For some of us, conferences like the AAA are a great place to test out new projects and get important critical feedback from colleagues. This year, my panel “The China Model: An Anthropological Critique” featured papers by colleagues Lisa Hoffman (University of Washington, Tacoma), and Jennifer Hubbert (Lewis & Clark), as well as commentary by our discussant, development expert, Tania Murray Li (University of Toronto). Hubbert and I have been collaborating on a book project that examines the so-called “China Model” of development that some worry could replace basic Western assumptions and practices of modernization. In response to the many macro-level, policy-oriented or economics-based studies of this issue, our hope is to use an anthropological approach to reframe debates about China’s global re-emergence and its stakes for different actors. For the panel, our individual papers provided a glimpse into what that anthropological critique would look like. Each of us offered ethnographic analyses of how China is projecting itself around the world, with an eye to the actual practices, values, and relations that define China’s efforts, as well as to how actors in these other places engage them.
My paper, “New Arenas of Development: The China Model in Latin America” drew on my ongoing research in Costa Rica to examine China’s new role in Central American development politics, especially in terms of Central American perceptions of these budding transpacific relations. I argued that contrary to popular belief, China’s projects in Costa Rica seem to actually extend Western-style modernization projects rather than threaten them. Nonetheless, these projects are shaped by a particular brand of South-South politics that suggest important new ways of thinking about the meaning of First and Third World identities and their implications for the global development landscape.