New World Orderings:
China and the Global South

Edited by Lisa Rofel and Carlos Rojas

Reviewed by Kelly A. Hammond

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2023)

Lisa Rofel and Carlos Rojas, eds. New World Orderings: China and the Global South Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022. vii + 268 pp. ISBN 9781478019015 (paper).

This interdisciplinary volume—New World Orderings: China and the Global South, edited by Lisa Rofel and Carlos Rojas—has a lot to offer. By focusing on circulations of global capital and challenges posed by China and the Global South to the neoliberal world order, the combined efforts of the twelve contributors deemphasize state-level diplomacy in favor of an approach that emphasizes “globalization from below” (96). In doing so, the book concentrates mostly on movements of individuals, non-state actors, and economic intermediaries in and out of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and around and throughout the Global South. The chapters focus both on migrations and diasporas, and on cultural and economic interactions, to paint a variegated picture of the lives and experiences of both citizens of the PRC and peoples of the Global South who interact and deal with China and Chinese people on their own terms. The actors in this book—be they African women trying to eke out a living in Guangzhou, or the Chinese traders trying to make it in Johannesburg—are all active agents in the ongoing efforts to displace—or at least disrupt—traditional flows of capital.

As a historian by training, I naturally gravitated to the more historical chapters, but the wide variety of disciplinary approaches includes chapters by anthropologists, comparative literature specialists, gender specialists, and scholars working in Chinese cultural studies. This breadth provides readers with a diversity of methodological and topical approaches, which is refreshing and engaging.  One of the stated objectives of the volume is to push past the dull binary that too often presents the PRC party-state as a benevolent supporter of global development or as an evil neo-imperialist power looking to exploit the resources of the Global South (14-15). To do this, the authors collectively look at the “ways that the Chinese state has sought to reconfigure the nation’s position in the world,” through “rapidly growing circulation of people and commodities between the regions in question,” (15). Since the Reform Era, China has shifted away from exporting world revolution to focus on economic development both at home and abroad. The editors argue that “[i]n the process, China is not only reinventing itself but is also reshaping the world” (13).

The book is divided into three parts. In Part One, “Geopolitics and Discourse,” Nicholai Volland opens with perhaps the most conventional historical chapter. In essence, his chapter on Cold War cultural diplomacy sets the scene for the following eleven chapters by laying out the ways that Maoist China thought about and used “international solidarity and world revolution” as guiding principles for interacting with what at the time was known as the “Third World” (21).  Using the Bandung Conference in 1955 and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 as bookends, Volland explores how Chinese diplomats and fiction writers fostered an imagined community with anti-colonial revolutionaries across the Global South during this time. His chapter concludes by setting up an important argument for the rest of the volume: Volland contends that China is once again trying to reassert itself on the global stage as it did in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, in the past, the “PRC had sided with nations of the Global South in an explicitly counterhegemonic move,” which was overtly political and anticolonial (34-35). Whereas the PRC’s current engagement with the Global South also aims to “reshape the structure of global power,” it is no longer an ideological effort to disrupt the hegemon, but a political manoeuvring to become the global hegemon.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 continue to examine Beijing’s policies toward the Global South. Luciano Damián Bolinaga focuses on the changing dynamics of power from the Washington Consensus in Latin America to the new Beijing Consensus. He argues that Beijing has developed a “systematic strategy to guarantee its supply of raw materials and its control over maritime transportation routes,” resulting in the “exploitation and extraction of natural resources” from Latin America “in order to sustain the economic modernization process of China over the years” (40-41; 49). In chapter 3, Derek Sheridan places the historical relationship between Chinese and Tanzanians above China and Tanzania as state entities to emphasize “how the meaning of China and the Chinese have shifted in terms of East Africa’s own changing relations with the world,” (60). In chapter 4, Chinese literature specialist Ng Kim Chew traces how Chinese writers operate “outside the world republic of letters that is currently centred around Euro-American languages” (77). To Ng’s dismay, works in Chinese are mostly excluded from the “world republic of letters” canon because they do not follow the conventions of western literature (77). Using the metaphor of the Galápagos archipelago to describe the Chinese-language literary scene, the author suggests that there are commonalities and continuities among writers who are of Chinese heritage that write in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore that make up what he calls a “republic of southern Chinese letters” (90-91).

