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Angloscene: A Conversation with Jay Ke-Schutte

Why do African students who attend Chinese universities have to teach English as a means of survival, while Chinese students are frantically acquiring the English skills that enable them to pursue studies in the United States and Britain? Why does the Third-World solidarity that Africans hope to find and seek to foster when moving to China never fully materialise? These and other questions prompted Jay Ke-Schutte to explore the relationship between race, language, and mobility in encounters between African and Chinese students in Beijing. Angloscene: Compromised Personhood in Afro-Chinese Translations (University of California Press, 2023) mounts a powerful challenge to liberal discourses of race and language inspired by cultural relativism. The author reveals how Afro-Chinese interactions and the personhoods fashioned in them are mediated, and ultimately compromised, by the stratifying logics of English and whiteness.

Miriam Driessen: Could you please explain the title of the book? What does ‘Angloscene’ mean? And how does it affect the lives of African and Chinese students and the interactions between them?

Jay Ke-Schutte: Fundamentally, Angloscene is the description of a particular ideological experience within which one encounters a precarious relationship between the English language in its non-Western use and the possibilities it affords in non-Western encounters. The use of English as one of the mediators between Chinese and African subjects entails a particularly racialised subjectivity and presumed set of personae. Where English might be conceptualised as a neutral register in the Anglosphere, its limited and limiting horizons for personhood are acutely revealed in non-Western encounters. Afro-Chinese interactions have an aspirational relationship to English, while subjects frequently find themselves stratified by the racialised world it imbricates. In understanding what the impacts of this are for many non-Western subjects, it is useful to imagine the subject position of ‘unmarkedness’ in the English language, and then to ask how easy or difficult it might be for someone’s performance of that subject position to be accepted in an interaction.

In this way, the Angloscene creates possibilities for subjects recruiting it into their interaction. Yet, these possibilities are significantly constrained for subjects who are racially marginal in an interaction. This is the contradiction of the Angloscene. In reaching for its horizon of unmarkedness, the aspirational subject may find themselves stratified through the very act of aspiration. The experiences of African students in China and their Chinese counterparts contradicted the familiar trope that English is just a language and whiteness just a race.

MD: Why did you choose language as a lens through which to study the construction of personhood in Afro-Chinese encounters? And what can an analysis of Afro-Chinese encounters reveal about language and postcolonial translation?

JK: Beyond my training as a linguistic anthropologist, there is also my own South–South and South African multilingual sensibility in which language is a fundamental vector through which any question of identity and inequity should be considered. If social stratification is in fact a serious social scientific inquiry, it would follow that we know something about the construction of personhood on to which identity is being projected. One of the most germane sites through which the construction of personhood emerges is that of language and the linguistic production of social stereotypes. In laying this out, Angloscene is proposing nothing short of taking language as seriously as other vectors of intersectionality especially when we start looking at the production and stratification of identity in non-Western encounters.

The more important question here is perhaps: what are the semiotic and epistemological ideologies within the Angloscene that produce the intuition that language can be studied separately and as arbitrarily remote from social and political encounters? From this perspective, I hope Angloscene can help make the case for why matters of language and translation have always been at stake for postcolonial and decolonial thinkers, even while this investment has often been overlooked and dismissed in the Western academy.

MD: Alongside other postcolonial thinkers, Steve Biko appears in different parts of the book. How has Biko’s thought influenced your scholarship? And what are his (unrecognised) contributions to postcolonial scholarship?

JK: I am overjoyed that you picked up on this. Biko’s scholarship and life have indeed had a profound influence on both my thinking and my writing. He was a thinker who synthesised the Fanonian and Du Boisian racial-political perspectives into a project of political pragmatism that was reflexive about the use of discourse as a means of both domination and liberation. The explicit political legacy of Biko’s ideas remains apparent in the contemporary salience of Black Consciousness Movement thought in South Africa.

One of Biko’s central observations was that Anglo-colonial liberalism constituted a key hegemonic underpinning of the Apartheid state’s deployment and maintenance of racial capital. Standing against Apartheid’s historical exceptionalism, Biko showed that liberal relativism’s condition of possibility—and the unmarked subjecthood at the core of its humanistic proposition—is only tenable through racial stratifications. Liberal ideologies themselves benefit from these stratifications even if they constitute a privileged position from which to launch systemic criticisms. This situation constituted an ethically infallible and impeccable personhood—the unmarked liberal subject—who could stand apart from criticisms of whiteness even while benefiting from its economic and material infrastructure.

This aspect of his observation in no small way prompted the simultaneously dialectical and pragmatic inquiry in the book. It was through language and its intersectional relationship with racial capital and mobility that I found ways in which many of Biko’s arguments could be explicated in ethnographic interactions between non-Western subjects. They make use of the racial and linguistic capital of the Angloscene in such a way that the co-presence of white bodies is not even necessary. In this way, the Angloscene is very much invested in making apparent the more nuanced semiotic dimensions of Biko’s thinking and intellectual legacy—a significantly undervalued, often misquoted, and very much misunderstood dimension of his thought.

MD: You explore the possibility of translation that circumvents, or at least attempts to circumvent, mediation of the Angloscene. One example you give is that of Ubuntu and guanxi. How does the translation of these cultural concepts illustrate the possibilities and limitations of non-Western translation?

JK: Your question here very much emerges out of the more hopeful chapter in the book, on the pragmatics of translation. In this exploration of the analytics of translation—which emerges in a few different ways throughout the book—I target the translational nihilism that has haunted contemporary anthropology since the edited collection Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and its disciplinary aftermath. The collection problematised anthropology’s often Eurocentric monopoly on the description of human and cultural difference but unfortunately placed the blame at the foot of all interpretative, comparative, and descriptive practices in the discipline as well as its humanistic co-texts. This prompted an ironically Anglocentric and monocultural suspicion of ‘structure’ and ‘representation’ that enabled a bracketing of both language and its discursive metaphor, translation, as the means through which ethnographic interactions and epistemologies of difference are accessed. In Angloscene, I try to suggest that translationally nihilistic and post-mediational arguments about cultural and epistemic untranslatability are not helpful for interacting subjects that manage the calibration of alterity and linguistic differences as a matter of survival and daily praxis. Such subjects have a great deal to say about the process, despite anthropologists’ analytical misgivings about the possibility of posthuman ‘emergence’ of translation.

The chapter at issue demonstrates a situation in which two interactants—one Zimbabwean and one Chinese—negotiate, disagree about, and in various ways recruit cultural concepts of Ubuntu and guanxi as pragmatic discourse objects at stake in the translational labour that their interactions enable. Thus, the chapter tries to move us from a semantic obsession with defining what translation is, to a pragmatic attentiveness to what translation does or can do for those to whom it is an indispensable communicative reality.

MD: Your reflections on your positionality as a South African student pursuing a doctoral degree at an American university insightfully lead your analysis of engagements with different interlocutors—African, Chinese, and white Western. In the acknowledgements section you thank your partner and mediator, Xiao Schutte-Ke. How did your partner mediate your positionality and influence your research?

JK: Our partners, particularly when they are anthropologists themselves, must inform our positionalities. As I am answering the questions for this interview, I am in Xiao’s field site on the Tibetan Plateau—a good 3,000 metres above sea level. Xiao and I reached an agreement early in our relationship after looking at several Sino-Western ethnographic research relationships that were highly extractive. Xiao was not going to act as informant in our or my research. That said, Xiao is a Chinese queer subject and her own work on marginally situated subjects in ‘Other Chinas’ has profoundly influenced my understanding of the diversity of identity and intersectionality. These are frequently elided in mainstream Sinology—a field within which, as a non–Euro-American as well as a non-Asian subject, I am still trying to find an intelligible scholarly positionality.

In turn, my work and geopolitical situatedness foreground Africa and the Global South as an alternative extra-national ground beyond the liberal West when thinking about Sino-Tibetan encounters as the interactional context for Xiao’s work. Together, our experiences as foreign students navigating US graduate school—thinking about and discussing the stakes of our regionally ‘remote’ work in the context of American culture wars that frequently ignore non-American framings of difference—were intellectually revealing. Having been in China, South Africa, and the United States together, we have frequently been surprised, and often disappointed, by the ways in which our difference—as a mixed-race, Chinese–South African anthropological couple—was assimilated, stratified, or negated.

Professionally, we are frequently struck by the ways in which our different bodies have drastically contrasting uptakes depending on whether we encounter colleagues independently or as a couple. Crossing foreign borders, the precarity of our mobilities as subjects travelling together on the passports of our home countries has produced several administrative conundrums. Crossing into our own countries, we frequently note the peculiar distribution of privileges and liabilities between foreign and local subjects. Our togetherness in situations in which we are often seen as an irreconcilable exception has fundamentally affected how we think about difference, subjectivity, identity, and equity in transnational intersectional terms.

MD: The power of this book lies in the fact that it speaks to diverse audiences. Who do you hope will read your book and what do you hope they will take away from it?

JK: The diversity of the intended audience is the starting point for the answer. Obviously, I hope everyone will read the book. However, I think differently situated subjects will take divergent messages from it. Given the broad disciplinary ground Angloscene covers, this is to be encouraged. One of the things I resisted when writing the book was speaking narrowly to a curated Western anthropological audience. The text, I hope, reflects that I am trying to imagine a context of reception that transcends the unmarked subjectivity of the ChatGPT-replicable expectations of mainstream Anglo-American academic writing.

Angloscene was written with students and academics from the African and Asian South in mind. Even so, it attempts to speak to the Euro-American academic Anglosphere as a discursive engine that maintains the problematic stratifications depicted throughout the book, while engendering possibilities for the sharing of ideas. This is one reason I was very grateful when University of California Press was willing to make the book open access with a relatively modest subvention fee enabling my students in China and academic readers in intellectual spaces with limited financial resources to access the book as long as they can get onto the press’s webpage.

Enclaves of Exception: A Conversation with Omolade Adunbi

What are the social costs of extraction? And how does extraction reconfigure traditional power structures and cultural practices? In Enclaves of Exception: Special Economic Zones and Extractive Practices in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2022), Omolade Adunbi compares the extraction of economic value through free-trade zones (FTZs) with the extraction of oil by artisanal refineries to offer insight into the drastic—and at times dire—consequences of Nigeria’s insertion in the global economy. Taking the reader from two Chinese-run FTZs—Ogun-Guangdong FTZ and Lekki FTZ—to the communities which live nearby and into the forests and creeks of the Niger Delta, the book reveals how the production of value coincides with dispossession and the subsequent recapture of value.

Local communities contest extractive processes by laying claim to ancestral lands and asserting ownership over the resources with which their ancestors endowed them. Omolade Adunbi traces the historical lineages of extractive practices and technologies to reveal striking continuities throughout Nigeria’s history, from the British colonial period to the present. Today, local youths and former insurgents in the Niger Delta respond to state-led extractive methods by what Adunbi calls ‘crude recapture’. They tap oil from pipelines operated by the state and its corporate allies and use innovative techniques to refine it for sale. The artisanal refineries curiously mimic state practices in their operations and governance in ways that are like the FTZs.

Enclaves of Exception is also a chilling account of the failed promise of oil and other forms of extraction in Nigeria. Rather than serving as the lifeblood of the state and the communities from which it is extracted, oil has become a destructive force that severely harms the communities from which it is taken, resulting in environmental destruction and what the author calls ‘social death’. Engaging and at times harrowing, the book bears witness to the cost and consequences of extraction in global Nigeria.

Miriam Driessen: What are enclaves of exception? And what drew your interest to them?

Omolade Adunbi: Enclaves of exception, as I describe in the book, are spaces specially designated for the sole purpose of extracting economic value. The artisanal refineries—and in the book, I use the word ‘artisanal’ advisedly—that can be found in the creeks of the Niger Delta, as well as the Chinese-consortium–operated FTZs in Lagos and Ogun states of Nigeria, represent an iteration of such enclaves where objects of economic value are extracted daily. These objects of economic value include oil, land, and water, as well as the labour of those who operate in there.

Billboard with an advertisement for the Lekki Free-Trade Zone. Source: Omolade Adunbi.

MD: You discuss FTZs and artisanal refineries as two instances of enclaves of exception. Why did you decide to make such a comparison? And what does it reveal?

OA: When I completed the research for my book Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2015), my intention was to focus squarely on my new project on China, infrastructure, and oil extraction. At that time, I was particularly interested in how China and its entrepreneurs were looking into making huge investments in Nigeria’s oil industry in addition to partnering with the Nigerian State in building critical physical infrastructure. By then, I had designed a new class that focused on China’s engagement with Africa and, of course, I realised that the literature on China in Africa was booming. There were a lot of discussions about the Angolan mode—also known as ‘Resources for Infrastructure’—and I wanted to know whether something like that was at play in Nigeria.

While doing the research, I took a detour to the oil-rich Niger Delta to visit people I had interviewed for my 2015 book. There and then, I noticed a boom in artisanal refineries in many of the creeks of the region. On reflection, I saw a lot of similarities between the FTZs and the ways in which these refineries are choreographed. At this point, I realised how both practices, the FTZs and the artisanal refineries, were taking advantage of the neoliberal economic moment in which Nigeria found itself—a point overlooked in the existing literature that I deemed worth making.

MD: Many of Nigeria’s FTZs were spearheaded by the Chinese, who have subsequently been heavily involved in their regulation. How does the intervention of Chinese actors and regulatory practices manifest in the everyday governance of an FTZ? And have these dynamics been challenged? If so, by whom?

OA: The idea of the FTZ itself is not completely new to Nigeria or indeed to many countries in the Global South. As you may recall, the establishment of specialised zones was one of the major prescriptions of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to countries facing serious economic challenges. In the first iteration, Nigeria embraced the practice during the military era of the 1980s and 1990s by setting up Export Processing Zones (EPZs). As I describe in the book, these EPZs mainly focused on exporting oil to the international market.

The whole idea of EPZs then—and of course FTZs now—is to create a specialised zone where investors have access to cheap labour, tax holidays, and free land, and can create their own regulatory system. The rationale behind this is that the states that set up these zones can attract foreign direct investment and create employment opportunities for their citizens. In its new iteration, the concept of FTZs is now propagated by China through its state-owned enterprises. What has been added now is the notion that the establishment of FTZs can also help build the infrastructure that the state needs. As I argue in the book, however, local needs are not necessarily met. The zones have paved the way for loss of livelihoods and dispossession of the communities that host these FTZs. This is the reason many of the communities have been pushing back against the establishment of these enclaves, and the state has been using its might to suppress dissent.

Artisanal refinery in the Niger Delta. Source: Omolade Adunbi.
Billboard of one of the companies in the Ogun-Guangdong Free-Trade Zone. Source: Omolade Adunbi

MD: You parse the historical lineages of extractive practices and technologies. In what ways do Chinese practices resemble older forms of extraction? And how do they build on them?

OA: Extraction of economic value in Nigeria by foreign powers and entities dates back several centuries. As I have described in my work, slavery was one such form of extraction and exploitation of the human resources of Africa. This form of exploitation and extraction also came with colonialism, and what we have seen is that while slavery ended a long time ago, a new form of extraction has come to replace it, beginning with colonialism and continuing in the postcolonial state. In a way, the story remains the same in the postcolonial state. This historical continuity is true not only for Nigeria but also for many other African countries. The discovery of oil in Nigeria reshaped the form of extraction and exploitation of resources and people in such a way that the country witnessed an astronomical rise in foreign interest that did not significantly translate to economic prosperity for the nation and its people. Oil brought in new extractive technologies that basically transferred the wealth of the people into the hands of a few, mostly foreigners and their local cronies. This is what I refer to as a process of ‘capture’ and ‘recapture’ based on the notion that three competing actors—the state, corporations, and the youth groups that operate artisanal refineries—are in competition for the resources of the country. Thus, oil resources captured by the state and its corporate allies are being recaptured by the youths who consider the resource the private property of the people of the Niger Delta.

Chinese actors are engaged in this process of capture and recapture, which is not just about oil but also about other forms of economic value and leads to the dispossession and disenfranchisement of those who own the resources. The FTZ is a form of economic capture that creates enclaves that transfer the wealth of the people into a few hands. Here we see a situation where land is taken away from people and given to Chinese entrepreneurs for little or nothing without adequate compensation. In the book I show that the ‘Eastern promise’—the notion that development practices that emanate from places such as China can be better than those coming from the West—is all a ruse. Both have the same goal: profit maximisation at the expense of the majority of the people. That is exactly the form of technological innovation that comes with FTZs.

MD: You challenge common conceptions of innovation as the mantra of neoliberalism carried over from the structural adjustment era. What innovative practices did you find in the communities of the Niger Delta? And what can these teach us about the meaning of innovation?

OA: One of the most fascinating things about the youths in the Niger Delta is their innovativeness. The way they deploy extractive technologies in participating in midstream extraction is absolutely mind-blowing. Local youths modified the technologies of liquor brewing into refining oil. They built their own technology from scratch based on an old technology that existed in the Niger Delta—the technology of ogogoro brewing. As I describe in the book, there is hardly a family in the Delta that does not participate in the brewing of this local liquor that became popular during the colonial era.

What is interesting about the story of ogogoro brewing is that it was used to circumvent the predatory powers of the colonial state. For example, during the Great Depression, the colonial authorities in Nigeria raised taxes on liquor, especially whiskey and other imported alcoholic beverages, so much that these commodities were out of reach of many Nigerians. Under these circumstances, the local liquor, ogogoro, became the liquor of choice, to the point that the colonial government had to impose a ban to shore up its tax revenue from the sale of ‘official’ liquor. However, the ban and its attendant threat of arrest and prosecution did not deter people from brewing and selling ogogoro, which became common at events such as funerals, weddings, and other gatherings. In the same way, the technologies of oil extraction today are being used as a form of recapture to circumvent the postcolonial state that ‘captures’ what the local youths consider the property of the communities. The process of recapture therefore involves participation in a neoliberal system that allows for entrepreneurship and innovation. This is the reason many of these young people consider themselves entrepreneurs. Many of the youths whom I interviewed believed they were participating in a neoliberal economic system that helped them take back what had been taken away by foreign interests—that is, multinational oil corporations and their state allies. The sophistication with which they build and deploy the technologies challenges the long-held assumption about oil extraction that suggests that only those with huge capital and technical knowhow can participate.

