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Brokering China’s Extraversion: An Ethnographic Analysis of Transnational Arbitration

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - BROKEX (Brokering China’s Extraversion: An Ethnographic Analysis of Transnational Arbitration )

Reporting period: 2022-01-01 to 2023-06-30

Chinese global engagements are deepening across sectors and geographic regions. The objective of BROKEX is to fill specific gaps in knowledge about how China’s extraversion advances. The project takes an original approach by examining brokers who mediate in transnational fields. It generates knowledge about China’s global integration by moving beyond descriptions of input and output characteristics to elucidate underlying dynamics.
Stage 1 of the project is to review literature on empirical studies of global China and the Pearl River Delta (PRD), South China, as well as theoretical literature on brokerage, defined very broadly and studied through tests in history, geography, political science, sociology, and architecture.
Stage 2 of the project is data collection in four case studies set in the PRD. They cover the themes of export of goods to African markets, upgrading through the establishment of high-tech start-up enterprises, Cantonese merchant capitalism, and transnational architecture production. The diverse cases can offer insights into the mechanisms of brokerage across distinctive sectors. The data collection has combined fieldwork in Shenzhen with archival studies, online interviews, and fieldwork beyond China’s borders.
Stage 3 will build on the empirical findings and literature to develop brokerage theory. Social scientific research on brokerage commonly uses the morphology of social networks as its starting point, and focuses on how actors positioned at the intersection between groups operate. Our articles and book chapters published to date have examined how actors strategically seek to shape network morphologies in order to bridge gaps between groups.
Attention to how and why brokered connections emerge in specific situations will form the basis for critical theorization will generate new knowledge about the processes beneath the “rise of China”, the key objective at the outset of this projects. The data material collected to date has been heavily influenced by Covid induced closures. This has directed our attention to the weakening, suspension, or severance of transnational connections from China, and how that may shape the PRD and the world.
- Fieldwork preparations in Guangzhou (January to November 2019). Includes institutional agreement with Jinan University for hosting of the researchers during fieldwork and practical planning of the fieldwork period, planned for January through December 2020.
- Recruitment and onboarding of researchers. One postdoctoral researcher and two PhD researchers were recruited through job announcements and interviews Spring 2019. The researchers started between July and October 2019. An opening internal workshop for the project was held in October 2019. All researchers started their work at the project at the University of Oslo.
- An internal library was built for literature on the following topics: Brokerage, the Greater Bay Area Initiative, the PRD region.
- Background papers were prepared on the topics of the Greater Bay Area policy and the talent policy.
- Fieldwork in start-up companies in Shenzhen completed by one PhD researcher. Her departure was delayed. She conducted fieldwork between July 2020 and February 2021.
- Data collection in archives for one PhD researcher was commenced in May 2021. The researcher’s departure was delayed and changed from Guangzhou/Shanghai to London.
- The planned data collection in China for the postdoctoral researcher and the PI has been postponed indefinitely due travel restrictions.
- An open public in-person seminar in Oslo.
- A BROKEX online seminar series was initiated. Attendance is open to the public, and the target audience is academics, policy makers, and media professionals. Four seminars are planned each semester. Four seminars on the theme of brokerage in China’s extraversion were held in Spring 2021, with between 80 and 180 participants at each seminar. Video recordings of the seminars are published on the project website.
- The international project commencement conference has been postponed.
- The PI has responded to national and international media requests.
The project is data intensive, and the analysis was supposed to be based on data from a year of fieldwork. The concept was to push knowledge of China’s extraversion forward by researching the moments in which new transnational connections were forged. Without being able to collect such data and with the time spent on making a new research strategy, the project has not yet truly moved knowledge beyond the state of the art. However, the research conducted has shifted the knowledge frontier forward in a number of areas, the most important of which are:
- Incidentally, the BROKEX project was started the same year as China’s national Greater Bay Area Initiative was launched in the study region. The initiative was accompanied by investments in research for Chinese institutions. BROKEX has given us the opportunity to engage critically with the policies and consequences of the Greater Bay Area Initiative, and these critical interjections have already contributed to a more multifaceted international academic debate about the Greater Bay Area Initiative.
- The research published by Yichi Zhang has showed how the influence on urban space is more geographically diverse in original than what is usually stated in the literature. The debates over architectural and urban planning developments in South China often focus on interplays between Chinese and Western ideas. Dr Zhang’s contribution has been to a) show the importance of Japanese ideas to spatial development sin South China, and b) demonstrate that the two-directional (rather than unidirectional) nature of influence between Western and Chinese architectural ideas/design ideas. When Western design ideas are brought into China, they are adapted to local circumstances in more ways than what is generally acknowledged.
- The project has sustained its commitment to understanding developments through studying processes at other geographic scales than are usually applied. Instead of using an ethnographic lens, temporarily impossible due to Covid travel restrictions, we study developments in South China by taking larger national development trends as our starting point. Larger changes in local-central relations in China and China’s intensified global aspirations form an underappreciated context for understanding the Greater Bay Area regionalization initiative. By studying how regionalization and larger political developments in China interact, our work strengthens the analytical power of social scientific research on the Greater Bay Area.
- In ways the project could not plan for in advance, the developments over the past 20 months has introduced the opportunity to study how crises and ruptures affect spatial development processes. This perspective is unusual in Regional Studies, but not in China Studies. We have started work to identify opportunities for theoretical transfers between these traditions.
Expected results until the end of the project:
- Advance critical theories on brokerage based on the ethnographic case studies we can carry out and empirical studies based on archival research and document analysis carried out in lieu of the ethnographic studies.
- Enhance our knowledge about the processes beneath the “rise of China”.
Guangzhou Library. Architect Nikken Sekkei. Photo: HØ Haugen