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Trust, Global Traders, and Commodities in a Chinese International City

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - TRODITIES (Trust, Global Traders, and Commodities in a Chinese International City)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2020-09-30

Yiwu, a city of 2 million in China’s commercially vibrant Zhejiang province, is known by traders from countries including Afghanistan and Syria, Ukraine and Mexico, and the UK and Russia as the world’s hub for the wholesale of ‘small commodities’. Despite the clear insights into globalisation and the significance of trade for forging relations between cultures offered by a study of a modern trading node such as Yiwu, the city has yet to be the focus of sustained research. ‘Trust, Global Traders, and Commodities’ (TRODITIES) is an integrated comparative programme of research that will provide new empirical data and comparative analysis on the global trade in low-grade Chinese-made commodities. Its focus is on the ways in which transnational trading activities are conducted in the cosmopolitan and dynamic city of Yiwu. This project’s in-depth investigation of Yiwu, and its connections to the wider world through networks and flows of people, commodities, and knowledge, will yield ground-breaking perspectives on the precise ways in which trade facilitates the simultaneous exchange of commodities, practices, ideas, and identities. The project is multi-sited and interdisciplinary, engaging researchers and theoretical approaches in anthropology, area studies, business studies, and history.
There is growing recognition in the social sciences of the importance of commodity trade and traders to so-called ‘bottom-up forms of globalization’ (Mathews, Lins Ribeiro, and Alba Vega 2012). Furthermore, scholarship in this vein and across a range of disciplines has explored the shifting nature of China’s relations to the world (e.g. Laruelle and Peyrouse 2012). Much rarer, however, are empirical accounts of the ways in which China’s relations with the wider world are mediated through the lived experiences of commercial personnel (merchants, traders, financiers, and businesspeople) from diverse backgrounds who travel to and reside in China in order to procure commodities for export and sale. Those studies that do exist tend to focus on old and established imperial centres of circulation and commerce such as Hong Kong (Matthews 2011; Constable 2014). Work exploring increasingly international trading centres in mainland China document the significance of trade and trading communities to economic globalisation yet lose sight of the broader social, cultural, and intellectually interactive dimensions of these processes, and of the role that particular commodities play in them (e.g. Bodomo 2012; Haugen 2011; Li Zhang 2008; Lyons et al. 2008; Yang Yang 2012). Historians of China and the so-called Silk Road, by contrast, have debated the significance of global trade routes not only to economic expansion and the development of capitalism but also for cultural and technological innovation (e.g. Lewis 2009; Perdue 2005; Westad 2012). The Silk Road and other trading routes that connected China to the wider world between the seventh and fourteenth centuries propelled cultural innovation through forging contacts between cultural regions, and allowing the circulation of people, technologies, and artefacts (Hall et al. 2009).

The project has four overarching objectives:

Aim 1: To provide a comparative and connective investigation of the global commodity trade in low-grade goods.
Yiwu is one of the world’s most important sites for the wholesale purchase of low-grade commodities (Pliez 2012). Traders from all over the world, especially Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, travel to Yiwu to provision goods and export these to the markets in which they work. A focused study of Yiwu and the trading communities, networks, and individuals that operate in the city offers therefore an unprecedented opportunity for a pioneering and truly global investigation of the geographies, practices, and communities that make-up the global commodity trade in low-grade goods. The data gathered will be analysed in relation to historical studies of comparable trading nodes.

Aim 2: To provide high-quality comparative analysis of the social groups, cultural influences, and historical legacies that inform the practices of global commodity traders.
Locales such as Yiwu foster and force different kinds of traders to interact, compete, and form relations with one another. The city is a commercial node for the world’s trade networks: South Asian, Slavic, Chinese, Middle Eastern, African, and Central Asian trading communities are all embedded within the city’s dynamics. In Yiwu, highly ‘modern’ and formalised money transfer methods also co-exist with those of older historic pedigree, such as the Islamic ‘hawala’ system, that today are classified as ‘informal’. The project will explore the relations between ‘peripheral’ and ‘dominant’ capitalists, and those who trade for ‘survival’ and for capital accumulation. Doing so will offer insights into the interactive relations between a multiplicity of forms of modern capitalism. The project will open up new models for understanding modern trade both as an economic practice and a mode of inter-cultural exchange.

