Saturday, June 20, 2020

C. Patterson Giersch's "Corporate Conquests"

C. Patterson Giersch is Professor of History at Wellesley College. He is the author of Asian Borderlands (2006).

Giersch applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Corporate Conquests: Business, the State, and the Origins of Ethnic Inequality in Southwest China, and reported the following:
From page 99:
To examine the commercial changes of the 1870s through 1940s, the chapter follows the Yunnanese corporations into Kham to explain the overall growth of privately-financed commerce and to reveal the changing local dynamics of commodity production. Along with Shaanxi and Sichuanese firms, the Yunnanese were able to link more Kham producers to larger and more extensive networks of regional and even global trade. The private trading corporations were well capitalized and, using the new organizational and bookkeeping technologies examined in Chapter 1, could reach more deeply into local communities to purchase and move highland products to Chongqing, Kunming, Mandalay, and even Shanghai and Hong Kong. The firms were responding to increasing regional and global demand, and they shipped musk as far as Paris, to be used by the burgeoning perfume industry, while also purchasing and transporting Chinese traditional medicine products to meet growing demand in Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia.

The ability of corporations to extend their business in Kham was, perhaps counterintuitively, aided by the destabilization of the region by the Qing in 1905-1911. This destabilization was provoked by Qing adoption of Euro-American models of colonialism in the wake of the British invasion of Lhasa. There followed a brutal military campaign to suppress and even eradicate indigenous institutions of power in Kham. After the Qing regime fell in 1911-1912, Kham became an arena for competition as monasteries, secular aristocratic families, merchants, Lhasa, and various forms of the new Republican Chinese state jockeyed for power. While commerce was frequently interrupted by conflict, this period of competition actually allowed for new private and state-owned corporations to gain power, a process that, when combined with the political changes, laid the foundations for modern China’s long-term practices of development that tends to disempower local, non-Han communities. In this chapter, then, we continue to follow the fortunes of the Yunnan trading firms, but their story is now placed within a broader geographical and political context as we move into Kham and explore in detail the concurrent transformations of the various forms of the modern Chinese state.
I confess that I may have enhanced the page 99 test by including a paragraph that begins on page 98. But a reader who examines these two paragraphs will encounter actors, stories, and locations that are central to the book. The stories spill across the rugged highlands of Southwest China, from Yunnan Province to Eastern Tibet (Kham), and down the great river valleys into India, Burma, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. The actors include entrepreneurs from China’s Yunnan Province who adopted new management and recordkeeping technologies to build powerful transregional trading corporations. The growing corporations transformed many rural areas of China’s ethnically diverse frontier regions, reaching deeper, for example, into the villages and grasslands inhabited by Tibetans called Khampas. And they controlled the profits from expanding commercial sidelines, such as traditional medicine gathering, thus limiting the economic leverage Khampa families could gain through increasing market participation.

The actors also include central and provincial governments, which, after the 1870s, increasingly viewed China’s diverse western expanses as alien lands in need of domination through top-down political and economic control. This meant that government officials initially supported the private trade corporations in gaining commercial power over indigenous communities. Later, in the 1950s, the state would take over the private firms, thus commandeering that commercial power for itself. And, from the 1880s forward, it also meant creating state-run corporations and developmental plans that would rationalize state control over the economic future of Khampas and other communities. In China’s West and Yunnan Province in particular, the book demonstrates, lay the origins of the most creative and essential of China’s long-term approaches to economic development, which have tended not only to be state-led, but also fundamentally flawed by prejudice and a lack of inclusivity, especially for minority communities in the western regions.

What the page 99 test does not quite capture is the book’s revelation of alternative paths. By focusing on the activism and planning of well-educated and worldly ethnic Tai leaders in western Yunnan, the book uncovers an early twentieth-century alternative of inclusive commercial and industrial planning, which would have left key institutions and corporations under the authority of local communities. As we know today from reading the terrible news about Xinjiang, Tibet, and even Hong Kong, this alternative path of local autonomy and control, while possible in the past, is now tragically gone.
Learn more about Corporate Conquests at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue