During two days, we listened to over twenty papers, six discussants and a keynote lecture. The amount of information received will take us some time to process. It will also take some time to fully understand what we implicitly learned about different academic traditions and ways of theorising in China, the UK, the US, Japan and so on. Language was not the biggest issue. Communicating across continents from distinct loci of enunciation proved to be one of the most pressing difficulties. A common use of words can disguise other incompatibilities.
Although challenging remarks and remarkable insights circulated across the two days of conference, one could not avoid noticing strong similarities in the style of discourse from most speakers. We hoped to learn new concepts which drew upon a non-European vocabulary as decisive weapons to unpack the crucial issues that the title of the conference involved: 'citizenship in orientalised societies'. Language that we wanted to uncover, to learn from, often seemed to be deployed to sideline political and theoretical practices in China. The 'political' was often defined as being directly and consciously to do with policy and the working of government. For social scientists like us who see the supposedly non-political as often the most politicised of sites, this insight was instructive, if not entirely surprising. The paradox of the avowedly non-political asserted itself in other ways too. On a number of occasions, questions to panelists were literally left unanswered: met with silence, conferring between speakers and the announcement of the end of the panel by the chair.
Differences of approach could not obviously or unproblematically be ascribed to western and non-western cultures of academia. Many talks seemed to reproduce mainstream discourses in western political science in a way that rendered this conference not too dissimilar to PSA counterparts. Common features were in evidence: talks modelled around explicit, pre-defined Introduction-Argument-Conclusion structures, frequency of well-known signifiers, focus on issues of methodology, data and empiricism. Perhaps it was to be expected. After all, the conference was held in a building internally reproducing the structure of a Greek temple with its inevitable Ionic and Corinthian capitals as the background of speakers.
A breath of fresh air came with a panel solely formed of women, with perspectives from different parts of the world: Japan, Thailand, Europe, Hong Kong. It is not uncommon to see an absolute majority of male speakers at international conferences. Suddenly there was space to talk about students demonstrations, environmentalism, individualism and orientalism. This panel dealt with the 'cases' from outside of China. Women, like the Orient, are always mysteriously positioned between inside and outside. In a conference on 'orientalised societies', women's talks and their compartmentalisation revealed the persistence of orientalised subjects in the world of knowledge production. But they open the window and let fresh air come in. In addition, the children of rural migrants whom we spoke to at the university draw on rural experiences and ideologies to challenge normative ideas of capitalist individualism and the tendency to generalise. They see the city through the eyes of rural migrants. It offers a lens, the perspective of those who have known other realities and other truths.
A conference is not all about what has been presented or discussed but about academic politics. We don't want to be Edward Said’s orientalist, judging what was before us. As the same time, we could not suppress our need to reflect on what was said or unsaid. When one speaker informed us that western citizenship was derived from the top of society and Chinese citizenship came from the people, it reminded us of the temporal and geographical contingencies that form any statement and the need to acknowledge and understand them. Many speakers seemed to avoid certain expressions, many preferred the 'cultural' and 'social' to the 'political'. Policy oriented studies pre-dominated. With a few striking exceptions, there was little interest in countries outside of China. How does one make sense of this? It was plain to us that the concerns of the speakers, issues such as urbanisation, local elections and the hukou system are urgent and important, and China is a vast and complex state at a moment in history without clear precedent. Does the will to make sense of China centrism itself point to the continuing legacy of orientalism in our thought? Or does being critical of China centrism in studies of citizenship bring forth an invaluable insight which requires highlighting?
- The Oecumene Team, 14 June 2013