Aim 3: To provide new empirical data on, and analysis of, the forms of trust, social relations, moral work, and modes of accounting, risk management, and security calculation that are critical to the global commodity trade.
Social scientists working in various disciplines have long distinguished between older ‘bazaar’ economies and newer ‘market economies’ (e.g. Geertz 1978; Ray 1995). Such distinctions between older and newer forms of bazaars and markets tend to represent trust as being a resource that is of little relevance to competitive and modern economic forms. This project will launch a comparative analysis of the significance of trust to modern global trading practices. How is trust created, dissipated, and broken down in the relationships that traders fashion in Yiwu, and sustained or otherwise when they are no longer present in the city? Rather than seeking to unearth abstract conceptions of trust held by commodity traders, this project will investigate the types of practices on which traders embark in order to ascertain the trustworthiness of others. It will document and explore the multiple languages of trust (verbal, ritual, and behavioural) that are known and deployed by international traders in Yiwu, the steps that traders take to generate such languages, which are mutually intelligible across cultural, linguistic, and other boundaries, and the circumstances in which difficulties of translation across such boundaries come to the fore.

Aim 4: To assess the significance of differing types of commodities in shaping the nature of the networks, communities, and practices implicated with them.
Yiwu is a trading centre for commodities made for daily use; these might include items ranging from nail clippers, lavatory brushes, toys, and umbrellas to car spare parts, kitchenware, stationery, cosmetics, and blankets. As a result of their being mass produced, such commodities are frequently treated by scholars and wider publics as ‘invading the world’, and being corrosive of sociality, the environment, the lives and identities of workers, and also of a range of types of locale that have been transformed by the emergence of modern, globalised trade routes, including industrial towns and historic trading nodes. Yet treating both these commodities and those who trade in them as lacking in wider social and affective significance overlooks the multi-dimensional ways in which low-grade commodities are received, consumed, and evaluated in different contexts. By collecting empirical data on the supply chains and social lives of a carefully selected range of low-grade commodities, the project will open up lines of enquiry that move beyond moral panics associated with Chinese commodities. Instead, it will ask empirically grounded questions about the relationship between traders and the commodities in which they deal, thereby generating theoretical insights into the role that traders play in converting the value of commodities and in transforming the nature of local and global social and cultural styles.

TRODITIES aims to bring together an integrated understanding of: (i) the social groups active in such trading practices and the types of sociality and trust-based relations they create and deploy; (ii) the specific effects that commodities have on such forms of trade and the contexts they are affecting; and (iii) the socio-economic dynamics of trading nodes and cities, and their relations (political, economic, and cultural) to one another and to the polities and nation-states within whose realms they exist. In doing so, the project will generate significant findings concerning major trends and developments in the global commodity trade. We can expect that the project will make a powerful impact on the cross-cutting fields of capitalism, global economy and connectivity, and morality.
1. ASSEMBLY OF THE TEAM: During the first three months of the reporting period, the PI assembled the research team, oversaw the establishment of two project websites and appointed Team Members and POSTDOCS named on the application. During this period, there were two minor departures from the plan laid out in the proposal. A named POSTDOC was not able to join the project (having been employed elsewhere): the PI recruited, selected and appointed a new POSTDOC with the relevant qualifications. The POSTDOC joined the project on May 1, 2016. A further POSTDOC delayed their joining the project until month 12. The POSTDOC was included in all pre-fieldwork training and preparation activities and therefore there was no delay in commencing work on taking up appointment (August 1st, 2016).

2. ACADEMIC MEETINGS AND WORKSHOPS: The project team has held five meetings since the project launch. An Ethics and Security Workshop was held at the University of Sussex on 26th – 27th November 2015. Project members deliberated on ethical issues relating to the project; the PI to coached members of the team on issues relating to security and ethics. A launch meeting was held on May 25 2016 at Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College (China): the project’s aims and goals were conveyed to local officials, as well as to project partners in China (Yiwu and Commercial College and China International Electronic Commerce Centre). A result of the meeting was official approval for the project from Yiwu’s municipal authorities. An end of Phase 1 milestone workshop was held at University of Copenhagen on 20th Jan 2017 at which team members reported on their fieldwork activities. A workshop was organised in relationship to the project’s findings regarding relations between West and East Asia and held at the University of Sussex on May 16th, 2017. A workshop was held at the University of Cambridge on 23rd February 2018. It addressed the importance of the family and collective and individual reputation to the activities of Yiwu trading networks.

