Category Archives: Taiwan

A Look at Petty Capitalism

Petty Capitalists and Globalization: Flexibility, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development. Eds. Alan Smart and Josephine Smart.

Michael Blim (2005) makes an interesting argument of petty capitalism as a way to decenter the power of large corporations. Who are the petty capitalists? They are “individuals or households who employ a small number of workers but are themselves actively involved in the labor process” (3). There was some concern in the past that petty capitalists were marginalized, but David Harvey’s observation that Fordism has given way to more flexible accumulation seems to point to increasingly significant roles of petty capitalists. This volume exposes the diversity of petty capitalists and its unstable and complex position, drawing from its potential for both economic advantages and heightened exploitation.

Simone Ghezzi’s article about family-run enterprises in Brianza and Frances Rothstein’s article on small-scale garment manufacturing firms in Mexico demonstrate the grim reality of surviving the global market that make family exploitation necessary. I find Ghezzi’s explanation of exploitation useful: “in discursive terms exploitation may be articulated in various sublimated ways: one of the most recurrent seems to be the ideology of ‘hard work’….The exploitative character of the social relations of production within and among workshops is intertwined with the artisans’ increasing concern for the potential loss of competitiveness in the region” (118). In many cases, it seems, petty capitalists lose out because they have to subcontract to remain competitive, and subcontractors end up investing in technology which puts them in debt and both groups face economic challenges in trying to keep up and yet remain lucrative.

Compare this to Jinn-yuh Hsu’s research on petty capitalists in Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. Trust and social networks involving friends and classmates rather than kin play crucial roles in facilitating connections in Hsinchu and Silicon Valley, which keep petty commodity production (PCP) firms competitive and successful. “Technical cooperation proliferates as personal networks spread. More importantly, a repository of specialized industrial skills and capabilities is formed within the social networks in the HSIP” (156).

Close collaboration with engineers in Silicon Valley partners helps them develop new technologies and also keep up with the latest trends. Yet these collaborations are not fostered by multinational corporations. They are, however, mediated by overseas organizations which aid workers in tapping into local social networks to gain access to technology and “absorb them effectively.” Thus, in this case, the social networks benefit both Silicon Valley and Hsinchu firms. A key feature of the two-way flows of capital and technology is the encouragement of joint ventures and equal partnership at the local level. This is undoubtedly enhanced by a common language, culture and level of experience among the workers. As Hsu points out at the end of the article, it seems this kind of mutually beneficial collaboration occurs under certain conditions — more commonalities than not. Culture as perceived by the workers seems to be most salient in fostering social solidarity.

Then, there’s Michael Blim’s account of the petty capitalists of the central Italian Marche region who inspired some disappointment in him due to their “failures to invest in radically upgrading their production processes so as to assure their own survival and the region’s well-being” (257). Blim offers a very thoughtful reflection of why academics tend to sympathize with petty capitalists: “given the depths of our own domination, and by the perfection of craft in teaching as well as in thought, our appreciation of petty capitalists may derive as much from our own confinement as from their relative freedom to take on the world economically on at least a few of the terms they choose.”

Despite the multiple challenges petty capitalists face, there is something admirable about their determination to persist despite the odds and risks. But, as Blim shows, this might have as much to do with a particular representation of petty capitalists as possessing attributes of loyalty and thrift and hard work as the academic’s own desire for more autonomy projected onto the people they study. Nonetheless, Blim tells us, studies on petty capitalists generate mixed results.

With regards to microlending, Blim asserts that this particular form of petty capitalism may not lead to greater economic inequality, even though it may in some instances strengthen “petty bourgeois values such as thrift and hard work…among women entrepreneurs” (268). It’s particularly fascinating that the ideology of the individual pulling herself up by the bootstraps becomes so prevalent in the realm of microlending, but Blim does not elaborate on whether this is an outcome of microlending or petty capitalism in general or simply a justification used amid growing economic inequality.

