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Anthropologists and the Politburo

5 August, 2009

Fresh in the footsteps of Lisa’s post on anthropologists and the U.S. military, I want to signal that it is not the only power that wants to use them. I just finished attending the International Congress of Ethnological and Anthropological Sciences, organised by a relatively obscure global organisation called International Union of Ethnological and Anthropological Sciences and held every five years. This year’s congress was held in Kunming, China, and organised by the Chinese government’s Ethnic Affairs Commission. The chair of the organising committee was the head of the commission, holding ministerial rank; but the conference was opened by a much higher official, Hui Liangyu, a member of the Politburo (the Chinese Communist Party’s highest body) and, judging by his name, a Muslim.

The conference, hailed as the largest anthropology event in the world (with over 4,000 participants) was on China’s national television and front-page news in the local papers. The Kunming city government allocated 5 million yuan (about 500 thousand euro) for it, although as conference fees were quite steep by local standards (I paid 1,400 yuan) and I can’t imagine that the organisers had to pay rent for the venues, it is a question what this was spent on. Perhaps on the extra police allocated to that part of the city: their job included removing all beggars from the streets. They were also heavily guarding the Yunnan University campus that hosted the conference. One had to show one’s pass three times before being allowed into the meeting rooms, and at least one participant I met, from a Chinese NGO, was refused registration (of course, he could get in with someone else’s pass). In order to get a pass, one had to show one’s passport, whose number was taken down along with a range of personal data, including religion (the latter supposedly for catering purposes, but in fact no one checked how many people chose the halal or vegetarian dining halls). When I asked the staff why these measures had been taken, I was at first told that there was a terrorist threat (the event came after the rioting in Xinjiang, and Muslim visitors to China were being visibly scrutinized at Peking Airport when I arrived), and then that it was prevent unqualified but eager Chinese scholars from storming the venue. Both explanations seem unlikely: rather, I think the organisers wanted to make sure that journalists or activists would not disrupt the proceedings, much of which were devoted to China’s “harmonious society.”

Anthropologists from all over the world seemed happy enough to play along with this spectacle of surveillance as well as with the display of happy ethnic minorities in costumes, who were on campus for photo ops. This despite the fact that, last year, the conference was abruptly postponed at about a month’s notice and no explanation when the government decided that it was best not to hold any major events just ahead of the Olympics. No attempt was made to compensate those who had already paid their airfare.

Now, while the Chinese government used this event to boost the standing of its ethnic policy after the events in Xinjiang in Tibet, anthropologists in China may have benefited from this extra attention. After all, it is not often that top political leaders declare that anthropological research is important. And there was a number of interesting panels at the conference, including two on “rewriting culture in Chinese,” organised by Gao Bingzhong from Peking University and Hor Ting, who recently returned from Paris to Xiamen to set up a centre for the anthropology of Western societies.

As I have written earlier on this blog in my review of Xiang Biao’s book Global Body Shopping, I think it is very important for non-Western anthropologists to begin looking in earnest at Western societies. But at these panels there was too much talk about wresting the West’s discursive hegemony away from it and about presenting a “Chinese perspective” and too little about the epistemological need for such research. Overall, the conference displayed a curiously schizophrenic mindset: the — very laudable — desire to establish independent standards and language for a Chinese anthropology came together with a desire to be legitimized by the approval of famous Western figures, some of whom were invited, expenses paid, to chair panels that were entirely in Chinese and of which they understood nothing.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 August, 2009 10:23 am

    Thanks for the report. Do you think it was ok to arrange this congress in China? It seems there wasn’t any discussion about how the “Chinese government used this event to boost the standing of its ethnic policy”? It is correct that IUAES-anthropologists praised Chinese government’s relation to minorities as Xinhua wrote? Did they really say that? I’ve collected some articles here

  2. 5 August, 2009 1:44 pm

    Fascinating, TTD – thanks very much for this account.

  3. 5 August, 2009 9:40 pm

    Lorenz, thank you for collecting all the information over at I didn’t know about this coverage of the conference, but I am not surprised to hear about the Kunming Declaration: large conferences in China do tend to end in the unanimous acceptance of pre-written declarations that most participants never hear about. To answer your questions:

    1) I think that after the congress was cancelled it should have been rescheduled to be held at another place. The main argument not to do so was support for anthropologists in China. But I think that if the anthropologists in China who are involved in the organisation make no public statement against this way of handling things, which beyond everything else is highly unprofessional and disregards the interests of attendees, then this means that they are not competent to hold an international congress. And indeed, they were not. There were three volumes of the conference programme, but none had times for the panels! It was completely impossible to find out when someone was speaking, unless you had the cellphone number of the panel chair. Some speakers did not know when they were speaking — so they did not. Quite apart from the political and ethical issues, accepting such execrable level of organisation really sends the wrong message. Why did IUAES nonetheless go along with it? Perhaps because its functionaries, and panel chairs, had their airfares and accommodation paid. And, it seems, they are strangely susceptible to the temptation of meeting Politburo members. (Why, I don’t know. They are not such interesting people, I am sure.)

    2) I don’t know whether the statements by foreign anthropologists cited by Xinhua are correct, but I am inclined to think they are (apart from the usual issue of being snippets taken out of a larger context, but that is true for all news reports). First of all, among such a large number of attendees, you can always find people who say positive things. Second, in some ways China’s ethnic policies have indeed been successful, and in many instances one is impressed with their results. This is a completely separate discussion, and I must say I find Petr Skalnik’s boycott of the conference very naive. China’s ethnic policies have not changed for many years. If they do matter, then he should have protested against the choice of China as a venue earlier. The violence in Tibet last year was absolutely inevitable in light of these policies, and as for this year’s riots in Xinjiang, well, in that particular instance all sources agree that the victims were overwhelmingly Han Chinese and the perpetrators Han. Whatever one thinks about the wider causes of the unrest, it is frankly foolish to choose this particular event as a reason for boycotting the conference, and it sends a completely wrong message to Chinese readers.

    I don’t think that the standards of international conferences (whether academic or procedural, including the pretense of academic independence) are immutable. They are up for discussion, and I would welcome an open discussion in which they are questioned. It would be fine if the Ethnic Affairs Commission organised an openly non-independent conference. I might even go. What I don’t like is the pretense that this is an international conference that follows these standards, while in fact it is not. And foreign anthropologists have been dupes in this spectacle.

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