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Diaspora 9:3 2000 From Opium Farmer to Astronaut: A Global History of Diasporic Chinese Business1 Adam McKeown Columbia University The image of the Chinese businessman pervades the contemporary Asia-Pacific. Whether seen as the cutting edge of a new Asian capitalism, as the source of unsound practices that precipitated the crash of 1997, or as small-scale opportunists symbiotic to the primal creative force oflarge transnational corporations, diasporic Chinese businessmen are a fixture in discussions of regional Asia-Pacific economies. Their depiction as small shopkeepers and clannish ethnic minorities is becoming a thing of the past. Now, they are astute, cosmopolitan (although still a bit clannish) businessmen, linked through their cell phones, masters at negotiating the everchanging terrain of global capitalism and flexible accumulation. They are "astronauts" in constant movement around the globe, seeking out property, education, citizenship, and market opportunities in myriad nations, feeling comfortable anywhere as long as it is near an airport. Even Chinese who haven't advanced to the jetsetting class still carry a certain mystique, an aura of privileged access to shadowy flows of information, interpersonal trust, and rapid deals made on a nod and a promise. Their ephemeral firms, dense networks, rapid adaptability, and geographic dispersion are said to confound familiar methods of measuring economic success and to challenge us with new ways ofconceiving and doing business. Of course, both images—of the clannish middleman and the globe-trotting astronaut—are as much hyperbole as description.2 Yet the hyperbole itself is a concrete social force. It outlines a lifestyle that attracts the upwardly mobile and makes it desirable to be Chinese. As Jamie Mackie notes, the actual material accomplishment ofoverseas Chinese businessmen has yet to be accurately measured and may be nowhere near as significant as is claimed by the words and images. This very lack of measurement is part ofthe mystique. It promotes the idea that Chinese have access to hidden sources of supply and information and that they are pioneering new ways of doing business that confound unwieldy conventional approaches and challenge Western models. Businessmen and politicians buy into the hyperbole, and this shapes their policies and 317 Diaspora 9:3 2000 practices. Explanations and descriptions of diasporic Chinese business are part ofthe terrain upon which actual business is practiced. People manipulate the hype to their advantage, while at the same time they are caught within its assumptions and feel compelled to live up to its standards. Any attempt to understand overseas Chinese business needs to take this interactive relationship ofpractice and image into account. Many recent analyses, by academics, politicians, and businessmen alike, have emphasized the cultural underpinnings of Chinese business networks. Other analysts have critiqued this use of culture, claiming that it makes unwarranted generalizations and acts in the interest of economic and political hegemonies. Despite disagreements over the nature of "culture" (as the internal quality of a group or as instrumental discourse), both sides agree on its importance . Explanations based primarily on materialist economic approaches have retreated into the background, unable to grapple with the diasporic aspect of Chinese business. Excellent analyses exist of both local and transnational networks and how these are embedded in social and cultural patterns, but the means by which trans-local and trans-societal networks have developed are still poorly understood (Yeung and Olds, "Globalizing"). The history of this development is not located in timeless traditions or in the homeland of China (which often serves as a metaphor for the past), nor only in the cultural politics of the present, but in historical transformations at a global level and through interactions with other peoples, whereby Chinese became coolies, middlemen, ethnic minorities, and then astronauts. Perspectives on Overseas Chinese Business Networks Analyses of overseas Chinese businesses usually focus either on their image or on their success (or lack of it, as seen through the hindsight of the 1997 crash). Those that focus on the image are often critical, uncomfortable with the implications that all Chinese are linked through shared values and heritage, that Chinese are natural businessmen as a result of their heritage, or that they are more loyal to China or Chinese culture than to the place they were born. They critique...


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