Transpacific Developments: A Conversation with Monica DeHart
June 6, 2023
Transpacific Developments: A Conversation with Monica DeHart
Jordan Lynton Cox, 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.
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.
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.