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Global Development in a time of Chinese ascendancy

Author: Giles Mohan

Much of Development Studies has made certain assumptions around processes, actors and geographies. Crudely put, ‘development’ happens in the developing world and has become associated with the actions of development agencies and NGOs. Western organisations and governments ‘do’ development to others in poor and far-flung parts of the world which centres ‘the west’ as the home of modernity and stability. But a different lineage of critical development studies focuses on the dynamics of global capitalism and how capitalist cores have enrolled the peripheries into uneven and exploitative relationships. While useful, the cores and peripheries are not dissimilar from ‘west’ and the ‘rest’ geographies of the more uncritical approaches to development. And what happens when erstwhile peripheries – like China – ascend to become the putative core and the assumed core of the west begins to engage with China on more equal – and possibly subordinate – terms? REDEFINE is looking at what China’s investment in Europe’s infrastructure means for how we understand the new global development landscape.

The inadequacy of development studies in an era of China’s rise

Development as an historical, global process has centred on ‘the west’ as the template for modernisation. As such Development Studies has been built on an aggregation of binary scales; categories such as ‘developed/developing’ or ‘North/South’ attempt to capture the global inequality that Development Studies seeks to ameliorate. Such binaries have endured, because they insist that power and wealth are unevenly distributed, but they are increasingly inadequate.

One argument around the inadequacy of these binary categories is empirical insofar as data suggests a growing differentiation within states such that both development and under-development exists inside all countries, rather than being located only in the developing world (Bratman 2011, Comaroff & Comaroff 2012). Allied to this is an awareness of planetary ecology that renders borders irrelevant, particularly with respect to climate change (Horner & Hulme, 2019). Another argument against spatial binaries is theoretical. Post-colonial theory has been used productively to problematise some of these binaries (Roy 2016, Hart 2018) and to show how power/knowledge was bound up in the assumptions and practices enacted in the name of development, as well as the colonial roots of social theory (Bhambra and Holmwood 2021). The emergence of Asian states as both economic powers and as development actors ‘ruffles’ the accepted binaries and power relations of knowledge production where the critique has focused on the coloniser as a western imperialist. China is simultaneously ‘Southern’, ‘Northern’ and neither (Mohan et al 2019). China plays up its history of being colonised in certain instances (Mohan 2016) but simultaneously projects its growing power to position other developing countries as suppliers of raw materials in much the same way as Western powers have done for centuries. This mixing unsettles categories which infuse our work, such as ‘Chinese’ capitalism or ‘Western’ values (Power & Mohan 2010) and prevents us from neatly and pejoratively linking spaces to actions - West = good, China = bad, or vice versa – that pervade public discourse around contemporary globalisation.

Towards global development

Such recognitions are used to argue for the idea of ‘global development’ that untethers development processes from particular places and simultaneously urges analysis at a ‘smaller spatial scale’ (Horner and Hulme, 2019: 369). There is no doubting that China’s impressive growth over the past 30 years has both reduced poverty within China, but also contributed to a global levelling of poverty levels. However, as Arsel and Dasgupta (2015) observe the mere existence of extreme poverty and deprivation in a given locality does not explain such conditions analytically. For example, both Shanghai in China and Manchester in the UK might be seen as part of the ‘developed’ world, but the glitzy parts of central Shanghai are a world away from some of the extreme deprivation in areas of Greater Manchester. The move towards global development should not be used to abandon the particular in the face of a new universal condition — we are all (under)developed now. Rather, the task is to hold in tension the general and the particular. As Horner (2020: 427) notes ‘paying attention to geographical variation in development challenges is a must in order the challenge both flat-world claims and one-size-fits-all, universal solutions’.

While REDEFINE’s agenda is to turn the analytical lens of development back onto Europe in a time of global restructuring, what does such a critical Development Studies lens contribute? At its heart Development Studies takes a structuralist perspective (Fischer 2015), which focuses on the global political-economy, its history, interdependencies, and inequalities. While this can lead to the problematic spatial categories identified above, it fundamentally roots analyses of inequality in the workings of the capitalist system at a global scale (Hart 2002). REDEFINE focuses on the inter-connections between China and Europe, as well as how wider connections, notably the changing role of the USA, play into these. But it also differentiates between countries that China engages with along different development trajectories; notably Central and Eastern European countries are not only incredibly diverse as a group but are also quite distinct from those industrial and post-industrial economies in North-Western Europe. The selection of case studies - UK, Germany, Greece and Hungary – captures this variegated economic geography and the different rationales on the part of an array of Chinese actors.

Development Studies also brings a normative dimension insofar as it is concerned with betterment. Borne out of decolonization, but with lingering roots in colonial practices (Cowen and Shenton 1996), development was about purposive change. Clearly, change for the ‘better’ is subjective and Development Studies has long debated how we measure development (Jerven 2015). Running through these is a concern with the perspectives of the marginalised (Pfaff-Czarnecka & Kruckenberg 2017). Much of the work on China’s international rise has come from International Politics (e.g. Chung 2018), Management Science (e.g. De Beule et al 2018), and Economics (e.g. Du & Zhang 2018) and has focused on large-scale geopolitics or long-term and broad-based economic trends. Moreover, relatively few studies have adopted the detailed ethnographic work of scholars like Lee (2017) and Nyiri and Xu (2017). While Development Studies has analysed the geopolitical and geoeconomic, it has also focused on how China’s engagement impacts global South countries in critical areas like employment (Oya and Schaefer 2019), migration (Mohan et al 2014), and the environment (Shinn 2016).


Thus, REDEFINE’s theoretical agenda of re-orienting development studies is inextricably built on empirical questions of ‘who loses?’ and ‘who benefits?’. But rather than simply mapping and describing such outcomes REDEFINE’s critical edge comes by retaining an examination of the systemic and structural factors that influence outcomes. REDEFINE will take a holistic view of development associated with China’s growing engagement with Europe, but its ethnography will focus on how this plays out for both elites and marginalized communities. We will look at the multiple cores and peripheries organised at different scales; China has internal cores and peripheries, it is the core to regional peripheries (e.g. ASEAN), and when it engages in other countries (say, in Africa) it is potentially also creating new (distant) peripheries but at the same time strengthening some ‘core’ aspects of these countries (such as urban bias, politically-connected elites, resource hubs etc.). Likewise, Europe has Germany at at its core and certain parts of Eastern and Southern Europe as what REDEFINE colleague Samuel Rogers describes in his blog as ‘the eternal periphery’

As our work progresses we hope to radically question the what, where and how of an increasingly complex global development landscape.


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
The Open University
Milton Keynes