chapter  4
The cultural limits of ‘Confucian capitalism’: power and the invention of the family among Chinese traders in Sarawak
Pages 21

It is ironic that at a time when culture has become for anthropologists ‘a deeply compromised idea’ (Clifford 1988: 12), a spectacular flowering of culturalist explanation is taking place in the management and social science literature devoted to the construction of ‘Chinese capitalism’ as a new economic paradigm. The momentum is undoubtedly provided by the economic growth in East Asia, particularly South China and South-East Asia, where capital, labour and business talent of the Chinese populations play an important part. It has been argued that the rise of Chinese capitalism is an integral part of the dynamics of global capitalism (Dirlik 1997), and that the discourse that grounds it is an outcome of the attempt by East Asian states like Singapore to inscribe an alternative ‘Asian modernity’ (Ong 1997). Yet right from the beginning when Herman Kahn (1979) first linked Confucianism with East Asian economic performance, the argument has always carried a faint Orientalist agenda. The discourse of Confucian or Chinese capitalism celebrates an essentialized ‘perfect East’ – culturally intact and industrially vibrant, economically competitive and politically stable, all the things that the ‘West’ seems to have lost. Consistent with the Orientalist strategy so cogently described by Said (1978), the discourse must make the wondrous working of Chinese business understandable and hopefully imitable. It is here that the deployment of ‘Chinese culture’ becomes crucial. For it is the major feature of the discourse of Confucian capitalism which reduces the intricate ordering of power and social relations into some ghostly notion of ‘Confucian ethics’. The process thus transforms ‘Confucian ethics’ into a timeless essence of ‘Chinese cultural heritage’, something immune from the contingencies of history and practice, and which peoples of Chinese descent, wherever they are, find socially and psychically pertinent.