Refined gasoline for sale by a retailer. Source: Omolade Adunbi.

MD: The power of ethnography, you point out in your introduction, is its ability to debunk and demystify common assumptions. Did your observations and conversations during fieldwork also disprove some of your own assumptions? If so, which ones? And what new ways of looking do you hope the reader will take away from reading your book?

OA: One of the powers of ethnography, and fieldwork specifically, is its ability to help shape new understandings of complex concepts. For example, one of the assumptions I went to the field with is the notion that only nation-states can designate and regulate special economic zones. This is because, in most of the literature on such zones, the focus is always on those FTZs that are regulated by the state. However, my experience in the field—in particular, witnessing the ways in which many of my interlocutors in the artisanal refineries referred to themselves as entrepreneurs and innovators who were participating in a neoliberal economic system—disproved my assumption. The stark similarities between the FTZs and the refineries further proved to me that we ought to expand the meaning of special economic zones to include those zones that are not regulated by the state.

The kind of ethnography I write also helps to disprove the notion that Niger Delta youths who engage in oil extraction and refining are bandits and oil thieves. As I show in the book, reducing them to ‘bandits and thieves’ takes away the innovation and adroitness with which they build the technologies of extraction from scratch. More importantly, what I would like readers to take away from the book are the devastating effects of extractive practices on people and their livelihoods. This is what I call the ‘social death’ of the environment when people and their surroundings are constantly subjected to pollution at the hands of both multinational oil corporations and the artisanal refineries in the creeks, as well as corporate bodies in Lekki and Igbesa FTZs in Ogun and Lagos states. From capture to recapture, people experience death daily in the creeks of the Delta and the coast of Lagos.

Transpacific Developments: A Conversation with Monica DeHart

China scholars in Latin America and the Caribbean have long critiqued the monolithic way in which Chinese identity is represented in the dominant literature. In Transpacific Developments: The Politics of Multiple Chinas in Central America (Cornell University Press, 2021), Monica DeHart tackles this discontent by proposing an alternative model for theorising China in the Global South that recognises multiple conceptualisations of ‘China’ that operate simultaneously throughout Central America. Pairing ‘assemblages’ theory with a ‘transpacific analytic’, DeHart deconstructs how the descendants of migrants from the early 1800s, Taiwanese businesspeople, and development firms from mainland China may differentially frame ‘who and what represents China in Central America’.

Jordan Lynton Cox: Your research provides a critical intervention in China and Latin America studies by providing a historically and ethnographically grounded recounting of Chinese migration and geopolitical intimacies throughout Central America. Central to your analysis is the concept that there are ‘multiple Chinas’ that are distinct, yet have been historically, economically, and imaginatively layered within the region. Your book untangles the various assemblages that make up these Chinas as well as outlining the ways in which they impact on modern geopolitical and economic Sino–Central American relationships. Why is viewing China through multiple lenses an important intervention for China research in Latin America? What does this lens have to offer China and Belt and Road Initiative studies more broadly?

Monica DeHart: I was really struck by how current discourse about China in Latin America treats that term as synonymous with the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its politics. This framing flattens a whole range of encounters, relations, exchanges, and contradictions into a monolithic force and the contemporary moment. It ignores the presence of generations of Chinese labourers who were contracted for or eventually migrated to the Americas to build the region’s railways, develop its commerce, and eventually establish important ethnic communities that have served as a foil for mestizo national identities in the area. It also ignores the important role that Taiwan and its representatives have played in partnering with Central America since the 1950s, offering not only development aid and technical assistance but also an image of what a multiethnic ‘Chinese’ democracy might look like. And it ignores the fact that the PRC itself cannot be seen as a monolith. In Central America, these different actors—early Chinese diaspora, Taiwanese representatives and entrepreneurs, and now various PRC state representatives—may be understood locally as ‘chinos’, but what that term means is infused with generations of experience with these multiple forms of China and Chinese-ness. My goal was not only to make this range visible ethnographically, but also to highlight how it matters for the way that Central Americans think about what ‘Chinese development’ is and could be, especially in light of current PRC projects, workers, and loans.

While that history of multiple Chinas may be unique to Central America, my argument is useful to broader studies of projects represented as Chinese state initiatives, like those associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), because it starts by asking who and what counts as Chinese in a given moment and place. While today 20 countries in Latin America have signed on to the BRI and the PRC Government has penned agreements for myriad projects in the region, there is neither a clear BRI strategy nor a necessary connection between projects and the BRI. Therefore, when we look at port renovations or dry canal proposals across the region, we need to be looking for the histories they are building on and the different actors who are participating in the initiatives. While we often think of these projects only in terms of state actors, there are lots of different private actors and interests involved whose roles and goals are rendered invisible under the banner of ‘Chinese projects’. Instead of assuming we know what these projects are, we should be interrogating who profits from them and how they will or will not be connected to local Latin American or Chinese state interests. An ethnographic approach will be central to this work.

JLC: A truly fascinating part of this book is how you weave together interdisciplinary theoretical frameworks to disentangle the multiple ideas of China within Central America. A key aspect of this is your development of a ‘transpacific analytic’ to frame your ethnographic research. To create the ‘transpacific analytic’, you pair critical humanities scholarship—including Paul Gilroy, Matt K. Matsuda, and Arif Dirlik—with the assemblage framework to situate the pacific as a deterritorialised site of analysis, geopolitics, and imagination. To this end, you write that a ‘transpacific analytic starts by asking, rather than assuming, who and what represents China in Central America?’. Can you provide more context about how you developed this framework? How does utilising a transpacific frame shape your analysis? How can a broader utilisation of this framework expand research in the China studies/development literature?

MD: When I started researching Chinese development in Central America, I immediately encountered the question of which China I was talking about: Taiwan or the PRC? Furthermore, as I looked at the history of Chinese-ness in the region, it was clear that many of the actors in whom I was interested straddled different forms of ethnic or national affiliation, such that they could not be understood solely through the lens of China–Guatemala or even China–Central America. I developed the transpacific analytic as a means of accounting for these crisscrossing, longstanding relations that did not adhere to specific borders or identities. More than just rejecting a methodological nationalism, this approach allowed me to talk about both the changing forms and the continuities in how Chinese-ness was being mobilised and perceived in this history of exchanges.

For example, in the nineteenth century, the waning transatlantic slave trade positioned Chinese-ness as synonymous with cheap coolie labour necessary to build the infrastructure and economies of the burgeoning Central American nations. In the twentieth century, Chinese-ness manifested in the form of Taiwanese development assistance and new waves of migrants fleeing PRC politics. By the twenty-first century, however, Chinese-ness had come to represent a global hegemonic force and crucial source of development capital, commerce, and infrastructure in a radically different way. While different forms of global capitalism may have been operative in structuring these various moments, Orientalist stereotypes have continually positioned Chinese-ness as both necessary for and potentially threatening to national development and identity. Therefore, assemblages were crucial to making sense of those shifting formations of labour, race, and identity not just within changing geopolitics, but also within lived experiences and relations on the ground. The transpacific analytic sought to capture how different forms of Chinese-ness have been constitutive of the long history of transpacific relations, now forming the material and symbolic ground on which contemporary China–Latin America relations are unfolding.

The transpacific analytic is generative for future work in that it invites a specifically interdisciplinary and transregional approach to questions of China in the world. Rather than isolating specific nations or area studies fields as the starting place for exploring relations, a transpacific analytic asks us to move beyond geographic location as a bounded site of origin or destination to unpack the diverse forms, peoples, and objects engaged in crossings and their mutually constitutive role. Therefore, while the Pacific is geographically specific enough that it cannot be expanded to all development thinking, it does provide a useful new lens for considering the other histories, forms of exchange, and constitutive processes of world-making that have occurred in/through/beyond the borders of the modern nation and its presumed unified, monolithic identity and culture.

Commemorative stamp highlighting the friendship between Guatemala and Taiwan.

JLC: Sovereignty is a central part of your analysis. A key space where this takes form is in your writing about Central Americans of Chinese descent. While Chinese Central Americans are an essential part of the ‘Chinese’ landscape in Central America, they are simultaneously entangled within conflicting concepts of sovereignty from the PRC, Taiwan, Central American states, and (at points) the United States. This conflict is most poignant in your descriptions of Chinese cultural associations in Central America, which at the regional level are torn between hyper-territorialised economic conflicts between the PRC and Taiwan, yet at the local level have adopted a seemingly essentialised Chinese identity that is deterritorialised. Building on this analysis, how do you imagine Chinese Central Americans will continue to navigate increasing PRC presence in the future? Are there ways in which their identities are adapting to this change or pushing against outside concepts of sovereignty? Are there alternative sites of identity from which they are pulling?

MD: This is an important question for further research, obviously, and one that will have vital consequences for how other projects associated with Chinese-ness are perceived and unfold. As I describe in the book, some of the younger Cantonese-speaking Chinese Central Americans have been going back to China to learn Mandarin, get degrees at Chinese universities, and acquire the cultural capital that positions them as important brokers for transpacific relations. Others of an older generation are revitalising more essentialised discourses of Chinese-ness and seeking to sustain traditional cultural organisations, even as they navigate an ambiguous relationship with the PRC State. In other words, some of these folks fled mainland China because of its politics but want to extol and preserve the virtues of a depoliticised historical Chinese culture as the foundation of their identities as third-generation Chinese Costa Ricans or newer immigrants.

Finally, Chinese Central Americans have a long history of hemispheric mobility and connections, so for many, North America also continues to be a site of important cosmopolitan identification and economic reference for family connections, higher education, and jobs. In this sense, Chinese Central Americans continue to negotiate changing forms of China and Chinese-ness, just as they have for many generations, while also maintaining traditional transnational routes and reference points for identity. Nonetheless, many have experienced the anti-Chinese sentiment reignited by the Covid-19 pandemic as part of a longer history of anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the Americas, making identification with either the PRC or the United States feel somewhat precarious. These complex, diffuse, and shifting associations offer yet another reason why a transpacific analytic becomes so important for making sense of questions of identity and sovereignty in the future.

JLC: Early in the book you note that Central America is one of the few regions in the world that still largely recognises and holds diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Conflicts regarding Taiwanese and PRC sovereignty are prevalent throughout the area, except regarding trade. In fact, in chapter three, you write that there are ‘intimate relationships and economic interdependency between the PRC and Taiwan’ in the trade sector. Can you speak more about this duality and how it potentially complicates sovereign claims, as well as locals’ ability to differentiate between the two bodies?

MD: We are seeing some of this triangulation now with the trade battle over semiconductors. In the book, I talk about the development of the global textile industry and the connections between Taiwan, mainland China, and Central America that constituted that global supply chain. Taiwanese firms used materials produced in mainland China for their assembly plants in Central America, with the end products eventually exported to the United States. In Central America, locals identified these maquiladoras [duty and tariff-free factories] as Chinese, equating labour rights tensions within them with familiar tropes about exploitative Chinese business practices more generally without distinguishing substantively between China and Taiwan. Therefore, while Central Americans often wanted to draw a political line between democratic Taiwan and communist China, in practice, they often would not distinguish between them as economic actors and could not appreciate the entanglements between their various roles in a global supply chain. Similarly in the US market, the Chinese origins of textiles imported from Central American maquiladoras remained largely invisible to consumers until that production returned to mainland China and became part of a larger ‘made in China’ global production phenomenon.

Fast forward to today and the crisis surrounding Taiwan’s role as the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer. Through legislation like the CHIPS [Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors] Act passed in 2022, the United States has moved to boost its own semiconductor production to mitigate dependency on Taiwan. Ironically, some of that increased production will be supported by Intel Corporation’s assembly and testing facilities in Costa Rica where, between 1997 and 2014, semiconductor chip production accounted for an important source of the country’ss total exports and where new investments now hope to nearshore this important industry. Therefore, the economic and political fates of these various actors have been closely intertwined in ways that are often obscured by their Chinese label. These global production networks illustrate transpacific assemblages of production even as they often conflate ‘Chinas’ and position them as disconnected from or even in opposition to American economic and political interests. Furthermore, they tend to erase altogether the important role that Central America has played in these global processes, with Chinese Central Americans often on the front line of that confusion.

Chinese commodities and cultural associations in Costa Rica highlight multiple Chinas. Source: Author (CC).

JLC: This book includes a wealth of ethnographic data that span eight years, multiple countries, and a wide range of stakeholders including locals, ethnic Chinese, Chinese migrants, businesspeople, construction workers, and PRC, Taiwanese, and Central American officials. What was the process of developing this project and this book like? How has completing multi-sited and multi-scalar research on this topic enriched your understanding of the region? What developments would you like to see in future research within this region?

MD: I did not begin this project with a book in mind. I had a long history of research on the cultural politics of development in Central America based mainly in Guatemala, and it was the emergence of China as an important ethnographic reality that drew me in this direction. Since Costa Rica was the first Central American country to switch allegiances from Taiwan to the PRC, I was originally just interested in figuring out what was happening there and thinking about Chinese development from that angle. I could see economists and international relations scholars making big predictions based on macrolevel trade and investment data, but there seemed to be little understanding of what that looked like on the ground or how everyday people—both Chinese and Central American—thought about it. So, in the first instance, it felt important to intervene with that empirical, ethnographic view and examine how Chinese development mattered to people.

However, as my research progressed, I was continually reminded of how exceptional Costa Rica was—its small size, its strong democracy, its relative affluence—and how little Central America seemed to matter in current analyses of China in Latin America. That realisation pushed me to think more broadly and return to my earlier field sites in Guatemala and Nicaragua to compare how China was materialising there, where official diplomatic relations were still with Taiwan. While much of the emerging research focused on the PRC Government’s relationship with the big economies of South America, Central America’s regional significance for trade logistics and geopolitics could not be ignored. So, this work challenged me both methodologically and conceptually as I sought to think simultaneously across the local, national, regional, and transregional levels to show the complexity of the multiple Chinas in the region and the varied and shifting political and historical contexts in which they were taking shape, all in a way that tracked the real-time significance of these developments as they occurred.

This transregional, multi-sited approach helped me to see things about transpacific relations and the crucial roles that multiple forms and moments of Chinese presence have played in the region’s development and the sometimes subtle, though often blatant, ways that anti-Chinese racism continues to shape regional politics and identity. I was reminded of the powerful role that the United States has played in the ‘development’ of the region—for example, through the building of Central American railroad and canal infrastructure in an earlier era—and the eerie resonance between some of those moments and current Chinese interventions. I was also struck by the important role played by Chinese associations and mobility in defending and connecting diverse Chinese communities across the region in the face of multiple waves of anti-Chinese politics.

Analysing contemporary transpacific relations through this multi-sited approach also gave me new insights into Central American politics. For example, it was through this fieldwork that I experienced, quite palpably, the differences in state bureaucracy between countries like Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua and the important impact that anticorruption work has had on public sector employees and elected officials. While Costa Rican officials were eager to talk about their experiences and perspectives, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan public officials were incredibly difficult to access. This difference may come as no surprise to those who follow politics in these countries, where state corruption is often front-page news. Nonetheless, the impact of these different bureaucratic structures and cultures cannot be overemphasised in relation to Chinese development initiatives, given the PRC Government’s preference for nondisclosure agreements and Central American states’ uneven efforts to regulate private Chinese firms. It was, thus, extremely valuable to get an ethnographic purchase on how bureaucracy stymies or enables the more problematic aspects of transpacific relations, and to understand why more regional collaboration among Central American governments has not developed as they collectively try to navigate the challenges and opportunities posed by closer relations with the PRC Government.

Because China’s presence throughout Latin America will only continue to grow, there is lots of work to be done. One area that I am currently studying is how questions about the different Chinas and forms of Chinese-ness are shaping the platforms of political parties, labour unions, and social organisations in the region. I am interested in how China is integrated into local political debates and imaginaries to become a way that political actors distinguish themselves and their ideological positions from one another across the political spectrum. I am also interested in how these questions fuel new transregional collaborations as Latin American actors share experiences and best practices of leveraging Chinese development with their peers in Africa and Asia. Another area of important work will be the growing diversity within the broader Chinese ethnic community in Latin America and how it is positioning itself in relation to the opportunities and challenges posed by this new era of transpacific relations. For example, we will need to understand generational shifts within the broader Chinese ethnic community as Chinese-heritage Latin American youth increasingly find themselves in positions of brokering transpacific relations or being asked to advocate on behalf of their own communities. Furthermore, we will need to use more nuanced analytical tools, like the transpacific analytic, to understand the increasing range of Chinese actors now operating in Central America who do not work for or directly align with the PRC Government. As Chinese citizens, these actors are subject to PRC state politics, but they are also pursuing interests that may transcend or even disrupt those state projects. Similarly, these new arrivals are often embedding themselves in historical Chinese ethnic communities that are, themselves, ethnically, generationally, and politically diverse, thus adding new possibilities and challenges to local formulations of Chinese-ness in the Americas.

Arise Africa, Roar China: A Conversation with Yunxiang Gao

The past two decades have witnessed an explosive growth in historical scholarship exploring African American connections with China during the twentieth century. In their Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies web resource Teaching China through Black History, Keisha A. Brown, Ruodi Duan, and James Gethyn Evans (2019) document the development of this increasingly vibrant field, which was initiated in English-language scholarship through pathbreaking early work by scholars of African American studies. Gerald Horne’s 1985 and 2002 books on W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois, Penny M. Von Eschen’s 1997 Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957, and Robin Kelley and Betsy Esch’s 1999 essay ‘Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution’—all laid a foundation for this emergent field of study by demonstrating the significance of transnational alliances, anticolonial thought, and the Chinese Revolution in shaping African American political culture in the United States, as well as the global struggle for social justice and racial equality.

