modern” or ”I am intelligent” there is a reference point. So whenever developing countries say they are modern, they have an implicit measure of that in their minds. They try to sort of differentiate themselves, ”we are not like them, we are different.” So in that sense I use the term ”Western” as a shorthand.
But at the same time I do insist—that is where you disagree with me—there are certain forms that really first came from the West and haven’t taken root, and people do recognize them as being Western. And that’s why they create profound anxiety, because there is the realization that where you take up these Western forms you are being deracinated at some level.
Nyíri: ”West” as a discursive category for Asia—we all agree on that. People in China, when they speak about the West meaning something Anglo-Saxon, it is quite clear that they do not think about France, Germany; in fact, they exclude them. The point that matters is that they call it the West; they do not call it America. Then is the debate about whether Western modernization, a Western modernity, is a legitimate analytical category for us as researchers or not?
Ong: I am talking about particular forms of organization, of modernization, of distribution of values. I am not talking about ”Western” in that huge rhetorical sense. That’s why I emphasize throughout that we should study specific strategies, practices, organizations, that is the best we can do. That’s why I was talking about denaturalizing terms like economy, politics, and culture.
Nyíri: There is a difference in opinions here. But in part it is also a difference in emphasis between disciplines, anthropology versus history. I just wouldn’t think of the concept ”West” in terms of either territory or people. I would think ”West” is a package of images. In South Africa some people at some times will practice ”Western things.” I don’t think that this idea, ”Western,” is entirely useless, but on the other hand what Frank Dokötter implies—that there is no single thing called ”Western modernity”—is also valid. In general to say ”this is Western” about an object or about a theory in principle doesn’t make sense. Only in the context of how people use them.

Modern China is the product of the conjoining of modernist discourses originating in the West and native institutions, historical conditions and native reaction-formations ... diagnosis of power in China is a critique neither simply of the West nor of China’s tradition, but of their offspring: China’s modernity (Yang 1994).

76Yang reflects critically on the way Western modernity is being appropriated in China, but perhaps does not dwell enough on the way Chinese culture itself becomes instrumentalized. She says there is a modern part of China, which is the socialist bureaucratic redistributive system. China’s modernity is a socialist modernity—the Chinese government will tell you about it. But the socialist redistribution system hasn’t been very successful: a lot of people have been left out from medical care, pensions, and so on. Yang argues that the failure of the Chinese redistributive system engendered the proliferation of guanxi that was expressed in a specific strategy. People began to use personal connections to all kinds of things they could not get through the government system.

77Yang has a dualistic articulation here. The modern part is a publicly articulated collectivist ethic, which is socialist, versus the very private ethics of guanxi. That is a very clever way to think about it, but in my view the problem is that Yang treats culture versus modernity as a binary opposition. For Yang, guanxi is the bankrupt Chinese culture that has been preserved despite socialism, whereas socialism is the modern part that is not Chinese. I think it is wrong, because everything is culture. Soviet-style organization is Chinese culture too, from the moment it has been appropriated in China.

Under which circumstances will alternative modernities arise? Are they always a reaction to the universalizing West?

78Chinese nationalism was not extremely cultural in its earlier stages. Modernity was a state project, not only in the sense of setting up a socialist state in a late developing country but also in the sense of the deliberate inculcation of “socialist culture” by the Communist Party and the repression of Chinese “feudalism.” But the new post-Mao version of development, the “reform and opening up” to the rest of the world, has brought about a different relationship to Chinese “feudal” culture. There has been a revitalization of Confucianism, which seems to be the kind of cultural articulation that goes best with capitalism. To say that what the state does is not cultural is wrong.

Flexible accumulation and flexible citizenship

Flexible accumulation

79Accumulation is a term used by Pierre Bourdieu. He talks about accumulating social capital, educational capital, cultural capital as well as financial capital. The idea of flexible accumulation comes from David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Post-modernity. He argues that the contemporary organization of capitalism is horizontal rather than vertical. The dispersal of major industrial production systems over the world has created new forms of accumulation.

80In the early 1970s, major corporations began to install themselves all over the world. Economic growth spread to multiple centers with an emphasis on horizontal connections and on flexibility in the forms of capitalist organization in order to maximize profit. If you are an American toaster company, it does not make sense to make toasters-you send them to China to be assembled. You choose the location where conditions are best for making profit.

81The flexibility of relocations, of spreading production, of horizontalizing economic processes was enabled by technological, electronic revolutions. Through the use of faxes and e-mail and modern forms of travel, it became easier and easier to have this kind of flexibility, with the effect that Harvey calls time-space compression.

The cultural logic of flexible accumulation

82In the introduction to Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism (Ong and Nonini 1997), Donald Nonini and I discuss the vast literature on overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia.

83Much of our current understanding of overseas Chinese comes from the experiences of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. It is very important to understand that connection, because, we argue in this book, the tropes of Chinese as risk-taking, entrepreneur middlemen, pioneers, came from the study of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia. They did not come from the study of the Chinese in mainland China. We argue that the reason for that is that contemporary forms of Chinese market behavior, of flexible ethnic Chinese networks, emerged in the context of Southeast Asia.