Part Two is called “Labor and Exchange” and deals with merchants and traders from Africa who are working and living in China, and with traders from China working in Africa and Argentina.  Chapter 4 by T. Tu Huynh centers on the experiences and lives of African women working in Guangzhou. In doing so, she demonstrates how these women “illustrate the contingent nature of gendered labor, and how globalization from below is constitutive of and enables uneven development” (96-97). In Chapter 5, Nellie Chu also looks at the West African community in Guangzhou, this time through the lens of (mostly) underground Pentecostal Churches that serve “as key nodes through which transnational Christian and business networks” flow (113). Through churches and through their faith, Africans reconcile some of their “unpredictable and uneven experiences” as vulnerable traders (118-119). None of this is lost on pastors, who use the “prosperity doctrine” to attract followers in their ongoing quest to become “transnational entrepreneurs and to spread God’s word” (122).

In Chapter 7, Rachel Cypher and Lisa Rofel show how Argentinians perceive Chinese investment in their country (131). It becomes clear that Argentinians do not have a “unified” vision about the “Chinese presence in their country” (114). The lack of Chinese nationals on the ground in Argentina means that Argentinians of various socio-economic positions “interact more with an abstraction called ‘Chinese capital’ rather than with actual Chinese people” (114). These abstractions often become stereotypes, but at the same time, the localized conditions of Chinese investments in Argentina inform the ways that different groups think about both China and Chinese people (146). In the following chapter, Andrea Bachner also uses Argentina as a locus for thinking about Latin America-China relations. Her chapter compliments Cypher and Rofel’s by focusing on the small but visible Chinese community in Argentina. Through the analysis of films and other media, she shows how people in Argentina “grapple with new constellations in which China has become part of their everyday reality at home, no longer relegated to a distant other” (151). In these new constellations represented in novels and films, Chinese people often replace or displace Latin American laborers, reinforcing longstanding stereotypes and anxieties about Asian immigration to Latin America (164-165).

The final part, entitled “Mobility and Displacement,” complicates our understanding of the Chinese diaspora. In chapter 9, Mingwei Huang travels to South Africa to examine the fears and anxieties, and successes and failures, of small-time Chinese merchants who operate on the margins of Johannesburg to show how migrants live in a “fragmented, layered diasporic and racial terrain” (169-171). The Chinese merchants in Huang’s chapter operate outside the boundaries of state auspices, travelling illegally, conducting business in cash, and remitting money home through informal banking channels. This amplifies their already precarious position in South Africa. Similar to many other places where Chinese migrants move, the community in Johannesburg is layered and diverse. At the same time, racist stereotypes about Africans contribute to the anxieties of many Chinese who work in Johannesburg (183). In chapter 10, Yu-lin Lee takes a critical look at the meaning of the term Sinophone diaspora through the films of Burmese-born Taiwanese filmmaker, Midi Z 趙德胤. Lee argues that Midi Z, through his films on Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia, presents a complicated picture of movement and belonging in the region. For Midi Z, diaspora is not simply a linear process of people migrating from China to Southeast Asia, but “rather a transdiasporic world that is configured by a particular point of view,” where these actors relate to one another through their marginalized existence (201-202).

In chapter 11, Carlos Rojas picks up on some of these themes by showing that many people of Chinese heritage who are born in Southeast Asia identify more closely with Southeast Asia—and not China—as their homeland. Again, drawing on literary sources, this chapter is about movement and belonging, and Rojas argues that as people of Chinese heritage settle in Southeast Asia, it is China that becomes a diasporic space for them (205). In the final chapter, Shuang Shen uses writers Zeng Shengti 曾圣提 and Wei Beihua 威北华 to place the “ties between China and India within the complex geography of inter-Asian exchange and the long history of Chinese migration to Southeast Asia” (222-223). Both men visited and wrote about India in different decades of the twentieth century, yet both also managed to identify with India on political, religious, and cultural levels, one of those being through their mutual connections to nanyang, or Southeast Asia (224-228; 232-234).