In these and other works that followed, the Black radical tradition emerges as a space of transnational leftist political thought and practice in which connections between China and the United States play out beyond the reaches of, and often counter to, white-dominated spaces of US national policy and foreign relations. Such efforts to forge cross-racial and transnational alliances through a revolutionary reimagining of global relations threatened the colonial, capitalist, and white-supremacist status quo and thus came with inherent dangers. In this context, relations of international solidarity emerged not only as sources of abstract intellectual inspiration and real or imagined dialogue, but also as concrete places of refuge, exile, and opportunity. Many US Black radicals who were targeted in their home country because of their political work found in China a new space of appreciation and receptivity during times of great need. In this way, relations with China played an important role in the development of the Black radical tradition itself and its ability to sustain leftist ideas despite domestic suppression in the United States leading up to and at the height of Cold War containment.

A recent major contribution to this important area of scholarship is Yunxiang Gao’s book Arise Africa, Roar China: Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century, published in 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press. The book has already amassed numerous accolades including the 2022 Academic Excellence Award from the Chinese Historians in the United States, an Honourable Mention in the 2022 Robert H. Ferrell Book Prize of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and being shortlisted for the 2022 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize of the Canadian Historical Association. Gao’s book is part of a new wave of research that brings close attention to Chinese-language sources of the study of Sino–African American relations. Gao examines the personal journeys and intellectual and artistic contributions of five major individuals—W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Liu Liangmo 劉良模, Sylvia Si-lan Chen Leyda 陳茜(錫, 西)蘭, and Langston Hughes—who contributed in different ways to the forging of Sino–African American relations in the twentieth century.

Emily Wilcox: How do the subjects you investigate in Arise Africa, Roar China relate to your previous research? What made you decide to write a book about this topic?

Yunxiang Gao: While conducting research for my first book, Sporting Gender, I came across laudatory articles on W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the foremost African American intellectuals, writers, and pan-Africanist civil rights activists, and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. This discovery brought back some memories of a newspaper article and a propaganda poster.

In my childhood home in Inner Mongolia, the ceiling was wooden boards on which were pasted old newspapers purchased from the market for insulation. After I learned how to read and write, every day I stared at the title of an article on the spot right above my pillow, until it was covered by a new layer of newspapers on the eve of Chinese New Year. What was the title of that article that has stuck in my head ever since? ‘Robert Williams and Madam Du Bois Fervently Acclaim Chairman Mao’s Statement Supporting American Blacks’ Anti-Brutality Struggle.’ The other interconnected memory is that of a propaganda poster in the little classroom that accommodated me and 17 other students in grades one to three. Advocating united liberation struggles, this poster featured indignant men and women of various colours in vibrant ethnic clothing charging forward, with a muscular Black man holding a gun at the centre.

Roughly at the same time Sporting Gender was released, I published an article on the Du Bois’ experiences in Maoist China (Gao 2013). Working on that article, I learned about Paul Robeson, a world famous African American singer and actor and close ally of the Du Boises. While researching the fascinating yet little known relationship between Robeson and China, I also discovered his Chinese allies Liu Liangmo, a talented musician, prolific journalist, and Christian activist, and Sylvia Si-lan Chen, about whom Robeson wrote:

In Moscow, some years ago [1934] I met three young Chinese, a fellow named Jack Chen and his two sisters. Jack was a newspaperman, one of his sisters was a motion picture technician and the other [Sylvia Si-lan] was a dancer … Jack was a slight chap, medium height and soft-spoken. He spoke beautiful English. He came to my concerts and we sat around many nights and talked of China and its future. This was in 1936 and ’37. Later I met him in London and we often appeared there for China Relief. It was an interesting experience to see and meet a Chinese who was part Negro and felt close to both his people. I believe he is now back in China—the new China—helping to build a better life for his countrymen.

That was the first time I had heard of the Chens. Of course, I was immediately curious about who they were. I came across evidence that Langston Hughes, the acclaimed ‘Poet Laureate of the Negro Race’, was Si-lan Chen’s lover. So, like a detective, I traced these figures step after step.

EW: How did you select these five figures as the case studies for your book? Why did you not include, for example, Robert and Mabel Williams, who also played an important role in Chinese–African American relations in the 1960s? Are there any other figures you thought of including and decided not to, and if so, why?

YG: Although each of these five citizens of the world represents a distinctive domain, their lives and political activism were interlocked. Adopting a longue durée approach, Arise Africa, Roar China focuses on their global interactions throughout most of the twentieth century. They enjoyed friendship based on racial solidarity and shared anti-racism and anticolonial political activism. They interacted with one another in a variety of ways, at times collaborating and contributing to historic alliances, at others falling in and out of love. While situating each of the five figures in a complex and shifting political context, I discuss the personal, artistic, cultural, and political networks they established. The Asia Review of Books put it well: ‘Gao tells a good story, actually five, and tells them very well. That the stories and protagonists are all linked yields a book that is far more than the sum of its parts.’

All four Chen siblings, children of Eugene Chen, China’s Trinidad-born foreign minister during the Nationalist era and his French Creole wife, were truly cosmopolitan with fascinating multilayered stories that deserved to be told. Si-lan fits into this book best, because she captured the fanciful gazes and imaginations of Hughes and Robeson, who saw and portrayed her as personifying the ‘perfect’ union of Black and Chinese. Her mission to choreograph and dance ethnicity, war, and revolution around the globe illustrates the complex racial and political twists of such interracial unions.

Si-lan is not the only woman relevant to my narratives. The wives of Du Bois and Robeson, Shirley Graham and Eslanda, warrant scholarship independent of this book. I have accumulated sufficient materials for a future project on them, which I hope will break new ground introducing extremely rare stories of interactions between Chinese and African American women. Also, the manuscript of Arise Africa, Roar China was initially composed of six chapters. I cut a chapter on actress Wang Yung because her interactions with African Americans were limited to brief encounters with Robeson and his wife, but now I am finishing a full biography.

As for the saga of Robert and Mable Williams, this is certainly well known in Chinese–African American relations. Yet, they were a younger generation who burst on the scene later in the Cold War, which is why I did not include them in the book.

EW: One aspect of your book that I found especially powerful is your detailing of the surveillance, harassment, and suppression each of the figures you write about experienced, especially by branches of the US Government, because of anticommunism. Why did you feel it was important to tell these stories and to highlight this issue at this time?

YG: These five figures had to constantly juggle their devotion and courage with the caution necessary to navigate the treacherous, slippery, and murky transpacific ideological and political landscapes in which they were placed by their race and leftist activism. Surveillance, harassment, and suppression by various regimes, especially the US Government, ensured that their lives and political activism were marked by narratives of survival.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) cast a long dark shadow over the lives of all five, as illustrated by the trail of files that recorded their every move. They faced incessant uncertainty about legal residence status, denial of passports over allegations of Communist Party membership, and forced shifting of nationalities. The State Department famously cancelled the passports of Du Bois and Robeson. Out of frustration and anger, Du Bois eventually renounced his American citizenship for a Ghanaian one. Enormously talented, passionate, and politically committed, Robeson soared to great heights as a popular artistic hero but fell from international prominence into an eventual mental breakdown, paying the ultimate price for his unyielding pursuit of political and racial justice. Hughes was forced to retreat from radicalism to safeguard his writing career and meagre livelihood as a ‘literary sharecropper’, as he called himself, from the intensifying harassment of McCarthyism in the 1950s. The double burden of Chen’s race and leftist background forced her to live for over four decades under the nerve-wracking shadows cast by the powerful Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI, in collaboration with the Chinese Nationalists. Official persecutions eventually drove Chen and her American husband near statelessness and homelessness. Liu was briefly detained at the notorious Angel Island, fully tasting the harsh treatment meted out by immigration officers. After he and his family left for China under threat of deportation, the FBI and War Department agents who had started to tail him soon after his arrival carried on their spying remotely.

All these administrative actions were linked to politics and exacerbated feelings of otherness and racial discrimination. How the five figures in the book overcame formidable obstacles through their commitment is, in my mind, profoundly inspiring to those who face similar obstacles in their fight for liberation and equality today.

EW: One important theme in your book is the way in which each of the figures you discuss contributed, whether through writing, music, speeches, or performance art, to the circulation of positive images of Chinese and African Americans to one another. Was there an episode that you discovered as you were conducting your research that you found particularly inspiring?

YG: Particularly inspiring to me was Robeson and Liu’s collaboration to globalise the song ‘Chee Lai!’, also known as the ‘March of the Volunteers’—the signature piece of the transpacific mass singing movement for wartime mobilisation, which would later become the national anthem of the newly established People’s Republic of China.

In November 1940, Robeson received a phone call, perhaps from famous Chinese philosopher and writer Lin Yutang, asking him to meet a recent arrival from China: Liu, who had initiated the mass singing movement there. Within minutes, Robeson was in the caller’s apartment. Robeson and Liu became fast friends. Liu recalled Robeson as ‘beaming over me with his friendly smile and his giant hands firmly held mine’. After Liu introduced ‘Chee Lai!’ to him, Robeson was impressed by the opening line of the song—‘Arise, ye who refuse to be bond slaves’—which he believed expressed the determination of the world’s oppressed, including Chinese and Blacks, to struggle for liberation. Soon, Robeson reprised the song at his numerous concerts in the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, Robeson, Liu, and the Chinese People’s Chorus, which Liu had organised among members of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance in New York City’s Chinatown, recorded a hit album of Chinese fighting and folk songs entitled Chee Lai: Songs of New China. The New York Times lauded the album as one of the year’s best, and Robeson’s version of ‘Chee Lai!’ became the anthem of China’s struggle against fascism.

Liu was a pioneer of Chinese collaboration with African Americans, often lauding Black greatness without reservation.

EW: Do you think the efforts of these figures had lasting impact?

YG: All of them contributed to shape both Chinese views of the Black diaspora and American views of China’s place in an emergent imaginary of anticolonial and racial liberation. On the Chinese side, in Republican China, the intellectual capacities of Robeson, Du Bois, and Hughes were foregrounded over stereotypical images of ‘primitive’ athletic and trivial musical personas and the commercialised exoticism of Blacks. Later, they were promoted as heroic revolutionary models for China’s socialist citizenry, revolutionising Black images there. Their political and cultural legacies persist to this day despite the dramatic changes that took place in the past few decades. For instance, since 2009, the Ministry of Education of China has included a translation of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, one of Hughes’ classic poems, in the approved textbook of Chinese language and literature mandated for ninth graders across the nation to learn about the ‘condensed history of the Black race’. Hughes’ work thus continues to have an enormous readership in China, comparable only with that enjoyed by figures as prominent as Mao Zedong.

On the US side, the three African American cultural giants helped to transform the popular image of China from the ‘sick man of Asia’, with the Chinese portrayed as servants and opium addicts, to that of a beacon of struggles for liberation. Soon after Japan launched its full-scale war on China in 1937, Langston Hughes penned the passionate poem ‘Roar, China!’ in embattled Madrid, calling for China’s resistance. Celebrating his ninety-first birthday at Beijing University in 1959, Du Bois harangued his audience: ‘Africa, Arise, and stand straight, speak and think! Turn from the West and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years and face the rising sun … China is flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood.’ ‘Arise, Africa!’ and ‘Roar, China!’ as articulated by Du Bois and Hughes, respectively, match the shared struggles of a nation and a nation-within-a-nation. Their power and promise resonate to the present day.

EW: The theme of Chinese–African American connections has received increasing attention from historians and cultural studies scholars in the past decade. What are some works of existing scholarship on this theme that inspired you when writing your book? What do you think your book contributes to the existing scholarship that is new?

YG: Excellent studies have examined African American interactions with China, but these are often limited to Black appropriation of Chinese culture and thought, or only go so far as to indicate that such contacts existed. They include Marc Gallicchio’s The African American Encounter with Japan and China (2000); Richard Jean So’s Transpacific Community (2016); Robeson Taj Frazier’s The East Is Black (2015); Etsuko Taketani’s The Black Pacific Narrative (2014); and Bill V. Mullen’s Afro-Orientalism (2004). In Maoism: A Global History (2019), Julia Lovell powerfully illustrates how international events transformed Chinese politics and how Mao’s ideology was enduringly refashioned by different countries and peoples, including African Americans and Africans.

Arise Africa, Roar China reveals much earlier and more widespread interaction between Chinese leftist figures and Black ones than the familiar alliance between Black radicals and Maoist China. It expands the scholarship on Sino–African American exchanges by illustrating how three African American cultural giants—Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes—were perceived, studied, and critiqued among the Chinese, and by introducing Liu Liangmo and Sylvia Si-lan Chen as significant new subjects in this discourse.

My book examines the intertwined lives of people usually perceived as inhabiting nonoverlapping domains. It is about individuals who strove in their own ways to create a politicised transpacific and enable global communication between African Americans and Chinese. Directly comparative works about the three famed African Americans are somewhat rare among current studies; discussions of individual Afro-Chinese relationships are even harder to find, and narratives of interactions between Chinese and African American women are even scarcer. In addition, in researching the book, I drew from massive, yet rarely used, sources from multiple archival streams in China, Chinatowns, and the United States, which allowed me to retell the well-known stories of Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes anew alongside the previously forgotten sagas of Liu and Chen.

EW: What advice do you have for scholars who are interested in conducting further research into Chinese–African American relations? Are there particular issues that you believe deserve more attention in the future? Are there any lessons you learned writing this book that you would like to pass on?

YG: I am glad to report that Arise Africa, Roar China has inspired other scholars to pursue this topic. Roundtables at the 2023 annual meeting of the American Historical Association and the ‘After Bandung: Africa and China in a New Era Conference’ at Yale University have both featured the book.

There are numerous other figures, particularly women, such as Unita Blackwell, Victoria ‘Vicki’ Garvin, and Claudia Jones, who played significant roles in Sino–African American relations. It is worthwhile for scholars to explore their stories from a gender perspective, with depth and subtlety.

Meanwhile, as my book illustrates, Sino-Black interactions were widespread and over a long historical period. I hope scholars will look beyond the familiar Cold War era. I also believe a multilingual approach to comprehensively and thoroughly survey sources is essential to conduct such transnational/transcultural history. Scholars should utilise more the rich and diverse streams of sources in Chinese language.

African Agency in China’s Tea Trade: A Conversation with Ute Röschenthaler

How has Chinese green tea become Mali’s national drink? By retracing the tea supply chain from Bamako’s corner shops and wholesale markets to southern China’s tea plantations and processing plants, in African Agency in China’s Tea Trade (Brill, 2022), Ute Röschenthaler describes in vivid detail how a distinctly Chinese product is transformed and localised through its selection, packaging, branding, shipping, advertising, and, perhaps most importantly, consumption as part of Mali’s tea ritual. Her book reveals how consumers in Mali and other West African countries, alongside established merchants from the region, give shape not just to the trade of Chinese green tea, but also to the China-based production process and ultimately the product itself.

Miriam Driessen: How have Malian tastes shaped the tea trade between Mali and China? And how have these tastes, along with the ways in which Malians consume tea, developed over time?

Ute Röschenthaler: Malian expectations of the taste of tea have been shaped by cultural memories of its arrival from across the Sahara [see Figure 1]. To this day, people in Mali are convinced that only traders from the northern part of the country know where to acquire the best tea. In this part of Mali, in Timbuktu, the first Chinese green tea arrived in the early nineteenth century, after a long journey via Britain and Morocco across the Sahara. It was prepared in special equipment reserved for the purpose, with generous amounts of cone sugar, and served in tiny Chinese porcelain bowls during an impressive ritual that could last for several hours.

After Mali’s independence in 1960, its government created, with Chinese help, a small tea plantation in southern Mali. However, the fresh homegrown product tasted different from the tea that consumers had previously known—a green tea whose aroma had been inscribed by years in the bellies of ships and on camel backs. For this reason, and to cater for the growing demand the local product was then mixed with imported tea from China. During that time the state was the only legal importer of tea.

Following economic reforms in 1991, private trade was permitted, and Chinese traders began to sell cheap Gunpowder tea in Mali. This type of tea—known in China as zhucha (珠茶)—received its international name because it is rolled into small pellets that reminded consumers of bullets or gunpowder pellets. In Mali this tea is most often referred to with the French term gros grains, ‘big seeds’. However, this tea also did not appeal to Malian consumers, who preferred good Chunmee or ‘eyebrow’ tea, named for its longish rolled leaves, reminiscent of the shape of eyebrows.

Malian merchants quickly understood where the tea could be obtained and travelled to China to visit plantations and tea factories to start to import their own tea. Good Chunmee tea became affordable, and growing numbers of Malian consumers made Chinese green tea their favourite beverage to be consumed with friends in tea groups [see Figure 2]. Tea was praised by many, and criticised by others, and issues of national importance began to be debated in terms of tea. Tea had become Mali’s national drink.

Most Malians praised tea as a medicine, an energiser, and a medium of communication that brought people together to exchange ideas and experiences. At the same time, others began to hold tea responsible for the unemployment of educated youths, corruption, and the decline of social values. The young, they alleged, would sit the whole day and chat instead of looking for jobs; and gifts of tea served politicians as an excuse for embezzling money and to convince people to vote for them. No-one could have conceived of discussing such critical topics in terms of black tea or coffee.

(Figure 1, Left) Tea package depicting the journey across the Sahara. Source: Ute Röschenthaler. (Figure 2, Right) Tea ritual, Bamako, 2018. Source: Adama Keita.
Figure 3: Billboard advertising Askia teas of different quality, Bamako, 2007. Source: Ute Röschenthaler.

MD: Even though Chinese traders are active in the tea sector in Mali, you show that they are largely outcompeted by Malian traders, especially those coming from long-established trading families involved in the trans-Saharan trade. What explains Malian traders’ dominance of the trade of Chinese tea in Mali and beyond?

UR: Before independence, trade was carried out by members of trading families who acted as the privileged traders of the various local rulers. These families had representatives in each trading town. This provided them with access to intricate trade networks through which they distributed their commodities. Only after the 1991 economic reforms did people from other families begin to develop ambitions to trade. But they and the Chinese newcomers lacked extensive distribution networks, the experience from generations of trading, and the knowledge of which kind of tea would sell well on the Malian market. Many of them assumed that any cheap tea would be appreciated as there was a lack of tea in the early 1990s.

