Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In an arc of Chinese border towns along the country’s vast frontier with Russia, some kind of socialism appears to many on both sides to have worked pretty well. From the living rooms of cosy apartments inhabited by Chinese families and migrant Russian pensioners alike, to gleaming infrastructure projects, municipal parks and affordable restaurants, the Chinese Communist Party seems to be expertly presiding over its borderland fringes from its hammer and sickle-emblazoned offices. Of course observers may easily dismiss today's China as ‘not socialist’, and at times the easy deconstruction of the Chinese word shehuizhuyi into ‘society-ism’ may imply – more than in Indo-European languages – that socialism is simply whatever is good for ‘society’. But in both Russian and Chinese, 'socialism' and related indigenous terminology is often employed to describe the state of things on China's edge. This paper explores how this continuing application of ‘socialism’ to label numerous projects from the vestigally statist to the nakedly neoliberal resonates among neighbouring Chinese and Russian populations. Residents of countries which have taken very different paths out of high socialism see everything from high-speed railways to tree-planting campaigns through socialist lenses. Even against a complex background of painful past experiences under earlier socialist regimes, and notwithstanding shifting economic, political and social surroundings that are so radically different from orthodoxly Marxist-Leninist-Maoist patterns, life for some seems to have settled into a materially comfortable socialist present. This challenges anthropologists to reach a new vernacular understanding of socialism for northeast Asia's frontiers.