Category: Development

Asia China Development Politics

China Economics Politics

Tai O

I’ve mostly finished reading through James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. Like so much of his work, I simply find it brilliant. He animates the worlds he writes about more than any other author I know. There is no linear progress for Scott, but instead endless actions and reactions by groups with varying degrees and types of power over each other. Rather than the world being composed of the powerful and the powerless, there are the various forms of states and people with differing degrees of autonomy from the state.

I think much of what Scott writes about applies to Hong Kong. Let’s start way back, with the “Hundred Yue.” Originally “Yue” was a description of the people living near the Yangtze when that was still the periphery of Han civilization. It evolved into a term for people of south and southeast China, pushing further and further south until ‘Yue language’ became another term for Cantonese. Vietnam translates directly into ‘South Yue.’

It looks a lot like the dynamics Scott describes, with “Yue” being a state term for a very diverse glob of stateless people that don’t really constitute a ‘group’ in any meaningful sense. The term was eventually adopted by different groups in very different contexts to its original meanings. It was an exonym-cum-endonym, an outside term eventually being appropriated as local by those still on the periphery of Chinese state power.

It also serves as a useful point of departure in thinking that this area was ‘always’ Chinese. Instead, there’s good reason to think that everyone from the Austronesians (Filipinos, Indonesians, Malaysians, Malagasy in Madagascar[!]) to the ethnic minority groups of Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan are likely refugees of the Han push southward. What are today Filipinos and the Hmong were probably then the ‘Yue.’ As Scott points out, it’s not that group X left as Group Y came in. Some stayed, some left, and everyone reinvented their identities and histories.

This is to say there is no biological or foundation to what it means to be “Han Chinese,” nor are their essentialist characteristics of what it means to not be Han. The Han are simply those people who, for historical and political reasons, were either captured by Han empires or chose to integrate. This Han civilization was further broken up by a cellular structure (Skinner, 1971),

China Culture Development Diversity

Blame it on reading James Scott’s argument for an “anarchist squint” in social sciences on the flight over to Oxford, blame it on an increasingly limited tolerance for the word “neoliberalism,” but a lightbulb of sorts went off during my first day at 2013 UKFIET conference on the Post-2015 development goals. My realization was that, as a field, we seem to only be able to think of power in social world that education is constructed in as (a) being necessarily institutionalised and (b) sitting on a monochromatic spectrum ranging from public to private, from state to business, from black to white. And rather than talk about the state as a “thing,” in a Latourian / Actor-Network Theory sense, we often speak instead with the euphemism of a “public sector” – which is not a “thing.”

Capacity China Development Diversity Inequality Politics

I was intrigued by a link on Twitter concerning a paper that was “sweeping” awards at the American Political Science Association conference this week, with the title The Missionary Roots…

Complexity Development Education Inequality

Because the news today is dominated by Chinese debt, I thought I share David Graeber’s ideas about the Chinese government’s potential responses. I’m sharing not because I agree, per se,…

China Economics


I watched The Island President last night and was surprised to see Mark Lynas play a role in the documentary. To be honest, he wasn’t a fully fleshed person to me before the movie. He was just someone making weak arguments about the value and need for genetically modified food and getting a lot of traction for those arguments because they came after an about-face from an equally weak position. He came across as a far more sympathetic character in the documentary, as someone genuinely concerned about global warming and who understood that how we approach global warming policy is far cry from “adequate.”

The issue, as he said in the documentary, is not just that we need to slow the growth of carbon – we actually need to “put carbon back in” to the Earth somehow to have a much lower carbon dioxide parts per million (ppm) count than we do today. One of the tensest scenes came when President Mohamad Nasheed met with his advisers, of which Lynas had become one, to announce his decision to back down from his 350 ppm demand once he saw the way negotiations in Copenhagen were going. Lynas resisted: 380 ppm was simply insufficient to help the Maldives in any meaningful way. Earlier, he was even seen resisting Nasheed’s interest in switching Maldivian energy production to natural gas – as it would harm his pledge to go carbon neutral.

I am convinced, then, of Lynas’s commitment to this issue. And I also don’t mean to specifically pick on Lynas, but as his reviewer says, he’s “wonderfully cogent” and he does spell out exactly where he stands. He’s intentionally putting himself out there as an intellectual punching bag by making statements like, “global warming is not about overconsumption, morality, ideology or capitalism.” So the problem seems to be his theory of change in so much as we see statements like that being about the future rather than past (i.e., we don’t need to change our capitalist or our consumption). Specifically, his theory of change is that hope for the future lies in modernizing our institutions and practices. In Peter Forbes’s review of The God Species, he says Lynas explains:


…why organic farming is not an option globally and why we need genetically engineered crops. The natural limit to food production is set by nitrogen which, in a form usable by plants, is rare in nature. We owe our present 6.9bn population to the 100-year-old Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixation to produce fertilisers. Take that away and the current population is already twice the Earth’s carrying capacity. Our best hope for the future is to genetically engineer a nitrogen-fixing plant (the green kind) to replace nitrogen-fixing plant (the heavy industrial kind).

Agriculture Politics Resilience

Agriculture Asia China Development Economics Inequality Resilience Uncategorized

I just finished David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years. It’s the best critique of capitalism I’ve yet read – jabbing at both the left and the right. For the…

Culture Development Economics Politics

This was my entry for the Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition. The theme I chose was, “Were the Millennium Development Goals Worth It?” I enjoyed it, but it was difficult writing on…

Agriculture Development