"China-bound for jobs? The Influences of Social Connections and Ethnic Politics in Taiwan"

Ming-Chang Tsai and Chin-Fen Chang’s main argument in this article is that social connections and ethnicity related to politics are factors to consider in migration patterns among Taiwanese to work in China. As the authors point out, ethnic backgrounds are important in determining political party affiliations, with “native” Taiwanese (mainly composed of the Hokkien ethnic group who are descendants of migrants from Fujien centuries ago and Hakka who are descendants of later waves of migrants from Guangdong province) identifying as DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) supporters and mainlanders (refugees of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949) identifying as KMT (Kuomintang Party supporters).

The authors used data from the 2005 Taiwan Social Change Survey (TSCS) given to 2,171 participants living in 36 cities and towns across Taiwan, extracted data from a final sample size of 1,282 employed men and women, and used SPSS to do a multivariate analysis. Independent variables included “will work in China within the next five years”, “will work in China if opportunity arises”, “assessment of work experience in China”, “respondents previously worked in China”, “co-worker(s) worked in China”, “immediate family member(s) worked in China”, “distant relative(s) worked in China”, “mainlander background”, “party preference(s)”. Another variable that should have been in the survey, in my opinion, is a salary indicator. Perhaps some Taiwanese would be enticed to go if the salary was high enough. However, the authors’ main points was that economic motivators should not be overestimated. Coefficients of employment and human capital became smaller after adding social network variables (655). They found that ethnicity played an important role. Also, having coworkers or neighbors who worked in China, a variable which the authors counted as “weaker ties” played a more important role than having immediate family members who worked in China. Mainlanders were more willing to work in China perhaps due to stronger Chinese identity and attachment and greater social networks. Along those lines, “a significant percentage of Hokkien residents of Taiwan continue to view China as a potential enemy, which may discourage a decision to relocate under any circumstances.” Thus, as the authors argue, human capital and economic factors certainly influence Taiwanese people’s decisions to relocate to China to work, but ethnicity and political identity are also salient factors.

I wonder with a quantitative study like this one, whether it is possible to examine the complexities and levels of attachment in people’s political and ethnic identities. For example, even among Mainlanders, how attached are they to China and do they plan on living there or simply working there temporarily? How might their decisions be impacted by the levels of salary and other perks? Also, the study does not separate respondents by the types of industry and labor. Perhaps doing so would shed light on other important factors that might weigh in on their decisions. Also, what I’m very curious about and the article does not explore are the types of “accumulated social networks” that affect the respondents’ job prospects in China. To what extent do these social networks influence their decisions and how might this variable weigh against the political and ethnic identity variables? In other words, would a Hokkien who has these accumulated social networks be as likely to be work in China as a mainlander without those social networks? And if so, what factors contribute to stronger versus weaker social networks?

It’s the chicken and egg question — do ethnic identity and political affiliation automatically predetermine to some extent the nature and strength of social networks among Taiwanese working in China or is it the other way around? Perhaps ethnic identity and political affiliation are strongly influenced by the social networks acquired in China. Of course, Taiwanese politics, though a bit more subdued now than when Chen Shui-Bian was in office, seems to strongly determine who migrates outward to China in the first place. And even among those who are China-bound, how long do they stay? Is their attachment to China simply rhetoric or do they maintain strong connections with the Chinese they work with and with family and colleagues there? This is a question that has come up over and over again during conversations I had with my Chinese friends in Zambia. Finally, I think it would be fascinating to look at migration studies bi-directionally. How can this be compared to Chinese working and living in Taiwan? Since there is constant movement both ways, how does this affect the ethnic identity and political affiliations on both ends? It is difficult at this point to call this “constant movement” migration or globalization or transnationalism or any of these broad catch-all terms. People are in constant flux, some own multiple homes in different locations, and if their work is only a few hours away by plane ride, perhaps perceptions of identity, home, politics, and belonging are in flux and straddling multiple spheres.