Most countries in East Asia, especially those in Southeast Asia, were built from two related forces: migration and colonialism. The former implied a large dispersion of citizens from Central Asia – mostly China – to emigrate to countries that seemed not only more politically liberal, but also growing more rapidly: Japan, Taiwan, Hong-Kong for example. They likely saw these countries as lands of freedom and opportunity. But as the number of migrants escalated, the native populace relegated them to work the least gratifying jobs. They were viewed as merely sources of cheap labor while the locals populated the political and commercial niches. Colonialism reinforced the hierarchy established by migration. Even though European governments had the ability to conquer occidental territories they weren’t ready to invest extensive manpower into such novel expeditions, especially in an unfamiliar East Asia. Thus the colonists relied on the dynamic that was already in place, exercising authority through the local aristocracy who benefited from the increasing trade and using the cheap labor supplied by the impoverished migrants. As the network strengthened, emigrants were trapped in their predicament of low-wage and undesirable employment. Methods to increase their rank to match those of the natives were difficult. For instance, only if they had accomplished something out of the ordinary were they authorized to marry a local woman, which would elevate their status. It was a rare sight and any blatant aspiration to such a fate was seen as defiance. Consequently, the Chinese had become the discrete inhabitants of the locals’ shadows.
The history of colonial Southeast Asia offers a perspective on China’s modern fate.
China, although referred to as the “Middle Kingdom”, is withdrawn from the West’s modern world of trade. And their lack of curiosity for surrounding countries has been brought about by the fate of the first Chinese Diasporas. As the Chinese migrants were stuck at the bottom of the food chain, they tended to deny themselves personal ambitions and pursue dynastic revival. Conformity, righteousness, and reverence became core values for the Chinese as Confucianism, an ethical and philosophical system, became the cornerstone of traditional Chinese culture. As a country, China had gained by practicing introversion and focused on its internal problems. And as they turned inwards, they found themselves turning their back to globalization.
Over the years Confucianism gave way to Neo-Confucianism, which introduced the idea of renovation and modernization while still focusing on the self with a strong belief that society could only progress through self-improvement.
Although the values of traditional China diverge from those of the Western World, it offers an explanation to the actual cutback of China’s economic growth. While Japan and other East Asian countries sanctified new regimes in which tradition and renovation coexisted, China tirelessly sulked international trade. Japan, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries were introduced to the Western markets, which boosted their economy and led them to golden years of prosperity while China’s economic growth was created by interactions within the country itself; this explains its brevity and sudden stagnation. As Chinese farmers realized they could make more money in the cities than in the countryside and the Chinese government realized they would be of more use in the metropolis, there was a large exodus of low-income Chinese laborers to the cities, which provided very cheap labor. But now that China has squeezed everything it could out of capital expansion, it is time for them to move onto capital deepening before the only asset they have is manpower, with no scheme for it to be used on.
China’s current economic situation – their abundance of labor and shortage of long-term projects or booming market places – is partly explained by their self-created illusion that they need to shell themselves from the rest of the world. In today’s globalized world, a country, even inhabited by 20% of the world population can’t prevent itself from interacting with others without shooting itself in the foot. China’s staggering economic growth is slowly dismantling its desire and illusion of self-sufficiency and causing the country to gain increased awareness of the progression of its South Asian’s neighbors, as Japan that has impressed them with its modernization.
—Heloise Mercier ’16 is a student at Vassar College.