At that time, the price of the tea still matched its quality, and many consumers indeed bought the cheaper teas [see Figure 3]. Towards the end of the 2000s, however, all the 25-gram packages with various qualities of tea were available for the same price and consumers now preferred to purchase the better qualities. These higher-quality teas were in most cases imported by the descendants of the former trading families, who were also able to import larger quantities of tea due to their easier access to capital and to extensive distribution networks. Owing to their professional advantages, Malian merchants managed to remain the dominant actors in the trade. This was different, for instance, from the trade in household goods, the sale of which required less local knowledge and depended less strongly on quick distribution and the caprices of fashions and tastes.

MD: You describe how Malian traders use the notion of ‘the work of tea’ to capture the intricate knowledge of tea, the awareness of brands and brand value, and familiarity with the specificities of the tea trade and the logics of the market. How is this mastery acquired and cultivated among Malian traders and between Malian and Chinese traders?

UR: Malian tea merchants emphasised the importance of knowing ‘the work of tea’ as a requirement to be successful importers. It is intriguing that they consider their profession to be ‘work’, which differs from the established idea elaborated, for example, by Georg Simmel that trade is not considered work because traders make a living by the profit margin earned without physical labour. The Malian example illustrates that the profit margin is the result of the exercise of this ‘work of tea’, which requires several years of experience as an apprentice in a relative’s business, taking growing degrees of responsibility, and learning by doing. The ‘work of tea’ also includes access to distribution networks, knowledge of the market and its workings, and collaboration with reliable trading partners. Among the greatest challenges that tea merchants noted was winning the trust of their Chinese suppliers in an environment tainted by mutual distrust.

Points of dispute between Malian and Chinese partners are above all about the willingness of the importers to pay, the stable quality of the delivered tea, and the piracy of tea brands. The consistent quality of the tea is decisive for the ongoing success of a brand, although when the volume of orders increases, the factory is not always able to deliver the same quality. Successful importers will then know how to wisely manage the brand and closely cooperate with their suppliers to keep the brand alive in a competitive market. When both partners overcome their mutual distrust, they can develop successful brands that satisfy consumers and sell for many years.

Figures 4a, 4b, and 4c: Examples of commemorative tea packages. Source: Ute Röschenthaler.

MD: You demonstrate that the success of a tea brand depends on the collaboration between Malian and Chinese business partners and the creative input of both parties. Can you describe how tea brands are co-designed or co-created and explain why collaboration is crucial?

UR: Right from the beginning of my research on tea in Mali, I was fascinated by the design of the tea packages and their names and images—elements that often do not have anything to do with the product they sell. They embody a vibrant culture of commemoration. Some brand names and images depict plants and strong animals; others refer to Mali’s history, trading places, and trade routes; while others allude to Islam (the majority of Malians are Muslims) and to topical events, technical innovations, and political conflicts such as the Iraq War of the early 1990s and early 2000s, the Africa Cup of 2002, the introduction of an independent television station in 2004, the election of Barack Obama as US President in 2008, the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Mali’s independence in 2010, and the conflict in northern Mali in 2012 [see Figures 4a, 4b, and 4c]. I started collecting them and, so far, I have gathered more than 240 different tea packages.

The package designs are Sino-Malian co-creations. To establish a new tea brand, Malian merchants usually travel to China to find a reliable trading partner and a suitable tea. Once they reach an agreement, the Malian merchant proposes the design of the tea brand, which normally consists of an image, a brand name, and particular colours that make the brand stand out and become easily recognisable. The Chinese side then develops the design and returns it to the Malian merchant for approval and further suggestions until both partners are satisfied. The Malian partner’s share in the creation depends on their personal engagement and inventiveness. Both parties contribute their creative ideas but, in the end, the brand design always belongs to the Malian merchant, even if the largest contribution came from the Chinese designer. This is because the Malian merchant commissions the Chinese partner.

MD: Brand piracy is prevalent in what you call the ‘social life’ of Chinese tea in Mali. How has copying and counterfeiting or ‘collage and montage’ shaped tea brands and their circulation?

UR: With the ‘social life’ of the tea brands, I refer to the shifting meanings of these brands as they are employed in new contexts. When a brand is copied, it moves in legal terms from being an original with a legitimate owner to being an illegal copy. Such a copy of a popular brand is often followed by further copies and subsequent copies of copies in various evolutions and modifications, with the first brand still somehow recognisable [see Figures 5a, 5b, and 5c]. From a philosophical perspective, similarity is an undefined concept and based on subjective impressions, but copyright law does not problematise the concept. It defines a brand as a unique and recognisable creation that is the exclusive property of its creator or owner.

Both Chinese and Malian traders are aware of unauthorised copying and the subsequent loss of brand value when the quality of the copied product is lower. They understand that brand registration is the ground that allows them, if necessary, to defend their rights regarding the ownership of their brands. If a Malian trader wants to sell copies of a popular tea in West Africa, they need a Chinese supplier to produce the copies for them. To commit Chinese factories to refrain from producing such copied brands, Malian and Chinese trading partners created an innovative solution, according to which a brand—which is principally the exclusive property of the Malian merchant—is protected in both Mali and China. In Mali, it is registered in the copyright office by the Malian merchant and guarantees their right to sell the product in Francophone Africa; in China, it is registered again, by the Chinese trading partner, to discourage other Chinese traders from producing the brand there and selling the pirated product to West Africa. This is a form of shared brand ownership, and this works because the only market for these tea brands is West Africa, where the Malian merchant has the legal authorisation to sell them. Of course, for this to work, the establishment of a bond of trust between the Malian and the Chinese partner is essential. Furthermore, my findings reveal that Chinese and Malian traders prefer not to sue brand pirates but seek to find, if possible, an amiable solution without the intervention of a court. In their experience, court judgements do not solve the conflict but create ongoing hostility.

MD: What is the extent of African agency in the trade of Chinese green tea? Has this changed over the past decade?

UR: My book intended to carve out some of the complexities in which Malian tea importers find themselves entangled. On the one hand, they participate in the market and intellectual property economy with its bureaucratic apparatus; on the other hand, they hesitate to embrace these institutions as they inflate their expenses and tend to create animosities that most importers seek to defuse. They do so, for example, by refraining from suing their colleagues and, rather, forgiving them. They are convinced that good social relationships are in the long run more rewarding than demanding punishment and the payment of compensation. Over the course of the past centuries, agency in the tea trade has shifted among the various economic actors, from numerous brokers in the nineteenth century, via the Malian State as the principal actor during postcolonial times, back to the established trading families in the 1990s, when prudent tea importers navigated between the neoliberal institutions and a moral economy of social relationships. They managed to assert themselves with their knowledge, experience, and networks in this competitive sector of the South–South or, better, South–East trade.

Figures 5a, 5b, and 5c: Tea Gazelle and two of its copies. Source: Ute Röschenthaler.

The Hong Kong–China Nexus: A Conversation with John Carroll

How do we understand the trajectory of Hong Kong’s relationship with China? In The Hong Kong–China Nexus (Cambridge University Press, 2022), John Carroll—one of the foremost historians working on Hong Kong today—introduces the fateful history of the city, from its establishment as a British colony to its status as one of China’s Special Administrative Regions. As he points out, Hong Kong was a node in many networks: within the British Empire, connected to China’s treaty ports, enmeshed in US trading networks and paths of immigration, and with Southeast Asia, Japan, and Taiwan. Drawing on decades of research, Carroll in this book focuses on the most central nexus: that between Hong Kong and China.

Denise Y. Ho: The title of your book refers to what you term the Hong Kong–China nexus, which is a relationship of mutual benefit—economic, political, social, and cultural—that has relied on a porous boundary. Would you tell us more about how you decided to frame your book in this way?

John Carroll: When Ching Kwan Lee invited me to contribute a volume to her new Cambridge Elements series, she suggested doing something on the ‘Hong Kong–China nexus’. That was back in 2019, when Hong Kong was in the throes of its worst political crisis ever. The first topic that came to mind was how the relationship between Hong Kong and China had been so good before 1997, and how ironic that seemed, especially within the contexts of British imperial history and modern Chinese history. It was something I had been thinking about for several years, as reintegration since 1997 appeared on the one hand to be so smooth and successful, yet on the other hand to be so fragile and problematic.

DYH: That is really fascinating. Could you give us an example of those fragilities and problems? When did they become evident, and in what ways?

JC: They became evident soon after 1997, starting with the right-of-abode controversy in 1999—when the new Legislative Council issued ordinances making it more difficult for mainland Chinese to apply for permanent residency—and then with the SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] fiasco in 2003, which made many Hong Kong people lose faith in both the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Government, and which caused the Hong Kong Government to drop a proposed anti-sedition bill endorsed by Beijing and in accordance with the Basic Law and led the Chinese Government to intervene more directly in local affairs. And it is telling that 1 July became an annual day for protest in 1998, only one year after reunification.

DYH: In the introduction to the book, you suggest that ‘the region is as much a part of British imperial history as it is of Chinese history’ (p. 3). What does Hong Kong history—a subject you have taught in Hong Kong for many years—tell us about the British Empire? And about the story of modern China?

JC: Since coming to the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 2006, I have been fortunate enough to teach, in Hong Kong, courses on modern Hong Kong history and on the British Empire. Believe it or not, the first iterations of the British Empire course barely dealt with Hong Kong, my (rather fuzzy) logic being that the students would get the Hong Kong part in the Hong Kong history course. That was a mistake and I revised the course several years ago, trying to mention Hong Kong throughout and devoting the ‘end of empire’ lecture to Hong Kong.

Being a British colony for more than 150 years of course automatically makes Hong Kong part of British imperial history. And the history of the British Empire certainly helps us understand the history of Hong Kong. But my sense is that Hong Kong does not necessarily tell us a lot about the British Empire, partly because, when all is said and done, Hong Kong was in many ways an outlier. The British encountered almost no resistance when they first occupied Hong Kong Island in January 1841. In fact, they found no shortage of Chinese helpers. There was only one (still one too many!) massacre during the colonial period: in April 1899, when the British formally occupied the New Territories. There were no famines like those in India. And whereas many colonies (British or otherwise) were in dire shape economically when they became independent, Hong Kong’s gross domestic product per capita was higher than that of Britain, Australia, and Canada when it was returned to China in 1997.

As for the story of modern China, when I started my PhD research almost 30 years ago, it was in modern Chinese history. Nothing could have been further from my mind than tiny Hong Kong, despite my having grown up here. I honestly cannot remember how I started reading about Hong Kong, though it was within the context of treaty port culture and China’s encounters with the West. In my PhD thesis, which became my first book, Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong (Harvard University Press, 2005), I argued that one reason Chinese business and professional elites did so well in Hong Kong was because they were not in China ‘proper’, and that Hong Kong’s success was in many ways China’s failure to provide a secure and stable business environment. We might also consider how many modern ‘Chinese’ business practices and institutions, such as department stores, started in Hong Kong and were then imported into mainland China. But the book on why scholars of Chinese history need to know about Hong Kong history has yet to be written.

DYH: Among the themes that reappear in this book are the elements of Hong Kong history that have disappeared from public view, including, as you just mentioned, the Six Day War of 1899. The topic of history also reappears when you discuss education over the decades, from the place of Chinese history in 1952 to more recent debates about ‘national security education’. You have written about and taught the subject of museum history in Hong Kong. Why is historical narrative so important to our understanding of the Hong Kong–China nexus?

JC: I am not sure if historical narrative is any more important for the Hong Kong–China nexus than it is for any historical experience. What is important here, however, is how this narrative is now being shaped very quickly to fit new political needs and realities. School textbooks, for example, will no longer refer to pre-1997 Hong Kong as a ‘colony’, instead claiming that Hong Kong was only under ‘colonial rule’. The removal in December 2021 and January 2022 of statues and sculptures commemorating the Tiananmen Massacre from four local universities were efforts to erase the history of Hong Kong’s commemoration of Tiananmen. Narratives in museums, too, are also changing, though exactly how that will play out remains to be seen.

DYH: You write in the book that ‘many Hong Kong people today forget the role China played in Hong Kong’s modernization’ (p. 53). Why is this? Is it because Hong Kong identity is bound up in the idea of distinctiveness, or is it something else?

JC: Yes, Hong Kong identity, as anywhere, is very much based on distinctiveness—in this case, especially against Chineseness on the mainland. This is hardly new and, in Edge of Empires, I traced it back to the late nineteenth century, arguing that the porous nature of the border between Hong Kong and China increased a sense of localness, at least for Hong Kong Chinese elites. This localness became even stronger after 1949, but it has grown far more intense with reintegration since 1997. I am not at all sure many Hong Kong people are willing to accept how much China contributed to Hong Kong’s modernisation starting in the late 1970s, partly because it does not jibe well with the idea of Hong Kong being such a special place.

DYH: You were present during the recent years of protest in Hong Kong, including the 2019 Anti–Extradition Bill protests. You chose to illustrate these events with a pamphlet aimed at travellers. Will you tell us more about the artwork and public messaging around the protests?

JC: The airport posters and pamphlets are only one small part of those created during the 2019 protests. But as someone who is now working on the history of Hong Kong tourism, I found them particularly intriguing. Travel and airports in Hong Kong (both Kai Tak, the old airport, and Chek Lap Kok, the current one) have long been symbols of mobility and modernity, and a symbol of hope, especially in terms of emigration. There has always been a contrast with the rail border crossing, which only meant entering and leaving mainland China. A modern international airport often signified what Hong Kong had and the mainland lacked, though of course this is different now with all the high-speed railways and new airports in the mainland.

The airport protests were a way for the protesters to take their case to the world (literally). The protesters tried to pressure the Hong Kong Government by gaining the attention of tourists. They knew the airport was a safe zone where the police could not use tear gas or pepper spray. The airport was also a symbolic space, representing both Hong Kong’s modernity and openness but also the state. The protesters even acted as a kind of unofficial tourist association to help explain their cause, but also to counter the official image of Hong Kong and to show what kind of place they believed Hong Kong was becoming.

DYH: In your conclusion, you provide an answer to many people who have asked about the fate of Hong Kong as ‘Asia’s World City’. You suggest that Hong Kong will remain ‘a thriving metropolis, a vibrant financial center, and a gateway for China and the rest of the world’ (p. 74). At the same time, you assert that ‘this is likely to be the end of a relationship between Hong Kong and China that endured for more than 150 years’ (p. 74). You go on to say that the city will not be a site of political reform or of protest. Reflecting on your definition of the ‘Hong Kong–China nexus’, is this also history?

JC: Yes, this reform and protest component of the Hong Kong–China nexus will indeed be history. I doubt we will ever see such a nexus again, though I will be happy to be proven wrong.

DYH: Your remarks have made me think a lot about the future of Hong Kong history. Accounts of the protests by social scientists have brought new energy to the study of Hong Kong as a contemporary society. What is next for Hong Kong history?

JC: There is more to Hong Kong history than protests, of course, but the events of the past few years have certainly created a huge interest in Hong Kong history both here and overseas. Courses on Hong Kong history in our universities have become immensely popular, and at HKU we have a new MA program in Hong Kong history that is drawing students from here and from the mainland. Hong Kong has long been a research subject in Japan, and new centres and programs focusing on Hong Kong are opening in Britain, Europe, and North America. But academia is not the only place for doing Hong Kong history. Local historical tourism is thriving. We have seen a flourishing of walking tours, for example, and websites devoted to promoting Hong Kong history. There have also been some interesting corporate–state–civil society initiatives to interpret and preserve Hong Kong’s heritage. Even if I am not so optimistic about the future of some aspects of the Hong Kong–China nexus, I have no doubt that interest in Hong Kong history will continue to grow.

Postwar Laos and the Global Land Rush: A Conversation with Michael Dwyer

Over the past two decades, Laos has been on the front lines of a global rise in transnational corporate land investments. This has been driven by China’s supposedly growing appetite for foreign land and resources, which has featured centrally in coverage of this so-called new global land rush. Mike Dwyer’s book Upland Geopolitics: Postwar Laos and the Global Land Rush (University of Washington Press, 2022) takes up several major assumptions about the land rush—that mapping of global land investments corresponds to grounded realities, that Chinese and other transnational investors take advantage of weak land governance in developing countries, and that poor countries like Laos and their land-reliant rural communities have stood helplessly by—and turns them on their head. This book exemplifies the power of careful, in-depth, long-term qualitative research. It shows how the microprocesses of political struggle and socioeconomic change in one country, presented in all their complexity, speak to pivotal processes of global environmental and political change far beyond its borders.

Dwyer has a finger on the pulse of two often-ignored sides of the land investment equation, especially when Chinese investors are involved. On the one hand, he has a deep understanding of how the development-aid community, nongovernmental organisations, and academics have perceived the intensification of Chinese economic ties with Laos, and how China’s rise has entwined with the global narrative of the ‘land grab’. On the other hand, he analyses regulatory processes and decision-making logics within the Lao State to draw important insights into how land governance intersects with processes of Lao state formation and struggles for authority. This type of analysis of host-country dynamics is rare in studies of Chinese overseas investment and yields nuanced observations of global China and the politics of land control and resource extraction.

The story told in this book is rife with categories that have become highly polarised in the current political moment. Dwyer writes about two (post)socialist nations (China and Laos), of tensions between traditional (mostly Western) development-aid organisations and Chinese initiatives, and of narratives of land grabs as neocolonial threats to national sovereignty. By including the legacies of French colonialism and US interventionism during the ‘hot’ Cold War years, when US military activity turned Laos into the most bombed country in the world, he shows that recent events that are often framed as sudden or surprising—such as trends in land commodification, dispossession, and intersections between foreign enterprises and state governance—are neither new nor unpredictable. Rather, Upland Geopolitics makes the case that today’s resource conflicts and political struggles related to land lie on top of long histories of state formation and foreign interventions—market and military—which deserve to be carefully examined in all their entanglements.

Newly planted rubber plantation in northwestern Laos, c. 2008. Source: Mike Dwyer.

Juliet Lu: Your research contributes a unique and important perspective on the changing politics of land control globally. A key backdrop to your work is the debate about the global land grab or, perhaps more accurately, the new global land rush. Why is Chinese transnational land investment an important lens through which to view the global land rush and the trajectories of change in the commodification of land over the past two decades?