3. PARTNERSHIPS: The project has developed close relationships with a range of institutions in order to facilitate fieldwork and to ensure that the project extend its intellectual reach as wide as possible. Two institutions in China (The Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College and the China International Electronic Commerce Centre) were recruited as the projects partners in China through MoUs with The School of Global Studies (University of Sussex). Additionally, the PI initiated and signed MoUs with the Koc University Asia Centre (Istanbul) and has consulted with leading academics in relevant disciplines at The European University (St Petersburg), the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, The Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Asia Research Institute/Middle East Institute (National University of Singapore). Finally, with a view to forming a long-lasting consortium of universities engaged with activities relating to the project, the PI initiated an ERASMUS exchange agreement between the University of Copenhagen Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies and the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. The PI has also secured funding for an Inter-Asia Research Dynamics Network in order to further extend intellectual and research engagements relating to the project: the partner institutions of this network include (Koc University Asia Centre, Asia Research Institute at National University of Singapore, and the Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies). Several scholars have also joined the network as associated academics.

4. FIELDWORK: All team members whose time is accounted for by the project have conducted either intensive fieldwork in Yiwu, China or in the city’s connected outposts. In several cases individual researchers have conducted fieldwork in both types of locale. PI (Professor Magnus Marsden) conducted fieldwork in China for 4.5 months, where he set up project links and conducted intensive research with traders from Afghanistan, while also interviewing merchants from across West and South Asia. Dr Diana Ibanez Tirado (POSTDOC 3) conducted a total of 7.5 months of research in China, focusing on traders from Central Asia (especially Tajikistan) but also interacting with individuals from Latin America and Iran. Dr Paul Anderson (TM2) spent 3 months conducting fieldwork in Yiwu during which time he interviewed traders from the Arab world (especially Syria and Yemen). Dr Rui (TM1) has made four visits to Yiwu and Beijing, interviewing local government officials and local entrepreneurs about Yiwu’s development as an international trade city. Dr Saheira Sha (POSTDOC4) spent 8 months conducting fieldwork in Yiwu, interviewing traders from Xinjiang, and the city’s Hui Muslims, as well as Chinese women married to foreign (mostly Muslim) traders. Dr Skvirskaja ([POSTDOC1) has conducted fieldwork in China (1 month). Professor Filippo Osella (TM4) conducted 50 days of research in Yiwu, interviewing owners and employees of transport/trading companies from India.

TMs and POSTDOCS have also conducted fieldwork in Yiwu’s commercial outposts. The PI conducted 2 months of fieldwork in Ukraine, 2 months fieldwork in Afghanistan, 24 days of fieldwork in Saudi Arabia, 7 weeks of fieldwork in Turkey, and 2 weeks of fieldwork in Pakistan, focusing mostly on traders of Afghan background. Dr Diana Ibanez Tirado conducted 1 month of fieldwork in Tajikistan working with Central Asian traders; she also conducted 2 weeks fieldwork in Turkey focusing on traders from Iran. Dr Marina Marouda (POSTDOC2) has conducted 7 months of fieldwork on Vietnamese money agents in Ukraine and Poland. Vera Skvirskaja (POSTDOC1) has made two research visits to markets in Russia in which commodities purchased in Yiwu are sold; she has also conducted 50 days of research in markets in Georgia over the course of three visits. Professor Caroline Humphrey conducted a week of field research in Odessa, Ukraine.

