Saturday, 1 February 2014

Anthropological Critiques of the “Chinese Family Firm” on Taiwan (and What Happened Next)

In the 1970’s, as Latin Americanists wielded Dependency Theory to blame Northern imperialism for poverty in the South, Hill Gates (1979) wrote an important essay about Taiwan’s development model. She argued that, although Taiwan’s rapid industrialization seemed to disprove Dependency Theory’s assumptions of underdevelopment, its economic structure actually masked hidden costs and disguised exploitation in export-driven development. Through Marxist class analysis, she concluded that the petty bourgeoisie exploited itself by sending its youth to work temporarily in factories, a dynamic that kept wages low and prevented the development of a working class identity.

A generation later, as leftist scholars digested the implications of the end of Communism in Europe, anthropologists borrowed post-structuralist analyses from Foucauldian “discourse” and Said’s “Orientalism.” Susan Greenhalgh argued that Taiwan’s family firms resulted from 1) a regime of export-oriented “flexible accumulation,” 2) a bi-ethnic structure that restrained Native Taiwanese to business, and 3) an anti-big business bias on the part of the government (Greenhalgh 1994: 751). She concluded that this business model exploited mostly women and younger men. More sanguine discourses (e.g. Harrell 1985), “inadvertently contributed their expertise to a palpably conservative and anti-feminist intellectual-cum-political project” (Greenhalgh 1994: 768). 

Although both of them note ethnic tensions and show awareness of the massacre of February 1947 (especially Greenhalgh 1994: 766), neither seemed fully aware of the nationalist sentiments that were already under the radar screen of political scientists (Mendel 1970) and would soon dominate Taiwanese political life. Employing the Marxist idea of false consciousness, Gates even argued that an “exaggerated” sense of ethnicity “helps to obscure a perception of social class which could lead to class consciousness and the taking of power by the masses” (Gates 1979: 388). Events quickly by-passed the best of anthropological reflection.

Just a few months after Gates’ article, pro-democracy activists protested in Kaohsiung and were arrested, sparking a democracy movement and the eventual formation of the Democratic Progressive Party. In December 1991, the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly, still dominated by politicians elected in China in 1947, resigned, with the first direct legislative elections in 1992. Greenhalgh thus published her article at a watershed in Taiwanese history, noting in footnote 4 that “Taiwan studies” was recently developing. For both Gates and Greenhalgh, however, there was still little reason to doubt received wisdom that Taiwan simply represented Chinese culture.   

Gates seemed prescient in her conclusion: “Before too much longer, cultural involution in Taiwan and social change in the People’s Republic will have truly made them separate nations” (Gates 1979: 405, emphasis added). By referring to Geertz’s concept of involution, unproductive intensification in detail, she contrasted involution of Chinese culture on Taiwan to presumably more positive “social change” on the Mainland. Developments on both sides make these articles seem a bit dated, as more than half of the Taiwanese say they are not Chinese, and the PRC now embraces cultural nationalism rather than socialist internationalism. The historical context has changed, but without these early critiques, we would not have the Taiwan Studies of today.

Gates, Hill. 1979. “Dependency and the Part-time Proletariat in Taiwan.” Modern China 5 (3): 381-408. 
Greenhalgh, Susan. 1994. “De-Orientalizing the Chinese Family Firm.” American Ethnologist 21 (4): 746-775.
Mendel, Douglas. 1970. The Politics of Formosan Nationalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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A personal note: Both of these articles influenced my intellectual development greatly. My research projects for two decades were originally inspired by Greenhalgh’s sentence: “They also discouraged the discovery of subjugated knowledges, including those of women, subordinate ethnic groups, and the smallest and most vulnerable entrepreneurs, that might form the basis of a new understanding of contemporary Taiwan economic life” (Greenhalgh 1994: 768). I am thankful to both authors for the inspiration and encouragement they have given me over the years.

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