Colonialism, Revolution, Development: A Historical Perspective on Citizenship in Political Struggles in Eastern Asia*

Article excerpt

Intensified blending of populations through migrations, and the problem of citizenship in different national contexts, in recent years have foregrounded questions of culture and cultural difference in citizenship studies. These questions have been compounded by a pervasive suspicion of a universalistic understanding of citizenship for its possible Eurocentric implications. Citizenship studies in Eastern Asia partake of this general problematic of culture. The complication of citizenship through recognition of its cultural dimension is a salutary development, but one that also presents a new predicament: loss of coherence of the concept, as well as a bias to culturalism that disguises the radical challenge the idea of citizenship has presented to inherited notions of political belonging, most importantly, the remaking of subjects into citizens that has accompanied the globalization of the nation-form from the late 19th century. Struggles for citizenship also bear upon questions of democracy and human rights, which also disappear from sight in culturalist readings. This is the problem that is addressed in the essay. I argue that the preoccupation with culture, if unchecked, threatens to erase a century long history of struggles for citizenship, democracy and human rights in Eastern Asian societies. Discussions of citizenship need to be sensitive to these struggles which are still very much issues of Eastern Asian politics.

Keywords: citizenship, revolution, nation-building, China, Japan, Korea


Accompanying the rise to global hegemony of the nation-state as the political form the state assumed under the regimes of capitalism and interstate competition, more often than not by force of arms, citizenship has become a nearly universal marker of political subjecthood. The Euro/ American re-invention in the 18th century of an idea that had originated in the city-states of ancient Greece relocated citizenship from the "city" (or an Empire extending out of a city, as in Rome) in the nation-state, with contradictory consequences. It gave the "citizen" a say in the organization and functions of the state, opening the promise of democratic government to an ever-widening range of constituencies. It also inaugurated an unprecedented penetration of everyday life by the state, and the expansion of the space of the political, that would culminate in the ascendancy of what Michel Foucault described as "biopolitics," understood broadly as the regulation of human life and behavior at the everyday level (Foucault, 2008). Foucault perceived "biopolitics" as a characteristic of Euromodernity, regardless of the form the state took in different nations in response to particular social and ideological circumstances. We might suggest, likewise, that the contradictory consequences of the remaking of "subjects" as "citizens" are equally universal, and have played an important part in shaping the politics of societies worldwide over the last two centuries or so. Varied as paths of nationbuilding and practices of citizenship may be across regional and national divides, this fundamental contradiction is integral to the variation, rendering the problematic of citizenship universal despite these differences.

Eastern Asian societies (including East and much of Southeast Asia) are no exception. The contradictory demands of nation-building and citizenship have propelled the political course of these societies for over a century, a considerable part of that period in collisions with one another, including war and colonialism. The resolution of the contradiction would take different forms in the different societies, from Fascism in Japan to a totalistic left Party-State in China, to authoritarian states in Korea, Vietnam, and others in the aftermath of experiences with colonialism from without and within the region. Nevertheless, the image of a generalized authoritarian state in keeping with the cultural legacies of the region should not disguise the simultaneous presence of struggles for democratic rights and citizenship. …


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