DISSEMINATION ACTIVITIES: The PI has presented the project and its findings internationally, e.g. The European University (St Petersburg), Koc University (Istanbul), Yale University, Hanyang University (Seoul), National University of Singapore (Asia Research Institute and Middle East Institute), The Graduate Institute (Geneva), Freie University (Berlin), Humboldt University (Berlin), New York University (Shanghai), Lahore University of Management Studies (Lahore). The PI and other team members have attended events which aim to disseminate the project beyond the academy: e.g. conferences organised by The Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies in Herat, Afghanistan, as well as a launch event at the Yiwu Commercial and Industrial College to which government policy makers and academics were invited. Further team members (e.g. Dr Diana Ibanez Tirado, Dr Paul Anderson, Dr Marina Marouda, and Dr Vera Skvirskaja) have given presentations on the project to the general public, including events in Cambridge and London attended by children from more than thirty different secondary schools. Project members have contributed individual pieces to a blog (hosted on the University of Copenhagen TRODITIES website); Professor Marsden has also written several pieces about the project for other online sites, notably the Hurst and Co. Publisher’s blog page. The project has also received attention in the international media, including a report in the leading UK newspaper, The Observer (14th January 2017). Professor Marsden has also contributed articles and interviews to the BBC Persian website and its daily news programme. Photographic exhibitions have been displayed at the University of Sussex (Dr Ibanez Tirado), University of Cambridge (Dr Ibanez Tirado), and the University of Copenhagen (Dr Ibanez Tirado and Dr Skrvskaja).

PUBLICATIONS: Thus far the project has published a Special Issue of The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology ‘Everyday Diplomacy: Insights from Ethnography’ (project publications include a co-authored Introduction to the Special Issue, and two research papers by project team members). A second Special Issue for the journal History and Anthropology (comprising an introduction and five research articles by members of the project) has been accepted for publication. A third Special Issue (comprising an introductory article and three research articles by project team members) has been submitted to the Journal of Eurasian Studies. Professor Marsden has published three further research articles from his fieldwork from the project, as well as a jointly authored book chapter (with Dr Ibanez Tirado). A proposal for a fourth Themed Section has been submitted to the journal, Focaal.
Over the course of the past 2.5 years, the project has made important progress in its aims to contribute thematically and empirically to major fields of investigation, including the historically-informed study of migration to China, inter-Asian dynamics, globalisation-from-below, as well as capitalism, trade and inter-cultural exchange more generally.

Yiwu – Empirical study of an International trade city

The project is making excellent progress in terms of its overarching aim to deliver an empirically rich analysis of Yiwu city and its role in the international trade in low-grade commodities. Having conducted intensive fieldwork with communities in the city from Russia, Ukraine, the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and Turkey, as well as with Chinese traders who are based in the city, the assembled team is developing a unique and multi-perspectival understanding of the functioning and dynamics of this hitherto poorly understood global city. While it has been tempting for scholars to treat Yiwu as a one-dimensional space of commerce – a ‘global super-market’ – the project’s team has come to recognise that both foreign traders and local entrepreneurs emphasise the role that their work and effort has contributed in shaping Yiwu’s development and place in China and the wider world today. This finding points more broadly to the way in which the forms of global capitalism on display in Yiwu are embedded in a specific locale and the activities of the networks found there, rather than simple arising one-dimensionally from a universal maximising search for profit. For example, the project has revealed that the entrepreneurial networks active in Yiwu depend for their vitality on access to the labour of migrants and aspiring traders displaced from zones of conflict and instability elsewhere in Asia, for whom ideals of mobility, endurance and masculinity are as important as profit in their conceptualisations of trade and the kinds of future that trading in China offers them.

International migration in China to incorporate relations to commercial networks

A further critical area of scholarship to which the project contributes concerns the study of international migration to China. An expanding body of literature has documented the increasingly important role that migration to China is having in various parts of the world, especially the Global South. The findings of TRODITIES bring new insights to this body of work by addressing not only the experiences of migrants in China or their negotiations with Chinese legal systems. The project addresses, rather, the specific nature of the commercial practices of international migrants in China, as well as the modes through which they create and sustain transnational ties not only with their home countries but also with the various parts of the world in which they work. Although the TRODITIES project focuses on networks of traders that connect Yiwu to other Asian settings (especially in West and Central Asia, and Eurasia), the data collected also demonstrates that many such networks cut-across and connect Asian sub-regions, while also extending to settings beyond them, especially in Europe, the Americas and Africa. A focus on such trading networks is leading the project to theorise the connections and disconnections between different parts of Asia and the world beyond. Theoretically, this has resulted in an empirical critique of ‘methodological nationalism’ and a call for the development of geographic categories and scales that better reflect the geographical imaginations and experiences of the project’s research participants. An especially insightful category for example is ‘West Asia’: this geographical scale makes possible an analytical focus on connections between East and West Asia and also opens up post-soviet Eurasia to comparative and connective scholarship. Such analytical themes and empirical studies were severely constrained in earlier scholarship as a result of the bounded notion of the Middle East.