84Before Chinese traders and laborers were drawn to the colonies by European powers, the Chinese were already there. The notion “tribute system” was used to describe a very complex trade network in Southeast Asia, nominally formalized into relationships with the Chinese emperor.

Duara on the tribute system
Until the late 19th century, the tribute system was the model of relationships between different state formations in the region of the empire that we call China and immediately around it.
In the Chinese and in other imperial states, the edges, the boundaries of the empire, the frontier regions, had many different types of relationship to the center. There were ”multiple lords,” multiple and overlapping sovereignties (Hevia 1995). In certain circumstances, certain aspects of sovereignty may have been with the lord of the local state, but the Qing emperor claimed some kind of overlordship.
The tribute system was very significant in the regulation of global and regional trade flows. And by the 18th century, before the Europeans arrived, it was, in many significant ways, global. From the Song on, you had Arab traders, Indians, Southeast Asians, Japanese, whose scope was much more than regional trade.
The tribute system was both a political order and an effort to regulate trade flows. By the 16th–17th centuries, the Tokugawa shoguns in Japan began to shut down trade and limit it to one or two ports. By the 17th century, the Qing do the same. And this is a very interesting question: how and why they wanted trade to be regulated, why they wanted to close it off. It was both to preserve their conception of their political order and because they could not handle the enormous pressure of trade. They did not call it globalization, but they felt the effects. They had political systems that were not so dependent as we are today, in the early 21st century, upon global trade. They could try and close themselves off. Of course, historians argue that this closing off created problems for them ultimately, but they lasted three hundred years. How long could any of our countries last? Maybe twenty years.
The tribute system, thus, was a way of regulating global flows. China was the imperial power in most of the world at that point, and the missions it sent to collect tribute were not unlike today when the American presidential jet goes to some country with a whole bunch of businessmen accompanying him to create contracts. The tribute system governed trade relations and distributed trade privileges: who had the right to trade and what. And the Portuguese and Dutch got access to Chinese trade only because they were seen as having helped in the southern conquest of the Qing.

85Elites in China valorize the tribute system, exaggerate its significance. China was just one factor in a plural domain of distant islands. Once in a while it became more significant. For example, a Chinese princess went to Malacca and married the local sultan. But usually, China was so far away, it was irrelevant.

86On the other hand, migrants from southern Chinese provinces who had been expelled or simply left had been trading in Southeast Asia for a very long time. Southeast Asian kingdoms, such as Bali, depended on overseas Chinese, Arabs, and Indians for shipping and trade. They didn’t allow their own subjects to engage in these commercial activities because that would lay the basis of an alternative power.

87When the Europeans came, they made use of these Chinese merchant networks and of indentured labor from China to undertake a transformation of the frontier regions of colonization. Millions of Chinese went to Southeast Asia, Hawaii, South Africa and California to cut down jungles, build railroads and cities.

A middleman minority

88In the introduction to Ungrounded Empires, we discuss how the Chinese were both desired and hated by the colonial powers. They were desired because they provided cheap labor and capital for the development of colonies; but they were hated as morally and racially inferior competitors. The Chinese were necessary because they were the small middlemen, the retailers who provided all the commodities: coffee, cocoa, rubber, tin, chocolate, hardware, sugar, pepper, and so on. The Chinese collected them and sold them to European firms in Singapore, which then exported them to Europe. We argue that the colonial capitalist context of Southeast Asia gave rise to a particular Chinese style, to certain practices of being Chinese, to what Bourdieu calls a habitus: a set of principles internalized in the way of thinking, operating, and talking. After all, they were excluded from other kinds of activities: they were only allowed to do commerce but forbidden from owning land.

89In many ways they were like the Jews in Europe who, from medieval times, had been confined to certain occupations, and as a result began to cultivate certain skills and practices. They were forced to be risk-taking. They were operating in circumstances where they were utterly unprotected, exploited, and hated. They were adventurers of the highest order, so they developed long-distance networks with China that absorbed the risk. They developed savings societies, associations through which they sent money back to China and brought new laborers in from there. If you go anywhere in Southeast Asia, you will see the Chinese grocer, the Chinese hardware store. Deep in a jungle you will get a plastic bucket and a soap and a candle from this Chinese guy. The shopkeepers also provided financial services: they lent money to the natives to grow crops.

90We argue that a lot of these practices were developed in Southeast Asia in the context of frontier capitalism. While also being exploited, the Chinese were money-lenders, blood-sucking exploiters from the native point of view, because they took high interest for their loans.

91That is the context, the cultural logic, then, of flexible accumulation. That is the historical context that led to the epitomization of Chinese as transnational entrepreneurial figures who can operate in different cultural and linguistic domains, extremely versatile, flexible, and capable of handling all types of obstacles.

92Today, then, the Asians are the entrepreneurial subjects that the white people used to be. It is the convergence of these different conditions and the importance of China’s relations with America that has made the Asian the new Westerner, the new frontier figure.

