FROM BACKWARDNESS AND EXPLOITATION TO INTERACTION
This special issue of Cross-Currents picks up on a contemporary experience that, in one way or another, is familiar to us all: the experience of discovering that what was once “foreign” has become a part of the domestic everyday. While people agitated over foreign goods and colonial conditions of exchange a hundred years ago, few people today can tell which goods are foreign, domestic, or exploitative in relationships of production simply by their places of production. The imported has become indigenized, and manufacturing has become a process involving complex relationships among transnational partners. China today, for example, is an economy of McDonald’s, Starbucks, German cars, Korean soap operas, Japanese cuisine, and American pop culture. It is also the home of Lenovo, Huawei, Alibaba, and other brands that are globalizing beyond the Chinese world.
In business and economic life, transnational connections can be found everywhere. Goods, people, and ideas all cross borders. And we are all implicated in the mediation process. We are, of course, well aware of the fact—and if we are not, there is a rather comprehensive body of literature to [End Page 546] remind us—that there are places, regions, and areas in which such transfers are especially intensive, multilateral, and/or transnational. There are also regions where this process is less visible and less influential.
China is often portrayed as belonging into the latter category, as a country that repeatedly refused to join the world in free trade for extended periods. The existing literature identifies at least two such periods, namely during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) until the mid-nineteenth century and the Maoist years of the Peoples Republic of China (1949–1976). John K. Fairbank, in his seminal work Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast (1953), traced the Sino-British Opium War (1839–1842) to the clash between the progressive doctrine of free trade and the restrictive norms of the Qing tributary empire. The Sinocentrism of the Qing confined Chinese attention to matters of ritual and blinded it to the world beyond. Chinese inability to deal with the “barbarians” was ultimately responsible for the decline of its power and the rise of a colonial East Asian order (Fairbank and Ch’en 1968). Following this line of interpretation, Western scholars conveniently dismissed China’s unsuccessful resistance to the West as a result of Chinese refusal to join the modern world of scientific progress and rationality (Feuerwerker 1958).
Such reasoning considered the economic and political strategies pursued by the Manchu court and Chinese officialdom to be traditional reflexes to social change, when they could have been understood as forms of economic and political confrontation against the novel phenomenon of global economic expansion. This influential view therefore downplayed or ignored contemporary contests outside the predetermined conceptual models of tradition and modernity, backwardness and progress, particular and universal, and the like. Influenced by Max Weber, this narrative portrayed Chinese businesses as traditional, backward, undercapitalized, without rationalized management, firmly rooted in family and region, and thus unfit to compete with large Western global competitors (Feuerwerker 1958; Dernberger 1975; Chan 1977; Bian 2011, 425–426).
A second school of interpretation stems from political theories inspired by Marx. Chinese historiography, well into the 1980s, advanced an economic and business history of Chinese modernity as one characterized by exploitation of the Chinese market by foreign—notably Western—businesses (Kwan 1998, 43). By the early 1930s, Mao Zedong had already placed special emphasis on [End Page 547] the economic distinction between a “compradore” sector of the bourgeoisie, economically dependent on foreign imperialism, and a “national” bourgeoisie, whose economic interests were domestically oriented and thus opposed to imperialism. Mao generally pictured capitalism in China as insolubly bound up with foreign imperialism. This served to support Mao’s denial that China’s socialist future was dependent on the social and material products of modern capitalism—in other words, that the relative absence of capitalist forces of production was a barrier to the pursuit of revolutionary socialist goals. The “principal contradiction” in Chinese society was thus, as Mao put it in 1937, the...