Michael Dwyer: Global China provides an important window into the global land rush/land grab in at least two ways. First, there is the issue of timing. Chinese investment in Southeast Asia, like Chinese investment across the Global South, peaked a few years before the global land rush was recognised as a coherent phenomenon in late 2008 and 2009. Others have pointed out that, from a foreign policy perspective, Beijing realised, quite correctly, that perceptions of neocolonialism, especially when projects involved land acquisition, could pose a threat to investments’ ability to get off the ground in the first place or, once started, to continue operations. In the book, the peak in what I call land-finding efforts in Laos—specifically by Chinese rubber companies—happened around 2005–2006, significantly before the global land grab frame emerged (see, for instance, GRAIN 2008). This peak was the result of a boom in investment activity triggered by the resolution of a regulatory struggle that took place between 2000 and 2004. During this time, a stalemate arose between Chinese rubber companies and Lao authorities who had managed to counter the Politburo-level enthusiasm for bilateral rubber cooperation (on both sides of the border) by advocating against large-scale land concessions and in favour of so-called alternative or more ‘cooperative’ approaches to rubber development, like contract farming.

In some ways, my window into this process was limited. I was unable to see, for example, how Chinese central government authorities communicated with the firms that, throughout the early and mid 2000s, pushed for land access in Laos in ways that were much more aggressive than the geopolitical restraint exercised by Beijing a few years later in the wake of the global food and financial crises. However, I did see the Lao side, where the objections by officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry made their way into the regulatory actions of local Lao governments in key borderland regions (I talk about this in Chapters 1 and 4: the former focuses on the provincial-level struggle, and the latter zooms in on a single district). This all took place from 2004 to 2007 and highlights what I call the conjunctural nature of the global land rush: as a coherent phenomenon, it came together in the geopolitically inflected language (‘global land grab’, ‘farms race’, ‘new scramble for Africa’, etcetera) in 2008, but a lot of it involved processes that were already in motion and that operated on different temporal scales.

In the book, I describe these phenomena through three overlapping processes that reach progressively further back in time: first, the regional economic ‘corridor’–based integration of the upper Mekong region that began in the 1990s and took off in the early 2000s; second, Laos’s legal geography specifically related to land, which stretched back to the 1980s and comprised an effort to lay out a map of formal property rights in the wake of the 1975 revolution (more on this below); and third, the Cold War period of the 1960s to the 1980s, when the uneven citizenship that came to dominate the social geography of property in the absence of a complete cadastre originated in the localised geography of who was on which side of the war, and which was reanimated by the state-managed resettlement process that followed in the 1990s and 2000s.

A second point highlights the important distinction between the land rush and the land grab frames by examining the geography of actual land acquisition by Chinese companies. One of the things I spend a lot of time on in the book is explaining why enclosure in Laos happens where it does. This has a few dimensions, but one starting place is the incomplete cadastre, especially in rural areas. This does not mean that property rights in rural Laos are completely informal or customary and/or that the state owns all the land—although you often hear both these assertions. Rather, it means that the way that property rights have been brought under the formal protection of law is both partial and decentralised, and that property in practice is the result of many things, only some of them legal. Let’s put it like this: if you were to look at the cadastral map of the economic ‘corridor’ that my book centres—a swathe of northwestern Laos that follows an old caravan trade route between Yunnan in China and Chiang Rai in Thailand and that was turned into a paved highway about 2005—you would not find anything; the map would be empty, since the area is essentially untitled by the central government land office. And if you were to look for the same thing at the local district government level, depending on how you asked for it, either you would get nothing (if you asked for a single cadastral map) or you would find a collection of village-scale zoning maps that show cadastral parcels in certain areas but not others. So, when Chinese companies went looking for ‘available’ land, they had to go out into the field and do a mix of searching and negotiating; they could not simply consult government maps to locate available land.

As the book describes, this relative dearth of legal geography does not mean that all the unmapped land was available. Rather, much rural land was under various forms of use, but it could be made available for development in certain circumstances, although not in others. I describe this in the book in the language of land’s ‘social availability’ to highlight the unevenness of these processes, and to highlight the need to look closer to the ground ethnographically. So the guts of the book really span the three periods mentioned above: the 1960s, when the seeds of fractured upland citizenship emerged in the territoriality of US Cold War intervention in upland Laos; the 1980s, when these fractures were carried over into the new ‘revolutionary’ regime of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR); and the 2000s, when they were put to use in the land-finding process by local officials in the northwest who were trying to figure out the ‘right’ places for Chinese companies to put their various plantations. Some of these were company-owned and managed plantations, while others were outgrower schemes that left farmers on their own land growing rubber under contract.

This multitemporality—the ‘conjuncture’ mentioned above—means that recent enclosures depend on layers of existing social relations. This is important because it also explains why the biggest company plantations end up where they do—namely, in areas into which ‘security risk’ populations have been settled. In the book, I frame this as a question of why the global land rush (a search for land by corporate and state actors from abroad) ended up as a land grab (an achievement of that search) in some places but not in others.

The China story is exemplary because the case I examine in northern Laos mirrors the geopolitical restraint mentioned above: the Chinese rubber company that ends up getting a major enclosure is successful not because it pushes and pushes for plantation land, but because it frames its push in the inclusive language of ‘development cooperation’ and contract farming—a key way to overcome nationalist-tinged objections to ‘giving land away to foreigners’—and because it is willing to settle for a series of enclosures that are limited in space (although they are still fairly large). This, however, is not just about the companies; it is also about local officials and, in this sense, the geopolitical restraint is not just about ‘China’ or ‘Beijing’; it is also about the way that Lao officials hedged their bets and limited the enclosures to areas where active citizenship was weak. As I put it in the text (p. 127):

[T]he management of enclosure’s social distribution proved crucial. Targeting [company plantations] into [specific areas] showed a certain hedging on the part of Lao officials: a hopeful optimism, perhaps, that Chinese rubber development could be used to finance permanent livelihood creation where earlier efforts had failed, but also a pragmatic limiting of the negative fallout (when such efforts of incorporation ultimately failed and produced merely a land grab) to subpopulations with limited political capital.

Laos’s ‘Northern Economic Corridor.’ Source: Mike Dwyer.

Capitalising on the unevenness of the local social terrain to create and sustain enclosure—what I call the ‘micro-geopolitics’ that shape the grounding of the standard (‘macro’/international relations) geopolitics—is ultimately a key reason the book is useful for understanding the land rush. It helps illustrate the key difference between the global land rush in general and land grabs on the ground.

JL: My understanding of your point about ‘socially available’ land and the uneven micro-geopolitics of Chinese land investments in Laos is that they counter what the term ‘land grab’ suggests: that large, contiguous swathes are unilaterally taken over by Chinese firms. Instead, there is a highly involved and contingent process of negotiation and engagement between actors to find parcels of land for companies. This process means that some areas are left alone by local state actors for some reason and others are targeted; some villages have had no recourse after losing land, while others have refused plantation investments successfully. Is this an accurate reading?

MD: I do not think the term land grabbing inherently has a scale to it; its analytic punch is in the issue of legitimacy, not size. In an earlier piece (Dwyer 2013), I set out a sort of typology of land grabbing that highlighted both the legal and the non-legal forms of plantation-concession enclosures, as well as the ways that concessions figured in intrastate resource politics, allowing one set of authorities to ‘grab’ resources from others. If you look at the size of the land grabs in Laos, they vary significantly—although in terms of the contiguous field areas, that has not been adequately accounted for yet. In the areas I was studying, the big land grabs tended to be in the tens to hundreds of hectares, which is much smaller than many of the numbers that circulated globally (see, for instance, the annex to the 2008 GRAIN report); I think this is what you were getting at. Your description here is generally right, as long as it is clear that the ‘highly involved and contingent process of negotiation and engagement between actors to find parcels of land for companies’ does not always include the users of that land; often the ‘actors’ are local officials acting allegedly on behalf of the current users of that land. And that is where it gets tricky, as I elaborate on in Chapter 4.

JL: A common theme in Upland Geopolitics is the gap between narratives of the phenomenon you document (the influx of Chinese land investment, the role of Lao state officials in facilitating those investments, and how the Lao State governs the people and lands of northern Laos) and realities on the ground. I find your approach—what you call ‘an ethnography of upland government’, in which you draw on the longer-term histories of land control, development, and state formation to contextualise your ethnographic material—to be a novel and effective way of getting at these tensions between narratives and realities and showing how those misfitting narratives nevertheless shape actions and outcomes. I would contrast this with a tendency in mainstream development and academic research circles alike to equate the terms ‘evidence’ or ‘data’ with information collected and analysed through quantitative methods and the rush to compile global databases in an era of big data and data science. Can you point to vital realisations you had that could only have resulted from the approach you took? And are there certain questions or contexts for which you see this approach being particularly valuable?

MD: One of my biggest realisations took place in the wider context of the experience I recount in the book’s opening sketch. In it, I describe the run-around some colleagues and I experienced in 2006 when we were trying to ground-truth the investment inventory process that had been started a few months earlier by Laos’s National Land Management Authority. In the sketch, I describe not having any documents—maps, contracts, proposals, anything—the first time we visited the rubber plantation whose story I built the book around. The realisation that there was something structural to this experience of being ‘lost in the field’ even with the government’s own regulators came gradually, once I started to see the maps and documents that had been made during the companies’ land-finding efforts but that were repeatedly glossed in mainstream (for example, newspaper) reports as not existing at all. When central government officials spoke of insufficient care being taken in the process of allocating land for plantation investments, they often spoke of the lack of maps in ways that implied that the maps were not being made at all. This was a dodge, although it was often taken in stride by development professionals (both foreign and domestic) who saw this as ‘a capacity issue’. Once we started seeing the maps, it became increasingly clear that it was not that the maps were not being made; they were—they just were not being shared. This was the ‘a-ha’ moment that gave the book its two-part argument: not just about micro-geopolitics as a way to explain the uneven distribution of enclosure, but also about ongoing state formation, or bureaucratic turf politics, as a way to explain why these micro-geopolitical processes so often remained hidden. This pointed me to the ways in which intrastate politics get in the way of the regulatory process.

Thinking more broadly, these dynamics are likely present to some degree everywhere: as critical scholars of transparency have pointed out, transparency as a process is always partial. Highlighting a process through one set of numbers (or maps or whatever) inevitably obscures other processes and other sets. Transparency always has a politics, which is why disclosure processes are so frequently problematic and contested. In Laos and Cambodia, where I have also worked on this, my sense is that these sorts of things were especially obvious due to the presence of what scholars call legal pluralism: contexts where multiple sets of norms (that is, not just laws) govern the ownership of and access to land and resources. There is often a tendency to start with law or policy and try to look ‘downward’ at the flow of power or authority into a single location (‘Who owns the land here?’, etcetera). In the contexts I have studied, this approach is an immediate dead end when there is no cadastre to begin with, and where the zoning maps that are posted at the edge of the village do not match the way the land is used. Almost immediately you have to ask what else is going on. But this sort of internal politics is likely to be relevant elsewhere as well—you just have to look a little harder for it.

JL: Just as Chinese investment could be an important lens into the global land rush, the Lao uplands seem to offer an important lens into development in post-socialist, postcolonial contexts. You show how widely used apolitical development terms like ‘poverty alleviation’, ‘land tenure security’, and ‘access to markets and government services’ overlie processes of state formation and struggles for authority over territory. Building on the question of gaps between narratives and on-the-ground realities, can you comment on how you conceptualise the Lao uplands and why they have inspired such interest among colonisers, imperial powers, domestic state actors, and foreign development workers?

MD: A partial answer to this, based on my case, hinges on ‘the uplands’ as a conception of space whose meaning built on expectations of available natural resources: timber, water, energy, minerals, forest products, land, or whatever. It is hard not to think of the work of Nancy Peluso, Tania Li, and Anna Tsing on the way that upland landscapes in Indonesia (and Southeast Asia more generally) have been imagined as ‘political forests’ dating back to at least colonial era, although Thongchai Winichakul’s (2000) essay ‘The Others Within’ really helped me see how this sort of lowland-centric optic of hilly areas was not limited to Western colonialism.

In the book, I talk about how these resource politics establish a field of contestation between communities and extractive forces (state, corporate, often both), but how they also are inevitably overlaid with and shaped by other forces as well. I use Michael Perelman’s (2007) language of ‘calibrating the model of primitive accumulation’ to look at how processes of enclosure play out, and the book looks to two main historical periods to examine this on the ground. I mentioned these periods briefly above. The first was the 1960s to early 1970s, when US intervention in pre-1975 Laos created a form of upland territoriality that capitalised on remoteness. This created a series of sociopolitical fractures that permeated much of the country’s upland landscape. This story is relatively well known in northeastern Laos in terms of its effects on Hmong communities, the legacy of unexploded ordnance, the links to the Vietnam War, and so on. Much less is known in the northwest, which was more closely linked to China’s ‘theatre’ of the Cold War—and here I drew heavily on the work of Al McCoy, Leif Jonsson, and others.

The second period on which I focus is the 1980s, when these earlier fractures made their way into the post-1975 Government of the Lao PDR via a mix of ongoing rural insurgencies and corresponding tactics developed by the government and its international aid partners for pursuing industrial forestry. In both cases, the security politics animated the resource politics in very specific ways that led to a general model of state-managed resettlement, which I develop in Chapter 3 and then complicate in Chapter 4. The story of how enclosure was created during the boom decade of the 2000s—the so-called global land rush—depends on these inevitably local and regional dynamics. But the methodology of looking at how historical geographies of political conflict underlie and ‘calibrate’ the resource politics of the present has a general utility and could certainly be applied elsewhere. Indeed, it already has been—just look at the work of Megan Ybarra, Kevin Woods, Jean-Christophe Diepart, and Teo Balve, among others.

JL: What you unlocked for me by rooting recent land politics in longer histories was insight into the complex power dynamics at play—power dynamics that only this kind of careful qualitative approach can uncover. We see throughout the book (and through time) the same groups of actors divided, engaged in similar struggles to control each other and to control key spaces and resources. Most prominently, we see a parade of actors—from colonial officials to Lao state actors to foreign corporations—talking of uplanders as backward, entrenched in poverty, remote, and disconnected. Over time, the tools and discourses at play change, but the groups using them, and the resources struggled over, remain relatively consistent. This helps us see higher-level logics of control and processes of state formation driving programs like resettlement, land investment, and even infrastructure development broadly. Without putting words in your mouth, I wonder whether you would say your approach of ‘ethnography of upland government’ is an especially apt, maybe even necessary, way to approach places with histories and power dynamics as complicated (and often misunderstood) as those in the Lao uplands?

MD: We often hear (or at least read) that property is a social relation, but it is so tempting to go straight to what the law says or what the title documents say—in the Lao case, the lack of titling, the reversion to ‘state land’ after three years of ‘non-use’, etcetera. What is harder—but, given the unevenness of the enclosure process, necessary—is to figure out how to capture the numerous and historically sedimented social relations that property comprises as a social institution in a particular context. This is what took me, methodologically, first to Michael Perelman, and ultimately to Foucault.

Perelman pointed me towards the utility of taking an ethnographic approach to primitive accumulation—that is, to study property in-the-making by following the people he calls ‘primitive accumulationists’ and asking what they are trying to accomplish and how they go about it. In his work on colonial-era capitalism, he points out that one way to think about enclosure is as a variation on a standard model where the details of that model’s ‘calibration’ to a particular context really matter and emerge from historical context as well. Perelman’s examination of the colonial plantation-manager types pointed in this general direction and focused on the need to examine the strategic dimensions of various details of enclosure. What I took especially was his insistence that partial enclosure poses a question of strategy, since it is sometimes functional to the maintenance of the social reproduction of labour.

From Foucault, I took the need to complicate this strategic sort of analysis by looking at the competition between the multiple sets of ‘primitive accumulationists’ who are active in the sphere of upland property-making. In my case, that meant interpreting what I was seeing ethnographically as the outcome of competition between Chinese companies and a few different sets of state officials, each of which was advocating for slightly different modes of enclosure: more complete forms by the companies, more partial forms by local officials, and other sorts of resource access by the more distant state officials, which created a regulatory conflict that made those first two modes all the harder to see. Ultimately, it was this clash between what you might call competing modes of primitive accumulation—competing governmentalities, in a sense—that came out of the mix when I tried to study enclosure from the ground up (what Foucault calls an ‘ascending approach’ to power relations). While I owe Philippe Le Billon a debt for suggesting the term micro-geopolitics to me, it was this ascending approach that put the ‘micro’ in micropolitics in the first place.

That said, the nuance I would add to your question is that part of the complexity in the story comes from the fact that the nature of the ‘resource’ itself changed at a key point in the story. Even if both French colonial administrators in the past and Chinese companies (as well as local governments) today are going after land as an economic resource (for plantations, timber, etcetera), the Cold War interlude shows land as a political resource that functioned in a very different way. Here the resource was not land in a property sense, but remoteness in a territorial one, which produced the form of ‘denationalised’ upland territoriality that I focus in Chapter 2. This was all about extrapolating the fractures and failures of French colonial ‘development’—things like the lack of infrastructure, the sparsity of settlement, etcetera. So, yes, while there is certainly continuity in terms of the discourses of upland marginality, underdevelopment, poverty, etcetera, territorialities shift over time in ways that are ultimately combined to facilitate contemporary practices of enclosure.

JL: To conclude, your book provides a nuanced view of Global China from a host country’s perspective—a host country that is wary even when welcoming. You wade into the ways host countries might see welcoming Chinese investment as a risk, and many reasons offered by critics from different corners of the world of why they should fear China’s rise more broadly. But Chinese and Lao actors alike often portray the two countries as partners; I have heard many refer to them as socialist brothers or just neighbours with a lot of joint interests. You offer the idea of ‘peaceful evolution’, which is, interestingly, a Cold War–era term from the United States that you quote an American in Laos using to explain the Lao Government’s mixed promotion and control of Chinese investment. This to me was an excellent way of complicating the good–bad binary through which China is often viewed, of the balancing act the Lao State performs between the many foreign forces (including but not limited to Chinese land investors), and how that drives population control efforts. Not to mention the poetry in your use of a term from such a distant but weirdly resonant time (the Cold War) and context. I would encourage readers of Global China Pulse to read your book to learn more about that concept, why it fits the China-in-Laos situation, and how the Lao Government sought to harness Chinese investment for its own ends while trying to avoid allowing rubber plantations and other foreign investments to constitute the seeds of peaceful evolution. It is a balancing act the country’s leaders continue to navigate and one that complicates the flows of Chinese capital beyond its own borders.

Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China: A Conversation with Annah Lake Zhu

China and the environment often sit in tension—for example, China is a primary polluter while also the key to our global environmental security, and China is both the largest deforester and the largest planter of trees. How might we reconcile demand for resources within China and the country’s efforts to preserve these resources? Can one resource help us rethink global conservation efforts in the twenty-first century and, in turn, the concept of Global China? In her new book, Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China (Harvard University Press, 2022), Annah Lake Zhu grapples with these questions, offering a rigorous look at China’s growing environmentalism through the boom in rosewood trade between China and Madagascar.

Rosewood is the world’s most trafficked endangered species by value and its supply is declining. Demand is fuelled by China’s 26 billion USD market for traditional furniture as Chinese consumers seek to reclaim a cultural heritage that was condemned as bourgeois during the Cultural Revolution. Much of the timber for rosewood furniture is extracted directly from forests in Africa and Asia, which has led to international restrictions on its trade. Zhu suggests that such environmental responses overlook the economic and cultural dimensions of rosewood demand, with deleterious effects.

She illuminates the drivers of the trade from consumption to conservation and the effects it has within forest communities and the Malagasy state. Key to her analysis is how rosewood is valued from different perspectives, including those of Chinese loggers and traders, residents of northeast Madagascar, and Western conservationists. The extraction of rosewood offers residents access to capital and a means to reclaim forests. Meanwhile, the tree is also perceived as a symbol of cultural identity and sophistication, and of the demise of global biodiversity. More than holding these perspectives in tension, Zhu shows how each is rooted in a preservationist logic that ‘reinvents an idyllic past to meet the needs of the present’ (p. 15).

A mixed forest/rice-farming landscape in central Madagascar. PC: Annah Zhu.

Zhu’s rich ethnography traverses China’s largest rosewood commercial centre and forests and plantations in Madagascar. She begins in China, tracing rosewood’s imperial past and contemporary revival to argue that the current boom in consumption is a product of cultural legacies and financial speculation. In the Malagasy forests, the rosewood boom results in ‘hot money’ spending. Alongside an influx of capital, the rosewood trade offers locals a means to ‘take back’ national parks that they view as being under the influence of Western conservation orthodoxy. Zhu then turns to the evolution of conservation in Madagascar, showing how both military-inspired protectionist and community-based participatory approaches often backfire. For example, rather than stopping the trade, Western ‘rosewood task forces’ penalise those who participate in it, which often increases deforestation as loggers cut more trees in anticipation of fines. Additionally, Western trade bans have increased prices, leading to speculation, and even criminal activity.

While Western rosewood conservation efforts remain protectionist, Zhu finds that the Chinese Government and firms are investing in rosewood preservation through expansive mixed-use agroforests. This sustainable approach, she suggests, offers a Chinese environmentalism that both preserves species and circumvents a Western conservation ethic. By exploring Chinese demand for endangered species alongside differences between Western and Chinese approaches to conservation, divergent global approaches to the environment and biodiversity are abundantly clear. Zhu concludes that what is at stake when we think about contemporary Global China is ‘how the country could rewrite globalization and the environment on its own terms’ (p. 33). She calls for a global environmentalism of the twenty-first century that both reconciles these approaches and decentres the West. As she meticulously demonstrates, this will only be possible through genuine and unbiased understanding of China’s approach to the environment and the local processes and effects of resource extraction.

Logs piled outside of the Furen timber market in Shanghai, China. PC: Annah Zhu.
Loggers transporting rosewood through a village in northeastern Madagascar. PC: Annah Zhu.

Jessica DiCarlo: Your opening vignette is powerful as you describe the theft of six priceless Chinese artworks from the residence of the King of Sweden—one of a series of heists of Chinese artefacts taken by Western powers over the centuries. By viewing these thefts from Western and Chinese perspectives, you raise questions of market versus cultural value and underscore the thin line between repatriation and crime. You push readers to think about how something is valued and by whom. Could you talk about why you started with this vignette, how you landed on it, and what it opens us to in the book?

Annah Lake Zhu: This opening was originally hidden in a chapter deep in the book and my editor suggested I move it towards the beginning. It was a great suggestion because it allowed me to start from a non-environmental place. It gets readers to consider a case that seems to have nothing to do with the environment, where there are stark differences in perspectives—Chinese art ‘thefts’ or ‘repatriations’—depending on different cultural/sociopolitical vantage points. In this sense, it’s an easy example of clear differences in global perspective that does not come with all the discursive baggage and pre-existing biases one may have when discussing the environment. Starting from a non-environmental place, I can show readers how this same type of relativism in fact applies to discussions of the global environment and endangered species. The lines between what is right and wrong, how things should or should not be done, are also not so clear when it comes to environmental actions, but it is harder to see this. The rest of the book is then about revealing these conflicted positions when it comes to endangered species and the environment.

I also liked the idea of starting with the issue of repatriation because it’s a very hot topic now. It’s frequently understood, however, in terms of indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups. But when it comes to the question of China and repatriation, the dynamic changes. Rather than repatriation to a marginalised group, it’s to a strong, powerful counter to the West—which of course many indigenous groups can also be, but here it’s in a different way. It makes you question the drive to repatriate at all and it makes you look at the process of repatriation a little differently, and I really liked to have that in the beginning. Then readers take that example with them throughout the book. What might repatriation look like when it comes to endangered species and the environment? What does it mean to give Malagasy people the ability to protect or use their resources as they see fit? And, perhaps more polemically, where might China fit in this process of environmental repatriation—especially when it comes to the country’s seemingly insatiable demand for rosewood and other endangered species?

JD: I appreciate how you examine globalisation, the rise of China, and global environmentalism through one commodity: Malagasy rosewood. Can you tell us about rosewood in the multiple ways you discuss and think about it in the book: the tree itself, as a highly speculative commodity, a cultural product, and a resource to conserve?

ALZ: From a conservation perspective, rosewood is a group of threatened and endangered tree species that grow throughout the tropics and are particularly imperilled in Madagascar due to a history of logging that dates to before the colonial period. Since 2000, China has overtaken the West as the primary destination of rosewood logs cut from Madagascar. But rosewood in China is valued very differently than in the West. There, it has come to be far more expensive than it ever was in the United States or France because of the wood’s unique cultural history in the country. Rosewood from Madagascar happens to look remarkably like a rosewood variety used in late imperial China that is now commercially extinct. Because of this likeness, the wood is worth exponentially more than it was before. The growing demand has triggered logging booms in the forests of Madagascar and, in response, the deployment of militarised conservation forces in an attempt to stop the logging. Meanwhile, in China, the wood fuels a 26 billion USD market for classical furniture.

Elaborate carvings on rosewood panels at a furniture factory in Shenzhen, China. PC: George Zhu.

JD: You contrast Western conspicuous consumption and cultural capitalism. Can you tell us more about that contrast and explain why, from a Chinese perspective, rosewood is so highly valued?

ALZ: Often we miss how much cultural elements play into everyday Chinese life. In the United States or Europe, people talk about China’s demand for endangered species as a type of conspicuous consumption. Buying and selling endangered species are understood first and foremost as a way to make money and be seen as rich. Many recent texts, especially now with Covid-19, are also trying to understand Chinese demand for wildlife in terms of Chinese tradition—that is, in cultural terms. But these two types of explanations—the cultural versus the economic—are often seen as competing. Which one is it? Which one really matters? Are Chinese people really embracing cultural ideals or are they just trying to make money? But what’s more interesting to examine is the articulation between those economic forces that are very real and affecting China and the cultural dimensions that create a whole separate value system outside the economy—a system for the economic forces to feed off. And it’s precisely this synergy between the economic value and the cultural value that really makes resources such as rosewood boom; it’s what makes them highly speculative commodities. So, what we should be talking about is the intersection between cultural and economic elements and not arguing about whether the demand is based on tradition versus neoliberal or economic. It is truly both. Without one or the other, it would not be nearly as powerful.

Historically, we see this type of hybrid, cultural/economic speculation in Western art: Picassos, Pollocks, and so forth. But now—since the mid 2000s—we see it in distinctly Chinese cultural things as well. It’s the same type of economic speculation feeding off cultural values, but it’s in a totally different cultural milieu and cultural history than that of Western art and antiques. And it has a huge impact on demand for endangered species in China.

JD: I would love to turn to your history chapter. I was impressed by its detail and how you connected it to the present in a way that feels quite approachable to people who perhaps have read very little Chinese history, especially on the imperial legacy of rosewood. You write that the story of rosewood in China began centuries ago; it has been written through the Qing and Ming dynasties and the Cultural Revolution. Can you share why this is so important for your book, and explain how, as you suggest, rosewood reflects a history of China?

ALZ: When I started my research, I was very focused on the Madagascar side of things and only a bit later I began my research in China. I’m not at all a historian, and when I turned to researching China, I knew very little. I learned about Chinese history through learning about the history of rosewood in China and I realised that it was a surprisingly good way to learn about Chinese history because so many pivotal moments are encapsulated in it. In the book, I go through them: the infatuation with rosewood during late imperial China—a time that represents a certain idealised zenith of Chinese traditional culture in the contemporary imagination; then the complete scorn and abandonment of this tradition during the Cultural Revolution; and then the return to it alongside China’s global reintegration. The value of rosewood inverted dramatically throughout these key moments in Chinese history. So, the history of rosewood in China is a really good lens for understanding the history of China generally.

I really must give credit to my husband for this idea of thinking about rosewood in this way. I remember early on, just after returning from Madagascar, I was asking him (he was born in Shanghai and much of his family is still living there, themselves owning rosewood furniture) why he thought the wood was so expensive. It’s not necessarily of a higher quality than other woods that are worth much less. And then he began to explain that it’s not just the wood, that the wood is associated with a specific cultural legacy of a specific type of furniture-making and that’s the value of it: the combination of that wood with this whole cultural legacy. That’s why it’s so valuable. And I was like: ‘Tell me more about that!’ And I just did not know any of these things, because I was approaching it like a conservationist would approach it. I had very little context for what something like the Ming Dynasty means in relation to rosewood. For that matter, I had very little context for what Chinese history writ large means for the present moment in China. Really, to understand Global China today, the history of the country, the history of this ‘civilisation-state’, is immensely important. It was easier for me, and it will be the same for people reading this book, to get into the history by looking at the material and the craft. It’s an easier way to distil a very complex history to understand how it matters for our contemporary world.

Unfinished rosewood chairs at a furniture factory in Shenzhen, China. PC: George Zhu.

JD: You write that rosewood, ‘as a conflicted global resource, tells us exactly what we expect to hear about natural resource extraction and struggles over land: East versus West battling it out in the resource-rich “Third World.” But if we listen very carefully, it also tells us the opposite’ (p. 14). Can you tell us about your process of listening more closely and what was revealed through the rosewood story in Madagascar and China?

ALZ: Rosewood—not in the story I tell, but what you will hear in the media—is your stereotypical endangered species: Europeans wiped out most of it, then they learned better and stopped, and now the Asians are wiping out what is left. This is what we expect to hear about resource extraction and endangered species, especially when it comes to China. I try to tell a different story. And I do this by listening closely to the stories of rosewood that arise outside Western media and outside conservation discourse. Listening to stories about rosewood in China and Madagascar, what you will hear is completely different. In China, it is about the cultural history of the wood and newfound wealth, and in Madagascar it is about fleeting new economic opportunities and loss of control of one’s resources. Listening closely, for me, is one way to decentre our own perspectives, to get outside our comfort zone. We don’t do that nearly enough when it comes to China and environmental problems in Madagascar.

JD: In the book, you note that the term ‘endangered species’ does not translate to plants or trees in Malagasy but only to animals. How do local people talk and think about rosewood? Can you speak about the local readings of the tree?

ALZ: Translating ‘endangered species’ is difficult in Malagasy. One common translation is biby efa ho lany teranaka—‘animals about to become extinct’ or, as someone put it to me, an animal whose generation will soon ‘run out’. Calling rosewood an endangered species in this way will probably make many Malagasy people think you are crazy—first, because it’s not an animal and, second, because the younger (not commercially viable) trees are quite easy to find. So, of course, local people don’t talk about rosewood as an endangered species. Historically, they don’t really talk about rosewood much at all outside colonial logging.

When I started my research, I really wanted to uncover some good stories from Malagasy people about folklore concerning rosewood. But there was very little because, primarily, they do not use the tree very much because it is so heavy. They do not want to lug it from the forest. The most interesting story I came across was someone telling me they overheard another person on a bus insisting that Jesus Christ’s cross was made of rosewood, referring to rosewood from Madagascar specifically. But this is not an old or well-known story; the person who told it to me dismissed it as probably the ravings of a madman (although he was intrigued and wanted to know if I’d ever heard such a thing). These types of stories arise during logging booms. There are also speculations about what rosewood really is used for; why is it so expensive? Some hypothesise it has medicinal qualities (and, here, this is another local use of the tree: people in the area drink water mixed with rosewood sawdust as a remedy for upset stomachs. I tried some and it’s disgusting!). Others just call it a famous tree. But aside from that, the trees do not occupy a huge space in local folklore. It’s mostly considered (alongside vanilla, cloves, and other cash crops of the region) primarily for outsiders and they are not entirely sure what it will be used for once it leaves Madagascar.

JD: In the introduction, you offer the image of two trails running parallel in the forest as a representation of the divergent global demands and values of rosewood. How did you arrive at these paths in your work and trajectory, and how do they help us better understand Global China as a product of tensions?

ALZ: This image was something one of my interviewees shared with me. He made it very clear for me to understand: there are two trails in the park he worked in. One he goes on with the tourists. Another is for the loggers. They don’t mix them up; he can’t take the tourists on the logging trails and the loggers can’t come looking for trees on the tourist trails. I thought about it metaphorically when he told me and got very inspired, but he insisted to me it was quite literal. In the book, I try to extend the metaphor and reflect on it personally. I initially approached the case of rosewood from a conservation perspective. I was very much on the tourist trail, both figuratively and (at least once) literally. But after I started my PhD and went back to do my research, I began seeing things from the logging perspective and jumping over to that trail. This inevitably led me to China and the whole investigation on the demand side. And at that point I realised that before I was looking at the issue from just one perspective, and so are many others. And that to a certain extent explains why we are where we are with the tree, why conservation has not been a success when it comes to rosewood. Why people in Madagascar are not particularly gung-ho about conserving it. And, certainly, why people in China have other plans for rosewood and are a bit wary of Western efforts to conserve it. So, this was all very much personal. I was seeing my own ignorance and it was fascinating. I really wanted to share that in the book.

JD: How did you experience and see the rosewood boom in Madagascar? Who are the loggers and how are they connected to the global trade?

ALZ: I interviewed a lot of loggers and traders and I saw some of the logs in transit. But more than that, I saw the impacts of the logging boom on the villages and cities nearby. New houses were being built, with people claiming the money all came from rosewood. Small parties were frequently held on the streets by the rosewood bosses. Any tall concrete fences that were built were rumoured to be hiding rosewood on the other side. The trade caused a lot of inflation in the region and those not involved were fed up with it. The local bus stopped running and was allegedly repurposed into a rosewood transport vehicle. Teachers left their posts to join the trade. It had all the hallmarks—the positives and negatives—of any resource boom. This includes the vastly uneven structure, where loggers on the ground make relatively little (although still a lot, given the lack of other economic opportunities), the mid-level traders make a sizeable portion more, and the bosses who have ties to China become multimillionaires, some potentially billionaires.

A craftsman saws a rosewood branch in northeastern Madagascar. PC: George Zhu.

JD: China’s approaches to endangered species and reforestation provide alternative ecological visions that could appeal to people who do not share a Western fixation with conservation or preservation. It struck me that China’s rosewood plantations seem to be highly desirable to people in Madagascar, as opposed to more protectionist or militarised forms of conservation. At the same time, Western conservation efforts are still very much at play. How do local people reconcile and/or engage with the two? Did communities end up adopting any of the imported perspectives (for example, conservation or working with companies on extraction)?

ALZ: Like the two trails—the tourist trails and the logging trails—both are at play in Madagascar. We see both conservation and logging right next to each other. Rosewood plantations are an interesting third element, a type of hybrid between the two. It’s sort of conservation and it’s sort of logging. Not all the trees planted will be logged and there is an idea of sustainability (at least in the sense of longevity) behind it. But there are not enough rosewood plantations in Madagascar—only a few private plantations established by rich Chinese-Malagasy people. Instead, a lot of people work on both the conservation and the logging sides. One of my main interlocutors had worked as both a conservation worker (as an ecotourist guide) and a logger. And he would joke that he was bad at both! He said that as a guide he could never find the animals for the tourists to see. And as a logger he was scrawny, so not particularly good at that either.

In general, I found two perspectives on conservation from people in the region. The first was from those who are wary of the whole conservation drive from Western donors. Some think it is entirely made up. One of my friends said that the whole endangered species concept was just created to control Malagasy people and prevent them from using their own resources. But then there is another perspective coming from the region, mostly those who work more closely with the conservation organisations, and they genuinely believe in it. They affirm that we need to protect species and that it is good for their country and their communities. So, both are there, although the first is probably more prevalent.

JD: I really enjoyed your chapter on ‘hot money’. Can you tell us more about the impacts of this phenomenon, the influx of capital, and the boom-and-bust cycles in the region?