93How to define an entrepreneur? An entrepreneur is not just a risk-taker: he must also translate across different regimes of value. In the conditions of flexible accumulation, it is the capacity to make linkages and to shift from one to another that makes an entrepreneur. You must be able to get some poor village in China to make Levi’s jeans at low wages using oppressive, exploitative methods and then translate the process of accumulation from the cultural realm of Chinese village capitalism into that of “high-end” stores like Bloomingdale’s in New York City. A lot of Western capitalists cannot do that.

94The Asia-Pacific is a critical part of the American frontier today; it will remain the source of American economic dynamism for some time. If you want to have economic power, you need entrepreneurs capable of translating across multiple regimes of value.

Flexible citizenship

95It is wrong to think about citizenship merely in terms of possession of legal status. It is very partial to think about citizenship in terms of rights. The notion of citizen in the original meaning referred to a male person with property, a bourgeois. If you did not have property, you couldn’t be a real citizen; women did not have citizenship until much later. Marx on the Jewish question talks about the illusory nature of citizenship for many Europeans—workers or Jews-in the 19th century. The notion of enjoying equality was not borne out by their lives.

96Citizenship can be defined in many different ways, but perhaps more than anything else, it is a form of economic entitlement. Economic policy can have direct implications for citizenship. In places like Hong Kong and Singapore you have a very extreme

97form of the capitalization of citizenship. These globalizing Asian cities have devised biopolitical strategies to attract global talents: mainly from Asia, but also Asians who have migrated to the United States. On the other hand, the high-tech hubs in Silicon Valley are increasingly dependent on Asian professionals and managers and on the trans-Pacific production chains of high-tech goods. The point is that the national space is no longer organized only according to citizenship, and that citizens and foreigners are producing new spaces, nodes, and networks of production, or to use a term coined by Deleuze and Guattari (1998), assemblages that consist of capitalists, corporations, workers, technologies, and so on.

Which of the concepts in this chapter appear relevant to your work? Or interesting? Or crazy?

  • imagined communities?
  • moral economy?
  • flexible citizenship?
  • alternative modernities?
  • (alternative) globalization(s)?
  • specific technologies for producing an idea of the nation?

98What I call flexible citizenship is the set of transnational practices of mobile entrepreneurs who use a flexible strategy in relation to places of work and residence. Mobile Chinese managers on the Pacific Rim—Malaysian, Hong Kong, PRC, or Taiwanese- accumulate citizenships in the family to maximize capital accumulation, deflect control of laws, evade the disciplining regimes of family and workplace, and create flexible capitalist networks capable of converting values across spheres of worth.


99I find it useful to study the complex of forces we call nationalisms from a diversity of angles:

  • as imagined communities dependent on print media,
  • as national identities linked to infrastructures, state apparatuses, etc., that constitute a specific people and territory,
  • as nationalist discourses about ethno-racial distinctions and hierarchies.

100Nationalist discourses emerge from a variety of sources. It is useful to think about nationalism not as a unified set of narratives, but as a temporary set of contestory claims.

101When we talk about state nationalism, we need to consider its role in legitimating the state and in the moral regulation of the citizenry. As late-developing modern nation-states, Asian states tend to play major roles in defining “national culture.” The Asian state—South Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporean and Malaysian, for instance—is quite embroiled with what can be described as regulations of moral citizenship, beyond its juridico-legal regulations. But the moral authority of the state in the cultural integration of the nation into a single whole is increasingly hard to sustain in the face of globalized mass media, the rise of individualistic orientations, intensifying rates of travel and contact with other societies and ideas. Multilateral agencies are now trying to redefine political subjectivity beyond the cultural.

102The Chinese government has many times articulated what it means to be Chinese, and it has been more successful than other states in this role because of the unity of Chinese people behind what they see as China’s thrust to global status.

103But an emerging challenge to ideas of national destiny and cultural difference comes from multilateral agencies, global companies, and nongovernmental organizations. There are a number of implications here. First, multilateral agencies such as the World Trade Organization, and global companies make inroads into major national institutions such as the central banking system. Such integration into global regulatory and economic networks shows the limits of sovereignty, requiring governments to be more flexible in mediating or forging these relationships to global agencies and corporations. Elsewhere, I have used the term “graduated sovereignty” to denote how differentiated connections have regulatory effects on specific zones of development within the national territory. Second, NGOs and other social movements seek to moralize citizenship not in terms of specific cultures or nations but rather in terms of our common humanity. This reconceptualization of human worth apart from loyalty to a particular state subverts the concepts of nationalism and citizenship.


* This article is a revised version of Joana Breidenbach and Ina Zukrigl (1999), “The dynamics of cultural globalization,” in Cultural Collaboratory,

* See e.g.

* See Lee Kuan Yew, “Culture as Destiny” at"


Aihwa Ong is Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
She has carried out extensive research on nation-building, industrialization, gender, migration, and transnationalism in Southeast Asia, coastal China, and California. She has written and edited numerous books and articles on the capitalist transition, gender politics, transnationalism, and citizenship, including Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logic of Transnationality (Duke, 1999) and Buddha in Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, and the New America (California, forthcoming). Her current projects focus on global anthropology, global cities, governmental technologies, and citizenship in globalizing Asian cities.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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