Archives for category: China


Let’s assume that successful governing usually involves a bit of a ‘pact with the devil’ – in the sense that the money enabling honourable public investments often seems to come from rather disreputable sources.

One way for governments to deal with this problem is to turn a blind eye to what happens outside their own jurisdiction. This approach is common in a world of global supply chains. As Anna Tsing (2015) points out, the Japanese were the original masters of the contemporary approach: departing from Fordist attempts to standardise all stages of a production process, they made themselves accountable for what happened only after goods entered their own formal accounting processes. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, all sorts of illegal logging went on in Indonesia to supply the Japanese timber market, yet “no Japanese cut down Indonesian trees” (113) and the internal Japanese timber market was highly regulated and standardised.

Perhaps this just points to the ever-present interplay between informal and formal economic activity. It’s not just the case that variegated informality ‘precedes’ formalisation, but also that it is shaped and called forth by the formal economy. We are more than ever aware of the dark secrets of global supply chains: we criticise our governments, and the corporations which they encourage, if they don’t take responsibility for what happens beyond the formal reach of the state.  But I’m interested in another model for dealing with the devil, which, it seems to me, can actually make governing institutions look rather admirable in the public eye.  I’m thinking of this model as having two key characteristics:

  1. the dubious source of public money is singular and well defined: it may be morally dubious, but only one type of sin has been committed. The sin is contained.
  2. the place where the sinful money is produced is at a certain spatial remove from the seat of government, and from the places where the money is spent for the general good. It is acknowledged and visible, and may be a source of pride, yet it is only lightly regulated – not too many questions are asked. The spatial separation disentangles it from the good work of the governors.

Norway comes to mind with regard to the first characteristic above. It is no secret that the country’s wealth is based on oil extraction, and yet we seem only to admire the government for spending the money wisely rather than succumbing to the ‘resource curse’. Thus, the singular sin is easily cancelled out in our minds by the ‘good governance’ that it enables.

The second characteristic is nicely exemplified by the relationship between the UK Parliament and the City of London/Canary Wharf in the 1990s. Encouraging the City to make as much money as possible was not obviously aligned with traditional Labour Party principles, and yet this provided a large tax income to spend virtuously on public services. The sins were not hidden away, and yet they were committed ‘over there’, down the river. Westminster appeared all the more honourable because of this spatialised binary distinction.

I was thinking about this during a day trip to Macau. Walking around the historic centre of the city – a UNESCO world heritage site, overlooked by the ruins of St Paul’s church – you might admire the conservation work that has taken place.  It is rather overrun with tourists, and yet it would be ungenerous not to see it as rather well looked after. In itself, clearly a ‘well governed’ spot.


Macau’s historic colonial centre 


St. Paul’s Church

But, of course, Macau’s income comes almost entirely from its gambling industry (which is something like five times that of Las Vegas).  Its most iconic casinos are concentrated on the Cotai strip, on land largely reclaimed from the sea, and reached by crossing a bridge. (The front of the Venetian casino complex – including a huge hotel and shopping centre, complete with canals, gondolas and a somehow European-looking sky painted on its ceiling – is shown below.)


Macau symbolised my model (of a concentrated sin, committed visibly yet at a certain spatial remove), but there is of course more to the city than its heritage and casino zones. Most of the urban fabric is rather more prosaic, with dense unattractive buildings. It sounds almost trite to observe that the historic centre is just as artificial as the casino landscape on which it depends. Rather pleasingly, little remains of St. Paul’s church other than its façade.


St. Paul’s in context


The ‘real’ Macau (?), just outside the historic centre

It’s easy, furthermore, to find critical commentaries online about Macau’s history of poor planning decisions and ongoing social problems. Plenty of people are questioning, for example, the wisdom of its large new hydrofoil port, just as a huge road bridge is being built to connect the peninsula with Hong Kong. And yet I like the way that Macau indicates the way that defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ governance depends fundamentally on the construction of spatial or institutional boundaries between the two. By extension, perceptions of good governance depend on the visibility of bad governance. Bringing bad governance closer to home, and making its workings clearly graspable, while also limiting the appearance of contamination, seems like a more profitable strategy than hoping that bad governance will remain out of sight.

Macau, 6 December 2017



Tsing, A. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press




I’ve been reading about how translators deal with poetry, with specific reference to ancient Chinese poems (since I’m in Wuhan this week).

If, say, you recreate the famous Yellow Crane Tower poem by Cui Hao (704 – c. 754) literally in English, you get something very impressionistic.  A series of ideas.  You have to fill in the gaps to link these ideas together and make your own sense of it.

Past person already gone yellow crane away
Here only remain yellow crane tower
Yellow crane once gone not return
White cloud 1000 years sky leisuredly
Clear river clear Hanyang tree
Fragrant grass parrot islet
Day dusk homeland pass what place be
Mist water river on become person sorrow.1

It’s making me think that all language use basically involves placing loose representative concepts, which are more like fields of conceptual probability, in proximity to one another.  We use syntax to link and order these concepts – but syntax is really a sort of rhetoric, which only gives the appearance of linearity and logic.  In fact, what we are doing is papering over the gaps, and directing our audience away from interferences, between these conceptual fields.

Anyway, it’s a nice poem, so here is a composite version of various translations that are floating around:

A man of old left a long time ago on the yellow crane;
All that remains here is Yellow Crane Tower.

The yellow crane left, never to return;
White clouds drift slowly for a thousand years.

The trees in Hanyang are all reflected in the clear river;
The fragrant grasses grow luxuriantly on Parrot Island.

In this dusk, I don’t know where my homeland lies;
The river’s mist-covered waters bring me sorrow.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it’s build build build…  Wuhan has over 10 million residents, and is tipped for plenty of investment and development in the next decade.


Optics Valley Square, Wuhan

Wuhan, 26 February 2017



Men playing cards on Sunday morning in People’s Park, Shanghai

A work trip to China has got me thinking about what it would be like to live in a society where I never had the chance to vote. Or, rather, how a society might best be arranged if – for whatever reason – voting wasn’t on the menu. After all, from a global-historical perspective, decision-making through public votes is not the norm.

To think about this more imaginatively, I think the challenge might be to ignore what political theorists have to say on the matter.  In the same way, it might be a mistake to turn to a doctor in a discussion about the big questions around health and medicine; or to a teacher if you wanted to know about the significance of education.


Pudong, Shanghai

Shanghai, 17 May 2016

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