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Despite China's leading role in the construction of infrastructure over the past decades, the most influential paradigms for the study of infrastructure in the social sciences originate from research conducted elsewhere. This introduction to the special section “Chinese Infrastructure: Techno-politics, Materialities, Legacies” seeks to address this apparent gap, and contributes to building an innovative research agenda for an infrastructural approach in the China studies field. To do so, it pushes forward an understanding of infrastructure as both an empirically rich material object of research and an analytical strategy for framing research questions. We draw from two strands of inquiry: recent efforts to rethink the materiality of infrastructures not as an inert or stable basis upon which more dynamic social processes emerge, but rather as unstable assemblages of human and non-human agencies; and scholarship that explores the often hidden (techno-)political dimensions of infrastructures, through which certain intended and unintended outcomes emerge less from the realms of policy and implementation and more from the material dispositions and effects of infrastructural formations. These strands of inquiry are brought together as part of our effort to recognize that the infrastructural basis of China's approach to development and statecraft deserves a more concerted theorizing of infrastructure than we have seen thus far.
This paper proposes an infrastructure analytic for exploring the urbanizing landscapes of China's “national new areas.” In an effort to develop a less city-centred approach to the transformations underway in these spaces, I consider the new area as an “infrastructure space” in which the conventional distinctions between rural and urban have become increasingly meaningless. Such an approach draws our attention to the ways large-scale infrastructures of connectivity are driving a decentred form of urban development in which the livelihoods of residents are shaped by access to networks more than proximity to city centres. Based on case-study research of urbanizing villages and the rapid transformation of rural livelihoods in Gui'an New Area in Guizhou province, I suggest that an infrastructure analytic sheds light on the ways national new areas can be understood as particular events in an unfolding regime of circulation that has come to dominate urban forms worldwide.
Catastrophic Asia began as an experimental initiative of the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Culminating in a spring 2014 symposium where three of the four papers presented here and earlier versions of the two commentaries were delivered, the project sought to bring together a diversity of perspectives on Asian experiences of and vulnerability to disasters. We sought to collect an unlikely group of scholars whose work is not typically discussed in a single forum. They included natural and physical scientists, anthropologists, geographers, and scholars of literature. The project sought to discover what common epistemological ground might be found when such diverse approaches are brought to bear on catastrophic events, as well as the risks of catastrophe, in a particular area of the world.
Guizhou's west to east electricity transfer project is a major energy infrastructure development project associated with the campaign to Open Up the West. In terms of state investments, the project has been the major feature of the campaign in Guizhou. It indicates the intensification of, rather than departure from, a long-term pattern of western primary resource exploitation for the purposes of eastern development. Guizhou's experience in the campaign to Open Up the West has mostly been about “big development,” and the campaign may even represent a new stage in the province's long history of internal colonization. In broader terms, the west to east electricity transfer project is indicative of the campaign's agenda to recentralize state political and economic control away from provinces which have gained considerable autonomy during the reform era. Along with the burst of infrastructure, the implications for Guizhou appear to be a continuation of uneven patterns of exchange between coast and interior. Tied increasingly to its role as net supplier of power to Guangdong, Guizhou could face fresh challenges in diversifying its economy sufficiently to withstand the impacts of China's World Trade Organization accession.
Susan Blum's book on Han Chinese attitudes toward, and stereotypes of, “minority nationalities” (shaoshu minzu) in China reads like a story we've heard many times in bits and pieces but never in its entirety. For those of us who work in China, particularly in regions where shaoshu minzu predominate, Portraits of “Primitives” tells a story with which we are in various ways familiar, but which has never yet been told with such clarity and thoroughness.
In His Science-Fiction Novel The Diamond Age (1995), Neal Stephenson envisions a post—nation-state world of the future, where countless fragmentations of cultural identity differentiate humanity into spatially discrete tribal zones. Identity has become entirely spatialized, rendering its historical basis—that is, the experiences that generate a “collective memory” for a community—into a decontextualized montage of nostalgia. Stephenson writes a world where modernist notions of progress and development through linear time have been replaced by cultural differentiation across space: history has been conquered by geography. History has become little more than a resource for borrowed cultural traits that are mapped onto discrete territories, and identity is self-consciously constructed by adopting the ready-made form of a particular cultural group. As Stephenson allows us to observe the excesses of this kind of postmodern tribalism, China comes to represent the ultimate form of spatialized cultural identity. In The Diamond Age, China is represented more as an organic cultural system than a historically progressing nation. But it is only China's interior that is represented as such. The People's Republic has been splintered into an extremely wealthy coastal strip—essentially one big export processing zone—and an increasingly impoverished interior, which, in a self-orientalizing twist, now calls itself the “Celestial Kingdom,” and is ruled not by a Communist Party leader (Marxism having long since been denounced as a Western plot to undermine Chinese values) but by a self-proclaimed “Chamberlain to the Throneless King,” that is, a minister representing Confucius himself. Whereas the coast has rich and cosmopolitan cities that are among the finest in the world, the interior claims a moral superiority that comes only from its assertion of cultural purity; the interior is the “true” organic China.
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