ALZ: Rosewood—and also vanilla, the other major export crop of the region—is a highly volatile economy. There are periods of huge influxes of cash and then it all dries up. The volatility is also relatively new. When rosewood was logged during the colonial period and after it was a bit more stable. The booms since 2000 are much more volatile, not only because of volatile speculative markets but also because of selective/inconsistent military deployment to uphold logging bans. So, with these boom-and-bust cycles, we get this phenomenon that Malagasy people call ‘hot money’ (or vola mafana). It’s when workers spend all their earnings in one egregious spree. These can be conventional: trips to the bars, bidding on women, and so forth, but also more creative, like pasting money to chameleons or boiling it up and eating it as soup.

On some level, hot money in Madagascar is a Global China story; it’s about Chinese traders coming out and buying wood from Madagascar in large quantities for large sums of cash, and the reverberations of this demand outside China. It’s interesting that all this excess capital fuelling the rosewood boom in China is also called ‘hot money’. This is hot money in the global financial sense: excess capital flows being channelled quickly from one market to another to exploit variable rates of return. Hot money in Madagascar shows the other side of this global financial speculation, how it manifests in places where paper money is still the default and banks are days away and not really used anyway. Hot money in China and hot money in Madagascar are two sides of the same coin.

JD: How do you think about using ethnography to study Global China at this moment and why is it an important method?

ALZ: In popular discourse when you’re talking about China and our connections with China, it’s primarily economic and geopolitical: trade, finance, security. That is how the West is tied to China, while on the cultural level there’s a huge disconnect—a remarkable disconnect for how economically connected we are. But Global China is both cultural and economic. We need to understand it through both dimensions, which means, of course, we have to do ethnography. And I think specifically how Anna Tsing defines ethnography—thinking about an issue with your informants, with your interlocutors—is great for this type of problem. This cultural disconnect between China and the West, where economically we are so connected and culturally so disconnected, can be eased a bit by doing this type of ethnography. For rosewood, we can see how the same material reality is considered so differently from different perspectives.

JD: Trying to straddle multiple places and study a global phenomenon on the ground are not straightforward tasks. Something I love about this book is that your ethnography takes place in Madagascar and in China. Why did you feel that going to China was an important part of your work?

ALZ: It was essential for this story. Maybe some other Global China stories might not need this. But for understanding rosewood and what it means to different people, going to China, talking to people living and working in China, were essential. Also, it really helped to be married to a Chinese person, especially one who is very blunt about pointing out my own ignorance and limited perspective.

But I also have to emphasise that the story I tell in the book is not what a Chinese or Malagasy person would tell about rosewood. It’s very much about a Western person coming to understand different points of view concerning the same topic, the same material thing. It’s about trying to convey that and, in the process, decentring or destabilising the Western perspective a bit. The ultimate goal is to have my audience, which is no doubt largely Western, reflect on their own positionality.

JD: You write: ‘There is a growing environmentalism in China, but it is not the environmentalism of the West’ (p. 24). There has been mounting pressure on Chinese leaders to address environmental problems. On one hand, environmental reforms in China frequently are used to pursue a political agenda or bolster political legitimacy. On the other, there is an earnest attempt to push environmental agendas. How do you understand China’s emerging environmentalism and how, in your experience, does it vary domestically versus internationally?

ALZ: This is tough. There is, like you say, precisely this environmental turn in China. However, for most people, I’d say there is surprisingly little awareness of this. When I ask students, for example, ‘When you think about China and the environment, what comes to mind?’, almost nothing is positive. So, the audience that sees China’s environmental turn is still surprisingly small … Then, among those people who do see it, it’s often framed as having ulterior motives: environmentalism as a guise for political control. This may be true, but it’s not just that, it’s not all just for political control. There is a sincere desire from Chinese people to clean up the environment. The government is responding to the demands of the people (and, yes, sure, consolidating further control where possible). So, it’s not even that Chinese leadership deeply ‘cares’ about the environment, but they are responding to legitimate demands from the people who are calling for a cleanup. And that’s fine. That’s a government remaining accountable to a people. I tend to be wary of questions and critiques that arise, like: ‘But do they truly care about the environment?’ What that question insinuates is: ‘Do they have the same particular type of romanticised view of the environment as I do?’ And this view is quite Western. So likely, no, most Chinese people do not have the same romanticised view of the environment, but they have some other environmentalism that is emerging and needs to be understood in its own right.

But, again, going back to your question, it’s tough—and very controversial—to enumerate in any definitive way what one might call ‘Chinese environmentalism’. In the book, I try to point readers in a few directions that really are clear differences between how China and the West approach the environment. The most important one I have found is the valuation of pristine, human-less nature. Ideas of wilderness and untouched nature are very powerful to Western audiences and simply do not have the same allure in China. This is a consequence of much larger philosophical differences that I discuss more in the book. China’s approach to the environment is historically rooted not in the Western nature/culture opposition but rather in a philosophical tradition that does not so sharply delineate nature from culture. This has impacts for how Chinese people think about the environment and how the government implements environmental policies domestically and abroad.

Last, just to touch on the question of differences between China’s domestic and China’s international approaches to the environment, they are very different, for several reasons, one of which is how China runs its foreign relations. A big debate about Chinese environmentalism is that domestically they are beginning to have strong environmental policies, but overseas projects barely see it. The Chinese Government did pledge to stop funding coal projects overseas, which was a big deal. I was a bit surprised about that. But that aside, there are clear critiques that the Chinese Government has strong environmental regulations domestically but not abroad. This is largely true, but we also need to understand that a lot of this has to do with, first, China’s lack of capacity to regulate overseas activities and, second, the country’s longstanding approach of non-intervention in foreign diplomacy. This non-interventionist approach is a defining difference between Chinese and Western diplomacy and China really prides itself on this distinction. The Chinese Government really showcases this distinction, especially in Africa, as evidence of why they are preferable partners to the West. It’s how the Chinese Government distinguishes how they do aid from the West—in their eyes, in a very positive way because it is less paternalistic, and they are not going to get rid of that anytime soon.

JD: You analyse rosewood as a socionature to cut through the nature/culture divide that you mentioned and which dominates global imaginaries of rosewood. First, the frame ‘socionatures’ could be unfamiliar to some readers; can you explain what you mean by it? How does this help us understand Global China and shifting global environmentalism?

ALZ: What’s powerful about the socionature concept is that it challenges and multiplies our understanding of rosewood. Stepping back, anything can be a socionature. It’s really an approach to analysing a particular resource, meaning that you’re going to analyse it not as a natural object, nor as a social object, but really where those two elements come together and how that impacts how the resource is governed, used, and valued. When it comes to rosewood, the wood is a rich text socionaturally speaking. It’s a rich meeting point of so-called natural understandings of conservation and endangered species, and then cultural understandings of Chinese history. In this you see that the natural understandings of the environment are not really ‘natural’; they are in fact quite cultural. By taking a socionatural approach, we can remove the arbitrary binary between approaching something as natural versus social or cultural and this is very important as we try to have some semblance of an environmentalism at the global level that is not just predominantly Western.

JD: You mention that you do not want to legitimate the rosewood trade. This makes me think of the challenges of how to study Global China and tack between China and other sites, while sharing multiple perspectives and experiences. I wonder, in telling multiple sides to the rosewood story, if you have been pushed to ‘take a harder stance on China’. And if so, how you navigate such critiques?

ALZ: Oh, I get that all the time: ‘You’re pro-China.’ And I’m like: ‘You don’t know what pro-China looks like.’ Having some glimpses of what pro-China looks like myself, I would say I’m far from it. But I am quite sympathetic to Chinese perspectives that support rosewood craftsmanship, for example, or that support the Chinese Government and its environmental actions—or at least I am actively trying to be sympathetic to these perspectives. When you’re trying to understand where a whole other group is coming from, you really need to cast judgements aside. You have to try as much as possible to come at it with an open mind. But even then, it can be very limited. I am a very Western person. I grew up in the United States in the 1990s, and I’m like the extreme American in some ways. So, trying to see it from another perspective is difficult and, as I said, the story I tell about rosewood is still very Western, but it attempts a type of decentring. So, yes, I get the being soft on China criticism a lot.

It did help looking at Madagascar, because it made my approach less East versus West and instead more about different perspectives coalescing around this particular tree. And when trying to see things from the Malagasy perspective, you get glimpses of how bizarre and annoying they must find the Western approach to conservation. The drive to protect nature apart from humans is in many ways uniquely Western and is being imposed on people who do not share those views or beliefs. There is value in decentring this perspective, not just a comparison between China and the West, but having a more pluralised account. And then you see the peculiarities that arise around Western approaches to the environment from multiple perspectives.

JD: Your conclusion brilliantly reflects on the broader stakes of China’s global rise. How do you conceptualise Global China and how should we go about, in your words, ‘discovering Global China’? Finally, who do you hope will read your book and understand these more nuanced perspectives?

ALZ: China, as a global actor, is fascinating to me because it is the first time in the past two centuries we see a non-Western actor with global aspirations that arguably surpass those of the West. And what this does is it makes us reflect on what it really means to be global. For as long as I’ve lived, to be global in effect meant to be Western. No-one ever said it like that, but there was a kind of tacit conflation between the Western and the global. We don’t necessarily realise that we conflate them, but in fact, we do. I like to think of the example of the Bretton Woods institutions—the most global institutions one could imagine. And yet we forget their provincial origins in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire—a small resort town in East Coast America during an unprecedented postwar period when the United States and, to a lesser extent, war-torn Europe basically set the global agenda.

The point I try to make in concluding the book is that Global China challenges this tacit conflation we have made all along that Western is global and global is Western. And so, we have to rethink what it really means to be global. This destabilisation or disruption—dissociating the Western and the global—also allows for a sort of self-reflection. It’s not even necessarily about better understanding China, but it’s about shedding light on the hidden structures that shape Western thinking about the world and provincialising them. It’s about realising what we may take as universal is in fact not at all. So, in discovering what this thing called Global China is, we simultaneously discover that how we in the West conceptualise the global (or health, or science, or the environment, or nature) is after all not as universal as we thought. So, I want to destabilise our understanding and then reflect on what is the ‘global’ really? Are these things we call ‘global’ really global or are they actually just very provincial and Western?

With this in mind, there are two audiences I would like to read this book, one of which may not like it at all. First, I would like the conservation groups and global conservation people—really the people who work on global protected areas—to read it. But I’m also a bit afraid of that, because I think they will like it least, especially the parts of the book that discuss the unintended consequences of global conservation efforts—how they can sometimes really do more harm than good. They likely won’t agree with several points, but it will be food for thought. The other audience is simply anyone who is thinking about China or stories about China and might be amenable to looking at the country from a different perspective than we usually hear. People who are perhaps a bit tired of the same stories about China pillaging the environment and the world, or at least who want a different perspective on this phenomenon.

JD: I would like to conclude by reflecting on global environmentalism given China’s rise. What implications can we glean from the case of rosewood about the future of environmentalism? How do you think global environmentalism and conservation will and should be re-envisioned?

ALZ: Here we can go back to the repatriation issue. What would it mean for environmental protection in a place like Madagascar to be repatriated? What would a type of repatriated conservation look like? We’ve seen conservation discourse change a lot already and become more community-based or ‘people-centred’. And this is sort of a step in that direction. But with that, conservationists need to think not just about how to include people but also about how to change conservation goals in response to that inclusion. For it to be truly community-based, the very goals of biodiversity conservation and protected areas need to be on the table for revision—maybe these goals change altogether. This possibility is of course difficult for large nongovernmental organisations that have biodiversity conservation as their primary mission. Hence my wariness towards such organisations and my doubts of any type of ‘real’ repatriation.

Then of course there is the even thornier issue of repatriation when it comes to China. As I say in the book, it’s one thing to repatriate conservation efforts to marginalised Malagasy people but quite another to repatriate in the context of a strong, powerful China. We can all feel warm and fuzzy about repatriation to Madagascar, but the sentiment changes when it comes to China. And here it might help to think more in terms of cooperation. How to cooperate with China—a country which some find to be authoritarian, illiberal, even genocidal? This is the challenge of twenty-first-century global environmentalism because there is simply no tackling the environmental problems of our century without collaborating with China. It’s simply not possible. But at the same time, the possibility of global collaboration, even as I say it now, sounds painfully naive. So, this is where we are. We are stuck doubling down on our own isolated positions. My hope is that the book can help us decentre our positions just a little. Decentring here means seeing how, from a Western perspective, the idea of valuing untouched wilderness—the ‘nature needs half’ movement to cordon off half the world as protected areas that can’t be developed, and so forth—is not universally appealing or desirable, but highly situated. And we need to be much more decentred and open-minded and willing to accept that the world we in the West romanticise is not the world other cultures romanticise and, frankly, not likely to be our future world. Our future world is going to be much more pluralised and built through sobering compromise rather than romantic ideals. Decentring a Western perspective is perhaps our best shot at realising these radical compromises necessary for avoiding global environmental catastrophe.

Clash of Empires: A Conversation with Ho-fung Hung

The rise of ‘Global China’ is the result of sustained economic globalisation in the past decades, undergirded by a generally positive relationship between China and the United States. Since the watershed moment of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the Chinese and US economies have become increasingly interdependent, which used to be a reason for optimism in managing the various conflicts that arose between the two countries. This, however, has been called into question following the tumultuous years of the Trump administration seeking to redress the trade imbalance with China, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, the disruption of which to the global order is yet to be fully revealed.

In his newly published book, Clash of Empires: From ‘Chimerica’ to the ‘New Cold War’ (Cambridge University Press, 2022), Ho-fung Hung offers an analysis of the changing US–China relationship and a critique of the global political economy. Challenging ideological arguments, Hung contends that the United States’ facilitation of China’s integration into the global economy in the 1990s and 2000s was primarily driven by its own corporate interests seeking to benefit from access to the Chinese market and cheap labour. These interests ultimately turned away when they were harmed by China’s policies since the late 2000s of promoting indigenous industries. China’s integration into the global economy fuelled uneven development in both China and the United States, creating deep structural interdependence between the two economies. As both capitalist economies encountered a crisis of overaccumulation, their ‘inter-imperial’ rivalry in the world economy overtook the interdependence of their relationship.

With the two economic constituencies being driven apart, the geopolitical rivalry between the countries also became more difficult to conciliate. In this view, the fundamental source of the ‘New Cold War’ is the ‘intercapitalist competition’ between China and the United States, rather than ideological differences. While Hung’s Marxian approach to US foreign policy is likely to receive pushback from those looking through different analytical lenses, his dissection of the global political economy calls for a radical rethinking of what kind of global economic order could help prevent future conflicts.

Hong Zhang: Your book provides great insights into the changing relations between the US and Chinese corporate sectors, which you argue underlie the changing political relations between the two states. What motivated you to develop this analysis and what received wisdom do you seek to challenge?

Ho-fung Hung: Many popular accounts of the deteriorating US–China relationship attribute the deterioration to ideological differences between democratic and authoritarian systems. These accounts are convenient justifications for politicians’ actions and policies. But we, as scholars, have the responsibility to look deeper beyond this obviously flawed account. If it is really only about the clash between democracy and authoritarianism, why were democratic America and authoritarian China in such a harmonious relationship in the 1990s and 2000s? Some would say Xi Jinping is much more dictatorial than his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, so the difference has become more pronounced now. But is he? Deng Xiaoping mobilised the army to shoot protesting citizens and kept the Chinese Communist Party in power with tanks. Yet, the United States and the democratic world at large did not see Deng as too dictatorial to do business with. Throughout history, capitalist democratic countries have never shied away from doing business with and allying with dictators. The difference between democracy and authoritarianism never stands in the way. Why does this difference suddenly matter in US–China relations? Something deeper must be going on. My research and the book look for an answer to this question. To explore the plausible scenarios of US–China relations and look at what can be done to prevent the deteriorating relationship from becoming a catastrophe, we first need to figure out the underlying forces that bring us to the current state of affairs.

HZ: You made the point that the clash between the United States and China is one between two ‘empires’ and it is an ‘inter-imperial rivalry’. How do you understand the nature of the two ‘empires’? Given that China was a critical enabler of US empire-making while it also grew under the US-led system, as your analysis makes clear, how far can China go in its challenge to the US empire? Or, are they locked in a symbiotic relationship? Can decoupling happen?

HH: As I define in the book, ‘empire’ refers to any state with the ambition and capability to project its political and military power beyond its sovereign space. The United States as an established empire is mostly an ‘informal empire’ without as many formal colonies as the old British and French empires had. China is a junior, informal empire on the rise, and its official intellectuals have been ever more open in manifesting their imperial ambitions—using ‘empire’ as a positive word.

Socioeconomic integration between two empires would not prevent inter-imperial rivalry from happening and escalating. For this, a comparison with the UK–German rivalry in the early twentieth century is useful. In June 1914, a British economist made a keynote speech at the Royal Statistical Society, saying all the economic statistics suggested the British and German empires were intertwined in trade, investment, and everything else (Crammond 1914). He predicted that the United Kingdom and Germany would maintain this reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship, with Germany as a junior, up-and-coming partner, and that the two countries would not be embroiled in conflict. And we all know what happened just a few months later. In fact, the integration between the United Kingdom and Germany at that time was much deeper than the US–China integration today. The ruling elites of the two countries intermarried. The royal family of the British Empire, the House of Windsor (House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha before World War I), was half-German. The mother of the monarch of the German Empire, Wilhelm II, was British and was the eldest child of Queen Victoria. So, the ruling classes of the two countries on the eve of World War I were as integrated as if, say, a son of [US President Joe] Biden or [former president Donald] Trump was married to the daughter of Xi Jinping. Great Britain was also the biggest destination and source of German exports and imports on the eve of the Great War. But that level of integration did not prevent the two empires from going to war. The crushing weight of the imperatives of geopolitics and capital accumulation is simply too strong.

But there is a reason for optimism. Compared with turn-of-twentieth-century Germany, China today, though increasingly militarised and aggressive, is still far less militaristic than Germany back then (and less than Russia today, for that matter). Unlike nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany, which had been frequently at war, China has not mobilised its army for a serious military conflict since its war with Vietnam in 1979. The last serious military mobilisation was 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army was used to quell domestic unrest. If the Party-State elite is rational (an increasingly big if, though), they should be very cautious in avoiding any serious military conflict with the United States. This becomes all the more obvious as Beijing watches Moscow’s military adventure in Ukraine devolving into a disaster for Russia. So, I stay optimistic that though the US–China rivalry is set to deteriorate, there is a fairly good chance it could be channeled to competition in global governing institutions, such as the World Health Organization, WTO, United Nations, etcetera, instead of a direct military conflict.