Typologies of diasporas and trading networks

The findings of the project collected thus far indicate that a major contribution is likely to be made to inter-disciplinary attempts to typify and analyse trading diasporas and networks. Much literature across anthropology and history distinguishes rather rigidly between different types of trading diasporas and networks on the basis of the nature of their collective activities (e.g. labour versus business), the forms of mobility important in their initial emergence (e.g. forced or commercially motivated), and the extent to which they do or do not coalesce around collective cultural or political projects . Data gathered by the TRODITIES team suggest that such typifications over-simplify the dynamics of trading diasporas and networks by under-emphasising the role played by circulation across such categories. The project findings reveal, for example, the ways in which individuals shift from status-to-status during the course of their lives, (e.g. from labourer to trader to refugee to trader), suggesting the need for a shift in conceptual emphasis away from the stage-by-stage development of trading disasporas and networks and onto the role played by multi-activity in attempts to understand their durability. The project findings also complicate some of the dominant trends in the wider sociological and anthropological literature on trust, in which trust is often conceptualised as an abstract universal value embedded in particular solidary forms of sociality and cultural frameworks that structure shared expectations of moral behaviour. Rather than appealing to abstract notions of trust and solidarity, the data gathered by the project team suggests that the phenomenon these categories are adduced to explain – the durability of networks – is better accounted for ethnographically by paying attention to the complex ways in which traders manage the relations between fields of economic, familial and political power. A focus for future analysis will be on the ways in which individuals and families make decisions at particular temporal junctures about various aspects of their lives, including marriage and kinship, financial and business commitments, as well as modes of interacting with politics.

Historical approaches to ‘globalisation from below’

A growing body of work has explored in recent years a phenomenon that is increasingly referred to as ‘globalisation from below’. This body of work has analysed the importance of non-elite and often informal forms of mobility and trade to the globalisation of economy and society in the context of late capitalism. Data gathered by TRODITIES project is making an important contribution to this literature, especially because of the emphasis that the data gathered by team members places on the need to historicise the activities of the groups and sites important to contemporary forms of ‘globalisation from below’. Project data on specific trading networks and the nodes in which these operate demonstrate that far from there having been a decisive historical break between earlier forms of long distance trade and those visible in Yiwu today, powerful resemblances across historical make meaningful comparison analytically productive. Furthermore, the specific communities active in Yiwu are frequently from regions of the world that have long played acritical role in inter-Asian commercial dynamics and processes of cultural exchange more generally. By bringing in-depth ethnographic material on poorly understood ‘mobile societies’ into conversation with comparative historical analysis, TRODITIES is challenging the notion that globalisation-from-below is above all a product of neo-liberalism. More generally, the project also challenges the notion that particular expressions of capitalism (mercantile, industrial, neo-liberal) replace one another in a sequential manner. Instead, the project findings provocatively suggest the need for deeper understanding of the ways in which economic forms are reiterated across time and space. Finally, at the empirical level TRODITIES is also producing a detailed picture of how different parts of Asia are incorporated and excluded from wider commercial dynamics.


Anthropologists and scholars of cultural diversity more generally have taken varying positions in relationship to the extent to which the contested category of cosmopolitanism is helpful for the analysis of cultural complexity. The TRODITIES project results is bringing fresh insights to these debates principally through recognition of and theoretical reflection on the ways in which the international traders being explored during the course of the research identify themselves as being cosmopolitan and consciously hold onto powerful models of what this means for them and the wider societies to which they belong. The models of cosmopolitanism carried by the traders under study partly arise out of these peoples’ immediate activities: transregional mobility and the inhabiting of sites of inter-cultural exchange such as Yiwu encourages them to identify themselves within the broader field of humanity. Yet the traders are also involved in converting such loose forms of ‘actually existing cosmopolitanism’ to specific types of political project, including those relating to Islam and being Muslim and others that emphasise the status of particular nation-states as being of historic and civilizational significance to humankind.