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China: custom anthropological solution for a world power

Global versus local, democracy versus dictatorship, tradition versus modernisation: such contrasts make it difficult for anthropologists. They look in detail at what really happens and can therefore add some nuance to blueprints and debates, is what Frank Pieke, Professor in Modern China Studies, will argue in his inaugural speech on 2 March.

Human rights

Pieke is the anthropologist in the interdisciplinary team of China experts at Leiden. This means that he conducts research at a social microlevel into often informal structures and processes, for example within the Chinese Communist Party. For him as an academic the questions of whether or not China can become democratic and whether or not it continues to violate human rights are unproductive, however pressing they might be for the West. What provides academics and politicians with a real understanding is accurate research into the specific way in which politics and administration in China are modernising. This modernisation is taking place with the aid of a broad mix of administrative techniques and ideas, sometimes borrowed from the West but also with more attention to its own traditions – which were frenetically banished in the Mao period. 

China is everywhere

Pieke is conducting research in China but also far beyond China, because in this century of globalisation, China is everywhere. He is therefore studying how China is transforming at an increasing rate into a multi-ethnic immigration society that absorbs numerous fortune seekers from the region. However, he is also studying the tradition of Chinese emigration as well as the cultures, sub-cultures and mixed cultures of Chinese communities in other parts of the world.

Terra incognita

Prof. Frank Pieke
Prof. Frank Pieke

Before 1979 China was still terra incognita for anthropological fieldworkers. The country then opened its doors, but it was only in the 1990s that it became easy to do fieldwork in China and during the last ten years the anthropology of China has really been making its mark in the discipline. This was the period in which China emerged as a global economic power and became inextricably linked with the rest of the world, but it was also the period in which its identity and autonomy were increasingly emphasised. The new ‘anthropology of China as a global power’ could also provide a useful new understanding for a comparison with other parts of the world and for the study of globalisation, both within the field of anthropology and for the study of politics and administration.

Expertise of Frank Pieke

  • Anthropology of the state and socialism in Asia
  • The Chinese Communist Party
  • International migration to and from China
  • China in the region of Asia
  • Chinese communities worldwide
  • Migration policy and development
  • Globalisation

Frank Pieke has been Professor of Modern China Studies at Leiden University since 2010 and is one of the coordinators of the University research profile of Asian Modernities and Traditions. He worked at the University of Oxford between 1995 and 2010, having previously been affiliated with Leiden University (1986 to 1995). Pieke studied anthropology in Amsterdam, and Chinese and Chinese history in Beijing. He was awarded his PhD in 1992 by the University of California in Berkeley.


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