HZ: I notice that you approached the Chinese and US states differently. On the Chinese side, you have given the Party-State significant autonomy, as seen in your analysis of its cooptation of US corporate interests in the 1990s and its industrial policies and pursuit of a geopolitical agenda in the 2010s, which alienated US corporate actors. On the US side, however, you place the primary agency on the corporate actors; it is the aggregated preference of the corporate sector that ultimately determines US foreign policy orientation, while those forces based on geopolitical or ideological considerations are secondary in this picture. In a way, your portrait of the Chinese state is more Weberian and that of the US state more Marxian. Why such asymmetry?

HH: Yes. Every state has components that are more autonomous vis-a-vis corporations and components that are influenced or even captured by corporations or other dominant social groups. The relative prevalence of the two components varies from state to state.

Theda Skocpol (1985), in her introduction to the classic Bringing the State Back In (a book that brings the Weberian perspective of the state to North American social sciences), points out it was not an accident that the Weberian state-centric approach developed in Germany. It has something to do with the strong hand of the centralised state in Germany’s state formation, war-making, and industrial development process since Bismarck’s time. In contrast, the society-centric approach to the state—including the Marxian approach emphasising class and the pluralist approach (à la Robert Dahl) emphasising interest groups—has been dominant in the UK and US academia because the political systems there provide many access points for social groups to shape policy. The dominance of the society-centered approach in the United States and United Kingdom leads scholars to forget that certain key components of the state are highly autonomous and function along with a Weberian logic. The foreign policy apparatus is one such component of the state in the case of the United States, according to Skocpol.

The differences in the US and Chinese political systems resemble those in the US/UK–Germany contexts. The analysis of US–Chinese policy formation in Clash of Empires is not exactly Marxian, but Marxian–Weberian to be more precise. Following the Weberian imperative of sustaining US global power and prestige, the US foreign policy elite have set their sights on China as a geopolitical rival since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. But the other parts of the state that are central to the formation of economic policy—including the Treasury, the National Economic Council, and Congress—are more open to the influences of big corporations. In the 1990s and 2000s, US corporations influenced those components of the state to keep the confrontation tendency in the foreign policy establishment at bay. Only in the 2010s, when the corporate and geopolitical interests of the state aligned in favour of a confrontational posture toward China, did the United States’ China policy shift fully to confrontation.

In contrast, in China’s Party-State capitalist system, the economic and foreign policymaking process is highly centralised in the top echelon of the Party-State elite. Economic growth and profitability of enterprises are among the many considerations of the Party-State elite in their policymaking, but these considerations are all subjugated under the imperative of maintaining and expanding the power of the Party-State in China and in the world. Corporations, however well-connected politically, are at the disposal of the Party-State. Nothing is more illustrative of this than the development of China’s big-tech companies. The state cultivated them and helped them monopolise the Chinese market. But when the state feels they are a threat, it cracks down on them relentlessly. Corporate autonomous leverage on the state in China is simply incomparable with US corporate power vis-a-vis the state. This feature of the Chinese political economy, in which all imperatives are subjugated to the grand strategy of the Party-State, is meticulously analysed in Rush Doshi’s The Long Game (2021). But I did not have a chance to read the book until after I finished The Clash of Empires; otherwise, it would have been included in the references.

HZ: While your analysis has focused on corporate interests and other structural explanations, you seem to try to avoid structural determinism, as you allow room for political manoeuvres and circumstantial contingencies. Looking back on the past three decades, could you imagine an alternative history of US–China relations? In hindsight, were there better policy choices that could have been made?

HH: In my view, President Bill Clinton’s reversal of the policy that linked Chinese goods’ low tariff access to the US market to China’s human rights condition in 1994 was a mistake. It was not inevitable. As documented in the book, the Clinton administration was split on the issue, with the State Department and many congressional Democrats vowing to maintain the link, while the head of the newly created National Economic Council, Robert Rubin from Wall Street, was committed to severing the link. Also documented in the book is that major corporations in the United States at that time did not see China as a huge market yet. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect in 1994, globalisation at the time was much more about growing NAFTA into an all-American free-trade arrangement. It was the corporations mobilised by Beijing that lobbied keenly for the delinking. And Beijing won. Suppose the linkage had been maintained throughout the 1990s. In that case, it could have created larger pressure for Beijing to adopt more liberal changes at a time when there was a more liberal-leaning elite within the party and Beijing felt more vulnerable and was more open to outside influences. The opening of China, and hence US outsourcing to China, would have been more gradual, and China’s impact on the American working class would have been moderated. It is the path not taken.

The recent Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans all goods made in the Xinjiang region unless the exporters can prove no forced labour is used, is going back to the principle of Clinton’s China trade policy in 1993—that is, to link Chinese goods’ access to the US market to China’s human rights condition. But it is too late to create significant pressure to change China’s direction. Its most likely outcome will be an accelerating division of the world economy into two competing blocks—a process that many people call decoupling.

HZ: In the book you also express doubt about the ‘constructive engagement’ argument presented by the Clinton administration when it decided not to link the most-favoured nation status to China’s human rights conditions, arguing that by integrating China into the global trade system, it could also lead to the liberalisation of China’s political system. This has, of course, turned out to be a false hope, but do you think it was not even a genuine aspiration, but rather a cover for the policy driven by corporate interests?

HH: The idea that participation in the global trade system could automatically lead to political liberalisation is perhaps the most disingenuous pretext in modern political discourse. Throughout postwar history, so many dictatorships have thrived under the regime’s participation in global trade. From Pinochet’s Chile to Saudi Arabia, market capitalism never eroded the authoritarian system but helped sustain it. Market capitalism is perfectly adaptable to, if not favourable to, authoritarianism. The idea that economic engagement with China could promote political liberalisation is no more than a transparent attempt to cover for the Clinton administration’s 180-degree shift in its China policy in 1993–94 that Clash of Empires details (and mentioned above). In Clinton’s first year, the administration linked low tariff access of Chinese goods to the US market to China’s human rights conditions. After intense business lobbying, Clinton dropped the policy in 1994. Then the theory about the causal relation between free trade and political liberalisation was hastily cooked up to justify this drastic shift. The theory aims to make the shift look less like surrendering to corporate blackmail and more like a well-thought-out policy for the world’s good.

Most ironically, we did see this kind of ‘constructive engagement’ argument before, during the American Civil War. Many free-trade advocates and big businesses in the United Kingdom sympathised with the rebellious South and wanted to have continuous access to cheap cotton from the slave labour there. Their intellectual representatives of the time, including The Economist magazine and many liberal thinkers, devised the argument that if the UK supported the South and fought Abraham Lincoln—portrayed by many in the United Kingdom as a dictatorial anti–free-trade monster—then the United Kingdom would be able to persuade the independent Confederacy to abolish slavery gradually and peacefully. In retrospect, we all know that the argument was just a hypocritical cover for those British interests’ demand for cheap products from slave labour. It is a nineteenth-century version of the ‘constructive engagement’ theory.

HZ: While you believe the US–China rivalry will intensify in the years to come, at the end of the book, you still place hopes for averting a fatal conflict on the mediating role of global governing institutions and on the rebalancing of the Chinese and US economies. Are you hopeful that such rebalancing can happen? In China, we do start to hear more about redistribution or even ‘third distribution’, which might have been sidelined by mid 2022 as the urgent matter becomes maintaining growth in China’s economy, which has been crippled by Covid-19 lockdowns. In the United States, we also see the urge to bring back manufacturing jobs and to invest more in infrastructure, welfare, and the green economy. Do you think there are self-corrective mechanisms in each of the countries, and are they strong enough?

HH: As I discussed above, the fact that China has been much less militaristic than Germany a century ago is a reason for optimism. It is possible that intensifying US–China rivalry could be constricted to competition between the two countries in global governing institutions. But I am less optimistic about the internal rebalancing part. The Chinese Government has been talking about rebalancing the economy by boosting domestic household consumption through redistribution since at least the late 1990s. Zhu Rongji (Prime Minister from 1998 to 2003) talked about it in the aftermath of the 1997–98 Asian Financial Crisis, and Wen Jiabao (Prime Minister from 2003 to 2013) talked about it after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The pattern is that whenever the economy runs into a global economic headwind, Beijing has tried to initiate a redistributive response and boost domestic household consumption. But redistribution did not happen each time, and the government eventually relied on the old trick of stimulating investment with more loans to prop up economic growth, as is happening now. This path wards off a temporary economic downturn but aggravates inequality and the imbalance of the economy in the long run. The recurrent stillbirth of redistributive policy is a result of the lack of institutional representation of workers and peasants in the policymaking process in China. Over the past two decades, one big developing country that achieved significant redistributive reform is Brazil under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–11), under the internationally acclaimed Bolsa Familia direct cash transfer program. It was instituted by a government elected by and representing the poor. Once in place, the program was so popular that even Jair Bolsonaro, who became President of Brazil in 2019, could not undo it. Compared with the political process in Brazil, you could not see many reasons why the Chinese Party-State elite, who were more connected to state-owned enterprises or politically well-connected private enterprises addicted to the borrow-and-invest model of expansion, would pursue any genuine redistributive reform seriously.

I am equally pessimistic about the rebalancing in the United States through the reshoring of industries. Manufacturing in the United States has enjoyed outsized profits by relying on foreign cheap labour for decades. With the trade war and Washington’s call for decoupling from China—and the decoupling is certainly going to accelerate after foreign enterprises experience China’s zero-Covid policy—will motivate US enterprises to reduce exposure to China. Most of them are not likely to come back to the United States. There may be some exceptions in the sectors deemed strategically so important that Washington would be willing to subsidise their coming back. Microchips and rare-earth mining could be two examples. But for the majority of the enterprises, decoupling from China would only mean relocation to other low-wage countries in Southeast and South Asia or other places in the developing world. So, as the imbalances in both the United States and China are not likely to subside, the urge to export capital and the intercapitalist competition between the two will only rise, resulting in the inevitable intensification of geopolitical rivalry in the years to come.

Chinese Soft Power: A Conversation with Maria Repnikova

Maria Repnikova’s new book, Chinese Soft Power (Cambridge University Press, 2022), examines China’s visions and practices of soft power. Repnikova starts by analysing Chinese academic writing and official speeches about soft power to grasp whether and how this concept has been transformed in the Chinese context. She then examines its practical implementation by focusing on key channels of China’s public diplomacy, including Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, global media expansion, education and training, and public diplomacy spectacles. In engaging with each of these soft-power mechanisms, Repnikova traces the official motivations behind them, as well as how they operate across global contexts. In particular, she argues that soft power carries different meanings in China, and further suggests that its application should not be seen through a binary lens of success or failure. Instead, we should treat Chinese initiatives as at once ambitious in scale and adaptive to local contexts, but also as contested or perceived with mixed credibility by global audiences.

Nicholas Loubere: Let’s start with the basics. What is soft power, where did it come from, and what is it about this arguably US-centric concept that has proven so attractive—or at least intriguing—to Chinese scholars and policymakers?

Maria Repnikova: Soft power is a concept originally coined by Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and political scientist. He came up with it at the tail end of the Cold War as a way of reimagining the United States’ power in the international system. Unlike some scholars who argued at the time that the United States’ dominance in the international system was depleted during the Cold War, Nye called attention to what he saw as an untapped facet of American power—that of attractiveness rather than of military coercion or economic prowess. The resources of this ‘attractiveness’ that Nye articulated in his later work include foreign policy, values, and culture.

While the idea of soft power has gone through its ups and downs in the Washington establishment, it became associated with persisting US hegemony by its competitors, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, and of course, China. Most of these countries have also incorporated some version of soft power into their foreign policy strategy. China, I would argue, has been one of the most enthusiastic adopters. Over the past two decades, over 7,000 articles have been published on this topic in Chinese academic and policy journals, and the concept—along with its many Chinese variations like ‘discourse power’(话语权), ‘big power image’ (大国形象), and ‘cultural soft power’ (文化软实力)—is frequently invoked by the top Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping himself. This idea has been intriguing to Chinese scholars and policymakers for several reasons. First, soft power is associated with great-power status. A number of Chinese writings I have analysed for this book emphasise that, without soft power, China cannot fully realise its rise as a great power. Other than seeing it as intrinsic to reaching its global status and competing with the United States, soft power is seen as conducive to expanding China’s economic power—by softening the edge of its economic expansion or making it more palatable to global publics.

NL: How have Chinese thinkers adapted soft power for their own context and purposes? Can you give an example or two of how soft power has been operationalised in Chinese foreign policy?

MR: Chinese thinkers adapted or reinvented the concept of soft power in terms of the motivations or target audiences and the sources deployed in improving China’s image. First, unlike Nye’s original concept that primarily focuses on repairing and bolstering the United States’ image globally, and especially in specific regions where it has been hampered by US-led wars and military operations, in the Chinese context, soft power is aimed at both external and domestic audiences. Other than shaping a more favourable image of China, soft power is meant to facilitate cultural cohesiveness and pride within the country. Some Chinese writings invoke Xi Jinping’s term ‘cultural security’ (文化安全) in arguing that the Chinese public needs more protection or immunity from Western cultural influences. By witnessing China attain respect and admiration internationally, it is thought that the Chinese public will rally around Chinese culture and values, and thereby also inadvertently support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The second important distinction in how soft power is interpreted in China versus the West concerns the understanding of resources or the process of soft-power implementation. In Nye’s conceptual framing, as noted earlier, soft power is strictly distinguished from hard power or economic and military resources. Chinese thinkers, in contrast, critique the notion of strict boundaries between hard and soft power, and generally tend to see soft power as encompassing a wider range of instruments, including China’s traditional culture, values, and ideology, but also China’s governance model, political capacity, technological innovation, and more. Though the cultural soft-power school is dominant in Chinese academic literature, even the concept of culture is quite fluid, implicitly invoking politics or China’s political system.

NL: Through the lens of soft power, how do you think high-level Chinese policymakers perceive the inherently bottom-up and chaotic nature—or at least outside direct state control—of so much of China’s engagements with the world? For instance, irregular migration to Africa for resource extraction or entrepreneurialism that sometimes creates clashes with local populations.

MR: Ironically, Chinese scholars and officials often blame these irregular movements and actors for inhibiting China’s soft-power potential or for hurting China’s image. When asked why Chinese soft power faces pushback in certain countries in Africa and more broadly in the Global South, the responsibility is often attributed to nonstate actors who are behaving in an opportunistic manner and who are difficult to control. How Chinese embassies engage with nonstate actors and activities on the ground is a fertile area for future research. In my experience, I found that there was a sentiment of mutual suspicion between them whereby private companies (and individuals) would also distance themselves from the embassy, shying away from what they see as unnecessary and at times unhelpful attention from Chinese officials.

NL: How do we understand Chinese soft-power efforts that are seemingly ineffective or even counterproductive—such as the Confucius Institutes that have been involved in numerous scandals? What is the internal logic of these kinds of initiatives and who are the main targets of their attempt to garner soft power?

MR: With regard to Confucius Institute scandals, part of the problem is less to do with China … and more to do with pre-existing deep-seated suspicions of China and CCP-sponsored education initiatives in the West. Hubbert (2019) writes about this convincingly in her book: the fact that even apolitical narratives in Confucius Institutes in America would be seen as political or as forms of self-censorship by American students, or as China attempting to hide something. We see more China-inflicted soft-power scandals in the domain of assertive digital diplomacy—now commonly referred to as ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. Chinese diplomats, including spokespeople for the Foreign Ministry, increasingly make brazen remarks about the West, at times spreading disinformation, as in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Chinese officials like Zhao Lijian, for instance, spread Russia-invoked theories about American biolabs in Ukraine and cast doubt on the widely documented massacre carried out by Russian forces in Bucha. When it comes to these offensive statements, they appear to target primarily domestic audiences: the leaders within the bureaucratic system, but also the larger public that often gets access to these statements through translated posts disseminated on Weibo (often via state media outlets like the Global Times). Offensive digital diplomacy, in my view, best encapsulates the friction between the dual audiences of Chinese soft power: as the Chinese officials appear to speak to domestic audiences via global communication platforms, they are also alienating international publics, especially in Western countries.

NL: You highlight the way that ‘the spectacle’ of high-profile events plays a key role in China’s attempts to construct its national image. How is spectacle conceived of in the Chinese context and what can we learn from the most recent spectacle of the Winter Olympics?

MR: The spectacle in the Chinese context in some ways is conceived of as a grand, state-orchestrated, and meticulously implemented event that is meant to boost the image of China and the CCP internationally and domestically. In observing large-scale events like the Olympics, but also smaller-scale trade fares and Global South forums, it is notable how these spectacles tend to blur China’s cultural and material power. They at once showcase China’s traditional culture and ancient civilisation, while also highlighting China’s modernity, as well as economic and technological prowess. The audiences of these spectacles are as much global as local. It was fascinating to visit the China–Africa Trade Forum in Hunan Province in 2019—the first forum of this kind to take place in China and an event that was widely advertised by Hunan officials during their visit to Ethiopia in spring 2019. The event was promoted to Africans as an opportunity to explore China’s market and as China’s attempt at equalising trade flows between China and Africa. In attending the trade forum, I found African national booths placed alongside China’s provincial booths largely frequented by Changsha residents. The provincial booths advertised China’s economic development projects, as well as provincial cultural heritage. In the context of the Winter Olympics, the biggest audience was also that of Chinese nationals, even though the event was broadcast around the world.

Though these major spectacles, especially on the scale of the Olympics, require major investments from the Chinese Government, their implications for China’s international image are ambiguous. After the 2008 Olympics, for instance, the favourability of China in major industrialised democracies has declined. I don’t expect major spikes in China’s popularity after these recent Games. If anything, the Olympics now feel far away in the context of Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine—a war in which China is criticised for being on the ‘wrong side of history’.