Written by Bin WU.

A review of The Conceptualization and Practice of Transnational Asia: China Model, Ethnic Network and International Relationship (“跨界亚洲的理论与实践—中国模式,华人网络,国际关系”,刘宏著,南京大学出版社2013 )

The on-going processes of China’s rise and transition are perhaps one of “big events” in the world history, offering opportunities and challenges for academics to understand, reflect and interpret. In relation with the tradition of disciplinary division and variety of research paradigms, on the one hand, different people have different perspectives and methodological approaches, leading to different interpretations and projections. On the other hand, we have also witnessed a trend of increasing communication, interaction and cooperation across disciplinary boundaries, leading to the establishment of some new academic disciplines, or methodological innovation within existing research campuses. If the mushrooming of Contemporary Chinese Studies (CCS) world-wide in recent years represents the former, a good example for the latter is Diaspora Chinese Studies (DCS), a small but dynamic research field focusing on all aspects of Diaspora Chinese communities world-wide and their relations with China’s development and transition. I am pleased to learn of and recommend a newly published book written by Professor Liu Hong from Nanyan Technological University, Conceptualization and Practices of Transnational Asia: China Model, Ethnic Network and International Relationship (跨界亚洲的理论与实践—中国模式,华人网络,国际关系,刘宏著,南京大学出版社2013), which this post will review.

Regarding the links between China and the world since the late 1970s, the author reminders us of a basic fact at beginning of the book: around 60% or more of foreign direct investment to China has been made by overseas Chinese. Further, the returnees of Chinese migrant scholars have become a major source of China’s science and technological research and industrial innovation. While the Chinese Diaspora has played a key role in creating and maintaining a bridge between China and outside of world, it is worth pointing out that their contribution to China’s development and globalisation has been largely ignored in mainstream academic research. The value of DCS to CCS, as suggested by the title of this book, can be justified from the new light to the debates of “China model”.

Although the earliest record of Chinese Diaspora can be traced back two thousand years and the large scale of its international migration to the West and South-East Asia about 150 years, academic reflection on Chinese Diaspora phenomenon is less than 100 years old. As a world leading scholar in this field, Professor Liu was commissioned by Routldge to conduct a systematic collection and review of nearly one thousand English articles, leading to the publication of a four volume book, The Chinese Overseas (1794 pages in total) in 2006. While the edited volumes provides a comprehensive source and review of relevant references in English, the newly published book offers readers a Chinese summary of the edited volumes. A conclusion drawn from his systematic review on the evolution of the DCS in the last century is about the nature of DCS in the terms of the combination of historicity, interdisciplinary, flexible and multi-sited ethnography.

The trend and methodological characteristics of the DCS are not unique, but shared by many disciplines and research areas, leading to a paradigm shift or the emergence of a new discipline. A good example is the new emergence and rapid development of Contemporary Chinese Studies (CCS) which is significantly differentiated from traditional Sinology focusing on Chinese linguistics, history and culture. With an emphasis on the application and development of social scientific methodology in the context of contemporary China, CCS has become an important part of area studies outside of China, which has attracted increasing attention and inputs from governments, academic scholars. As a founder and former Director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University Manchester, Professor Liu is able to offer his observation and insights on the development of CCS.

The central contribution of this book, in my view, is about the development of the concept “Chinese networks” in the context of globalisation, China’s rise and the mobility of Chinese people across geographic (Asian or global), social (class) and cultural (identity) boundaries. Rooted in its long history and cultural tradition, Chinese networks (or Guanxi), may not be new at all to either Chinese or non-Chinese scholars. What is interesting in this book, however, is the way that the author used the network with the nation-state as a vertical dimension and localisation and globalisation as a horizontal dimension to review or critically appraise relevant literature and debates, and to shed new light on some challenging issues in China’s development, international relationships and the integration of new Chinese immigrants in receiving countries. Reflecting the popularity of transnationalism in ethnicity studies and also the domination of Diaspora Chinese population in Asia, the author uses Transnational Asia (跨界亚洲) as the title of his book. This, however, does not mean that this book is limited to Asia only and in fact there are three chapters involving the Chinese Diaspora in the UK.

This book is organised in 12 chapters in three parts. Part One deals with theoretical evolution and methodological thinking. Not limited to DSC itself, the relationship between Chinese networks and nation-states is discussed in the context of China and neighbouring countries in Asia. In Part Two, four chapters discuss the impact of Mao’s China on Indonesian President Sukarno (1901-1970), the emergence of left-wing Indonesian literature, and interaction between Malaysian Chinese and their sending communities in south China in the 1950s and early 1960s. A comparison of social networking and integration patterns between Hakka and Chaozhounese, two major groups of south Chinese immigrants in Singapore and Malaysia is also included. Part Three is used to highlight the transnational characteristics and networks of the new wave of Chinese international migrants since the 1980s. Special attention is given to the comparison of Chinese high-skilled migrant workers which are related to migration policies in both sending country (here China) and receiving countries of the UK and Singapore, as well as new Chinese entrepreneurs in Japan and Singapore. In addition, three chapters are used to discuss other interesting issues including the political participation of Chinese Diaspora in the UK election (2010), the changing roles of Chinese Diaspora in China’s diplomatic policies and international relations, as well as Chinese women and transnational marriage.

Bearing in mind that all chapters have been published either in Chinese or foreign language before, this book contains rich information, well organised arguments, comprehensive and updated references in both Chinese and English. As a result, it is a good reference for not only DCS researchers but also scholars in the fields of Contemporary Chinese Studies, International Relations and beyond. There are, however, two limitations. The first is the necessity of two chapters about the Indonesian President and literature movement in the 1950s, which do not cohere with other chapters. The second is the limitation or boundary of transnationalism as Chinese new migrants are not homogenous in terms of values, attitudes or career plans. While some of them enjoy the global mobility, others may suffer from their international migration experience. This is particularly true for those low- or un-skilled migrant workers, to whom class consciousness may be more suitable to reflect their working conditions, labour exploitation or abuses in the workplace. In this regard, a balance is needed to take into account the voices, experiences and needs of all Chinese groups including migrant workers who are at the bottom among the Chinese Diaspora and marginalised in the process of international migration and integration.

Bin WU is a senior research fellow at China Policy Institute.

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