Trickle-down colonialism

What does income inequality in the developing world have to do with "oriental Orientalism"?

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 15, 2007 10:28PM (EDT)

How the World Works was recently described by a reader as full of "haphazard thought stacking." It was meant as a put-down, a suggestion that the connections underlined here are more random than insightful. Maybe so! But I'm going to co-opt and cherish the formulation. How the World Works thrives on unexpected intersections and conjunctions, and the more disparate the dots being connected, the better. The world is a haphazard place; making sense of it sometimes requires dipping one's toes into a sea of seeming nonsense.

With that in mind, I will now perform my latest trick: What does income inequality in the developing world have to do with Qing dynasty travel writing?

The New Economist alerted us this week to "Income Inequality and Colonialism," a paper published in November 2005 by University of Manchester economist Luis Angeles. Angeles sets out to investigate the question of whether high levels of inequality in the developing world can be blamed on historical factors -- specifically, colonialism and imperialism.

His conclusion, supported by reams of regression analysis, is that the hypothesis holds true for those nations...

...where colonialism brought into the country an amount of European settlers whose number was considerable but still inferior to that of the local population. This minority was able to concentrate most of the countries' income in their hands, mainly by excluding the rest of the population from owning land or mining resources. Moreover, and with the exception of Algeria, it was this minority who took all political power once these countries became independent. This allowed high inequality to remain a characteristic of these countries up to our times.

The theory works better for some regions (Latin America) than others (central Africa), but is compelling nonetheless. In countries where significant numbers of European settlers arrived and put the native populations to work for them, patterns of inequality were put into place that have endured throughout the centuries. The theory fits both the circumstances of Brazil, which, despite its relatively strong economy, is characterized by some of the highest inequality in the world, and Botswana, where absentee British rule left local power structures essentially intact.

Insights such as those provided by Angeles are always useful when attempting to make sense of contemporary developmental economics, because they emphasize that historical contingency results in significantly different outcomes. A set of policy recommendations cooked up in Washington and applied indiscriminately to nations whose path to modernity was warped in a myriad of different ways by conquest and colonization will not work the same way -- if at all -- in these varying cases.

But let's not fall into the trap of blaming every modern evil on Western imperialism, either. As Emma Teng, a professor of Chinese studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, persuasively argues in "Taiwan in the Chinese Imagination, 17th-19th Centuries," the Qing Dynasty, despite its ultimate destiny as a victim of Western aggrandizement, was itself no slouch at the practice of colonialism and imperialism.

A gradual process that spanned approximately a century, Qing expansionism was also motivated in part by economic interests and by population pressures in China proper, which generated a demand for new arable lands. Having annexed Taiwan in 1684, the Qing turned its attention to Central Asia, "pacifying" the Mongols and bringing eastern Turkestan and Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, under Qing rule. The Qing further expanded its control in south and southwest China, subjecting various non-Chinese peoples of this region to Qing domination. At its height, in the eighteenth century, Qing influence extended into Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma and Nepal, all of which came under the suzerainty of the empire.

By 1760, the Qing had achieved the incredible feat of doubling the size of the empire's territory, bringing various non-Chinese frontier peoples under its rule. The impact of Qing expansionism was thus tremendous, as the Qing not only redefined the territorial boundaries of China but also refashioned China as a multiethnic realm -- shifting the traditional border between Chinese (Hua) and barbarian (yi). In doing so, the Qing created an image of "China" that differed vastly from that of the Ming.

In the course of this expansion, attitudes toward frontier areas such as Taiwan, as depicted in the popular Qing literary genre of travel writing, progressed from treating the island as a land of savages that was "beyond the pale," to a more or less integral part of China.

Teng's paper would be worth reading if only for her mind-bending reference to "oriental Orientalism" -- a formulation cooked up by anthropologist Dru Gladney to describe how "contemporary representations of ethnic 'minorities' in the modern Chinese nation-state" have carried over from the days of Qing expansionism. Her larger point, how echoes of the "Qing imperialist project" play into questions of contemporary Taiwanese identity and Chinese-Taiwanese relations is also well taken.

Haphazard as it may be, How the World Works can't get enough of historians who trace the enduring influence that global power plays of the past exert on the present. We'll keep stacking these thoughts on top of each other, hoping that ultimately they'll cohere into something structurally sound.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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