Disempowered Development: A Conversation on Corporate Conquests in Southwest China with author Pat Giersch

By Kelly Dudine, a staff writer at RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program

Over the decades, China has implemented aggressive and tailored plans to catalyze economic development across its vast regions. Driven in part by a desire to modernize industries and join a growing global marketplace, these plans led to periods of rapid growth and prosperity, while simultaneously straining local communities and exacerbating inequalities. Today, poverty in China’s ethnically diverse West is still prevalent

During a virtual lecture held earlier this month, author Pat Giersch discussed his new book, Corporate Conquests: Business, the State, and the Origins of Ethnic Inequality in Southwest China, which examines how corporations, combined with top-down policies geared toward modernization and state-building, marginalized local and ethnic minorities in the West, creating unequal access to growth and prosperity. 

Giersch’s story begins with the emergence of early-twentieth-century corporations, which enabled business to maintain a central hub of power while also expanding throughout the Southwest, reaching into Tibet, Southeast Asia, and Eastern China. New opportunities emerged and new avenues for economic growth flowed into the entrepreneurial hometowns, bringing wealth, mobility, and cosmopolitan lifestyles to elite merchants in Yunnan Province. 

However, as corporations grew in both size and power, so did their reach into local communities, which displaced local ownership of the development process, concentrating local resources in the hands of outsiders. This process is referred to as “disempowered development,” a term first coined by Andrew Fischer, which creates an environment of systematic inequality – one that China is still dealing with today.

For example, Giersch notes that as corporations reached deeper into villages inhabited by native Tibetans, called Khampas, in the West, they took control of what were once local sources of commerce, including traditional medicine gathering, and exported that wealth to their own regional hubs, sidelining the local people and community. This process continued in mass throughout the region, marginalizing and excluding local communities from the economic growth experienced by the elite. 

In the lecture, Giersch stressed how destabilizing and traumatic the experience of disempowered development and modernization would have been for people in Southwest China. Corporations brought rapid change, which fundamentally shifted economic and political organization. As an example, the immigration of the majority Han Chinese challenged societal structures and hierarchy. Clashes between locals and migrants were not uncommon, and instances of violence in the region underscored societal resistance to modernization.

Giersch noted that beyond the loss of local commerce and economic empowerment, modernization and disempowered development also strained local families in a myriad of ways. Many men had to travel more frequently, leaving their communities for extended periods of time to seek business opportunities, which tried and tested local families. For the men, time alone and away from home came with a variety of negative temptations, including affairs and marriages with other women which could break families apart. Additionally, drug and alcohol abuse was on the rise, including newly formed addictions to opium. 

For women left at home, the stress of increased responsibilities in the wake of absent men and the strain of managing trans-regional families proved a huge burden to bear, argued Giersch. Furthermore, increased connections with the outside world further challenged local traditions and worldviews, with children from wealthier and elite families expected to leave home to study abroad.

Giersch describes the process of modernization as a fairly traumatic phenomenon for individuals and the society as a whole. The stress experienced by local people, compounded by unequal access to the economic gains reaped by non-local businessmen strained local societies. 

Using the experience of those in Southwest China, Giersch noted that any effort at economic development and poverty alleviation will not be successful without empowering local people and ensuring “local control over local resources and local futures.” If this cannot be negotiated or protected, development plans may only exacerbate existing inequalities and create larger divides between those who can access financial gains and those who are perpetually excluded from growth and prosperity.

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