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Thursday, July 13, 2000

No easy explanation for overseas Chinese success

ETHNIC CHINESE: Their Economy, Politics and Culture, edited by Yu Chunghsun. Tokyo: The Japan Times, 2000, 247 pp., 2,800 yen (cloth).

The essays in this book explore the role of the ethnic Chinese economies in economic recovery and development in Asia in the 21st century. They are largely the product of an international conference on ethnic Chinese and the world economy that was held in China in May of 1998, which brought together scholars from a range of disciplines, from politics and sociology to mainstream economics. The belated publication of the papers has been edited by Professor Yu Chunghsun from Asia University in Tokyo.

Before commenting any further on the subject matter of this book, it should be noted that the collection has been poorly edited, and this will almost certainly color readers' assessment of the book as a whole. Two or three excepted, all the essays are badly in need of the attention of a native English writer, and in some cases require substantial rewriting.

That said, if readers persist, they will find much of interest in the subjects that are explored and the questions scholars raise concerning the prospects for the ethnic Chinese economies, particularly in the wake of the Asian financial crisis.

Yu Chunghsun explains that the diversity of disciplines that are drawn upon in the collection reflect the importance of addressing the politics, society and culture of the ethnic Chinese if we want to better understand their economies. His introduction to the collection analyzes the economic dynamism of the ethnic Chinese and their role in the 21st century. He begins with an attempt to define what is meant by the term "ethnic Chinese."

Narrowly defined, the ethnic Chinese consist of ethnic Chinese overseas or overseas Chinese and their descendants. Broadly defined, they include all ethnically Chinese people from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and ethnic Chinese overseas. Chunghsun and other contributors to the book use the wider definition in their assessment of the ethnic Chinese economies.

Chunghsun explores the contentious question of whether or not "Chineseness" has anything to do with the strengthening of the ethnic Chinese economies. By "Chineseness" he means aspects of behavior such as family and clan business, paternalism, quick decision-making, high adaptability to new circumstances, easy acquisition of inside funds, easy suppression of employees to low wages, and industriousness and enthusiasm. He argues that these features of the behavior of the ethnic Chinese people do indeed play a role in the relative strength of the ethnic Chinese economies, but will not necessarily continue to do so as the influence of "Chineseness" weakens from generation to generation.

Nevertheless, high on the list of those factors Chunghsun identifies as central to the economic success of the ethnic Chinese is both their entrepreneurial spirit and the existence and work of Chineseness. Furthermore, he argues that "the main reason why the second- and third-generation ethnic Chinese in Thailand, Indonesia etc. faced economic difficulties in the 'crisis' is that they lost their Chineseness, the risk-management spirit, or their Chineseness has changed to a great extent."

This argument is countered by another contributor, Peter Li, who, in one of the strongest articles in the collection, argues that the claim that factors such as Chinese personalized connections are a primordial cultural attribute of overseas Chinese, without which business success cannot be attained, is untenable. He attributes the success of the ethnic Chinese economies to structural factors, such as society's reliance on the rule of law, the degree of political stability, the minority status of overseas Chinese and the scale of Chinese firms.

These opposing arguments provide a valuable example of the controversy surrounding analysis of the development of the ethnic Chinese economies. Ultimately, Chunghsun's article is the less convincing of the two -- he is ambiguous on critical points of definition, and his arguments are highly speculative. In contrast, Li pinpoints the source of confusion in literature on the debate and takes the reader through a logical set of reasons to show why this confusion has clouded clear analysis of the past and future success of the ethnic Chinese economies.

In addition to a series of articles on the state of the ethnic Chinese economies, there are several articles on the politics and culture of the ethnic Chinese. For example, L. Ling-chi Wang provides a damning critique of the treatment of the Chinese in the United States and the persistent claim by the U.S. that it provides the global model for democracy and is a successful democratic society. Wang argues that Chinese Americans have suffered considerable racial oppression in the U.S. He concludes that "from the Chinese encounter with American democracy, we see a string of false promises, flaws, racial and class oppression, and the hypocrisy of American democracy."

The role and identity of the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia are addressed by Yen Ching-hwang. He argues that the problems of maintaining and developing the culture of the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia hinge on the relationship between ethnic Chinese communities and the indigenous people of the region. "The ethnic Chinese," he argues, "not only should always regard themselves as Southeast Asians first and ethnic Chinese second, but should be aware of the feelings of the indigenous people." For their part, Southeast Asians should accept the ethnic Chinese as legitimate members of the Southeast Asian nations and recognize that the ethnic Chinese communities have a right to preserve their beliefs, values, customs, language and education.

The essays in this collection cut across a range of subjects and introduce readers to a number of controversial issues that can only become more complex as ties between third- and fourth-generation ethnic Chinese across Southeast Asia weaken. That is to say, the assimilation of the ethnic Chinese people with the economies and cultures of Southeast Asian nations will inevitably lessen the extent to which an "ethnic Chinese economy" can remain a clearly identifiable phenomenon.

Nevertheless, if there are lessons to be drawn from ethnic Chinese economies in terms of economic recovery in Asia, collections such as this play an important role in highlighting features of economic development that Southeast Asian nations might seek to emulate.

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