As someone who works on minority issues and ethnopolitics in China, I am always hoping for at least one chapter on the ways that minority actors who are citizens of the People’s Republic of China (or who the PRC party-state considers to be Chinese once they are abroad) brings ideas of what being Chinese means into question. A chapter including the voices of Tibetans living in exile and the ways that their experiences are often overshadowed by PRC-India state-level discourses, or about Uyghur exiles in Turkey, or even a chapter about the large and vibrant Hui communities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Burma would serve to remind readers that not everyone in the diaspora is Han Chinese. There are plenty of scholars working on these topics, and it is my hope that as scholars continue to explore the dynamics of peoples whom the PRC party-state has identified as citizens of China, we can recover and include the voices of minorities to provide a more complex and diverse look at differing meanings of citizenship, statehood, ethnicity, and ethnopolitics in contemporary China.[1] In some ways, it is these people that have fled or choose to live more comfortably among their co-religionists—the Uyghurs in Turkey, the Tibetans in Dharamsala, the Hui communities in Saudi Arabia—that allow us to question the limits of both nationality and statehood, and to interrogate the ways that people who are claimed by the PRC continue to push back against state-proscribed categories in order to forge their own paths around what we would call the Global South.

I was also slightly baffled by the absence of Japanese imperialism or the Japanese Empire in the entire volume. In his work on postwar Japan, Barak Kushner suggests that the “afterlife of empire” has been dismissed in the historiography of postwar East Asia for too long, and that until recently wartime East Asia and postwar East Asia were treated as two separate and distinct political, economic, spatial, and temporal entities. Kushner reminds us that it is only by “recovering how political and legal authority were reshuffled and reestablished after the fall of Japanese imperial rule” that we can begin to “bring empire back into discussions of the postwar.”[2] Starting on page nine, the editors identify the establishment of foreign communities in China by European colonists and “non-Chinese Asians,” which introduced “Western-inflected ideas about sovereignty, nationalism, development, progress, and political governance, as well as anti-imperialism, anarchism, and socialism” (9). It is unclear why the Japanese imperial presence—by far the largest and the most influential and impactful in twentieth century China—seems to be brushed aside. In my view, this dismissal of both the impact and legacies of Japanese colonialism continues throughout the rest of the volume. In Shuang Shen’s chapter, she discusses the life of Chinese writer Zeng Shengti in the context of his involvement and interest in India. Even in a section discussing Pan-Asianism, printing in Shanghai in the 1940s (which was under occupation), Zeng’s trip to India in 1943, and his connections to Tagore, Imperial Japan is inexplicably absent (225-226). Japanese imperialists were obsessed with Nanyang and were the main architects of Pan-Asian visions for the region. In my opinion, overlooking both the presence and legacies of imperial Japan on the region downplays the important legacies of wartime Pan-Asianism on the post-World War II world order.

Finally, this reviewer had hoped that the authors who did their field work between 2013 and 2015 would have taken a minute to address the impacts of Covid-19 on both Chinese traders in Africa and African traders in China, especially. The precarity that Africans experience in their daily lives in the social hierarchy of Guangzhou was made very clear when their evictions and increased discrimination became part of the international media coverage about China’s early response to Covid. An afterword or an acknowledgment about how Covid fundamentally altered or perhaps even dismantled some of these transnational trading circuits could have been an important addition to this section. This would not have taken away from their research in any way; rather, it would have shown how these networks are not only reliant on circulations of global capital, but are also susceptible to shifting geo-political climates and concerns.

Individually, the chapters will be useful for teaching on specific topics—like the African communities in Guangzhou or the Chinese diaspora in Argentina. Specialists will gravitate to individual chapters in their fields. New World Orderings: China and the Global South is a timely contribution to the growing body of literature on the relationship between the Sinosphere and the Global South. By giving readers a glimpse into these multifaceted and evolving relationships from the ground up, readers see that these interactions are complex, nuanced, and often tell alternative stories about how communities are made, how commodities and capital travel, and how “Chineseness” is a fundamentally ephemeral concept.

Kelly A. Hammond
University of Arkansas


[1] See, for example: Janice Hyeju Jeong, “A Song of the Red Sea: Communities and Networks of Chinese Msulims in the Hijaz,” Dirasat 13 (2016); Kyle Haddad-Fonda, “The Domestic Significance of China’s Policy Toward Egypt, 1955–1957,” Chinese Historical Review 21.1 (May 2014); Alessandro Rippa, Borderland Infrastructures: Trade, Development, and Control in Western China (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020); Mohammed Al-Sudairi, “The Communist Party of China’s United Front Work in the Gulf: the ‘Ethnic Minority Overseas Chinese,’ of Saudi Arabia as a Case Study,” Riyadh: The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (2018).

[2] Barak Kushner, “Introduction: The Unevenness of the End of Empire,” in Barak Kushner and Sherzod Maminov, eds. The Dismantling of the Japanese Empire in East Asia: Deimperialization, Postwar Legitimation, and Imperial Afterlife, (New York: Routledge, 2017): 1-2.