Diasporic traders in lower-end sectors, particularly those from the global South, are becoming ‘out of place’ in Asia. They are earning less profits as many Asian countries strive to upgrade their economies and phase out low-end production niches. One of these groups is Indian textile traders in southeast China. Based on my ongoing anthropological fieldwork that started in 2009, this talk traces the entrepreneurial engagement of Indian textile traders in and beyond China. I summarize the vicissitudes of their engagement as taking place in two stages. First, throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, the traders rapidly expanded their transnational business through hypermobility between different parts of China, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia while intentionally skipping over their home country of India. This growth was largely driven by a China-centric mentality of “getting rich no matter the cost,” which was one of their various tactics in global trade and migration. The second stage started around 2015, when the decline in low-cost production in China coincided with the global decrease in demand. Despite facing steady a decline in business, the traders cannot see alternatives to China as their supply center because China’s production capacity is hard to replicate. The traders thus hang on to their business in China as long as they can without a sense of the future. As the talk will explore, the current stagnancy of this diasporic economy may indicate an end to the tide-like developmental pattern of “racing to the bottom” that spreads from more advanced countries to less developed countries in Asia, which characterized the economic rise of Asia, especially of China, in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Ka-Kin Cheuk (DPhil, Oxford) is an Annette and Hugh Gragg Postdoctoral Fellow in Transnational Asian Studies at Rice University. Ka-Kin is an anthropologist whose work revolves around the study of globalization, migration, transnationalism, and inter-Asian connections, with ethnographic focuses on China, Hong Kong, and India. He previously held teaching and research positions at Universiteit Leiden and NYU Shanghai. His articles have been published in journals such as The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology. Ka-Kin is an editorial board member of Transitions: Journal of Transient Migration, for which he edited a special issue entitled “Transient Migrants at the Crossroads of China’s Global Future” (2019). He has conducted fieldwork over the past decade on the Sikh diaspora in Hong Kong and on Indian textile traders in southeast China. While writing up his research on Indian migration, Ka-Kin is currently developing a new project on flower industries and Europe-China circuits of environmental ethics.