|Invading from the Edges
“Have you not heard of the wanderers of Yueh” - Hsu Wu Key (Ancient Taoist Mystic)
Beijing has won the 2008 Olympics. This victory is widely viewed as vindication of a model of economic development that is centred on the strength of an authoritarian state.
Ccru is watching for what is brewing at the margins – since this is where everything interesting occurs. It is the forces seeping in from the periphery - not the dictates of the Politburo - that is ultimately responsible for the development of the mainland. China calls itself the Middle Kingdom but it still has edges and increasingly the edges are taking over.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Shenzen, a small town on the Pearl River Delta. In 1979 - when it achieved the freedom granted to the Special Economic Zones - Shenzen was nothing but farmland. Twenty-two years later its streets are filled with skyscrapers and frenzied shoppers, the product of an economy growing at a staggering 34% a year. The key to this success lies precisely in its distance from the centre. In Shenzen there is a saying: “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.”
It is no surprise that economic activity flourishes on the margins. State centred Confucian society was traditionally hostile to traders. As early as the late Chou dynasty (1100 –770 BCE) undesirables were banished to the areas south of the Yangtze River. Merchants were exiled to the edges of the world, populated by pirates and Taoist sorcerers. In Chinese hyperstitional lore these edges are known as the lands of Yueh.
This zone -on the southern coastal edge of the mainland- bred a maritime culture of commercial dynamism and entrepreneurial risk that was sharply distinct from the inward-looking, land-locked, state power of the North. Yueh spawned a hybrid population with an offshore mentality, inspired less by the rigidity of Confucianism than by “the underground anti-authoritarian counter-cultures of Taoist and Zen Buddhist heterodoxies, that long have flourished on the Chinese periphery.” It is this hybrid, dynamic, peripheral culture - rather than the state - that is the engine of economic growth in the Chinese world.
For thousands of years Yueh culture spread outside its borders. Coastal trade brought it to Siberia, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, through the Indian Ocean, the Malay Peninsula, and across to the Indian subcontinent. This overseas movement dramatically accelerated when, in 1276, the Mongols invaded and previously sedentary populations swarmed down from the North. Forced outward by the influence of the nomads the people of Yueh dispersed.
Today there are approximately 60 million Chinese living outside the mainland. This makes the Chinese diaspora the second largest in the world. By far the majority of these originate from the southern coastal provinces, regions which were once the ancient Kingdom of Yueh.
This diasporic population has an intense economic vibrancy. This is produced through a distinct market culture unlike that of the colonists, merchants and multinationals from Europe, America and even Japan. Chinese business operates in an exterior relation to state backed capitalism with its lumbering bureaucracies, centralized decision making processes and national headquarters. It functions instead through a true transnationalism, planet-wide networks of communication and connections (guanxi), and a proliferation of small and medium sized businesses familiar with insecurity and limber enough to manoeuvre in unfamiliar environments.
Recently this diasporic community has reconnected with its home on the mainland’s southern periphery. This link - between a marginal land and its people - has introduced a decentred, outward-looking mode of development based on foreign investment and export oriented growth. The fate of China is being transformed not by the authoritarian control of the central committee, but by this ‘opening up, which is being engineered from the periphery.
Beijing has seven years to prepare to welcome the world inside its borders, but the outside has already invaded. The exiled wanderers of Yueh have returned.
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Chaliand, Gerard and Jean-Pierre Rageau. The Penguin Atlas of Diasporas. Penguin: New York. 1995