Is there an Asian biopolitics?

The social studies of science and technology have long focused on European and American settings. In recent years, however, more and more work has been conducted in other parts of the world, especially in Asia. Conferences, collaborative research projects, and the launching of journals such as East Asian Science, Technology and Society or Asian Bioethics Review have marked the formation of a new subfield. This Books Forum is dedicated to novel publications examining life sciences, biotechnologies, and biopolitics in South, East and Pacific Asia resulting from this broadening of scope.

One key problem addressed in all three reviews is that most conceptual tools that have so far helped us to comprehend the social and ethical ramifications of the life sciences have been forged in the context of European and American case studies. Most prominently, the concepts of biopower and biopolitics were devised as historically confined concepts to analyze the transformation of government in eighteenth and nineteenth century France (Foucault, 1978) before they were refashioned to understand citizenship in advanced liberal states (Rose, 2007). Similarly, the concept of biosociality grew out of a case study of French patient activism (Rabinow, 1999). The books reviewed in this issue put such long-serving analytic concepts to the test in places where the relationship between government and life has taken different forms.

Dwaipayan Banerjee presents two studies of the donation and exchange of biological materials in India: Aditya Bharadwaj and Peter Glasner's work on stem cell research and Jacob Copeman's ethnography of blood donation in India. Banerjee emphasizes that these cases do not fit into the given Euro-American frameworks: the blood donation system implements not an advanced liberal, but a state-dominated biopolitics infused with a spiritual form of life engendering ‘bioavailability’ (Cohen, 2005) rather than biosociality of citizens ready to donate biological matter to an imagined national community.

In his review of two edited volumes, one by Margaret Sleebom-Faulkner on predictive and genetic testing in Asia and the other by Aihwa Ong and Nancy Chen on Asian biotechnology, Ayo Wahlberg contrasts the former's focus on biotech in Asia (how have different biotechnologies been adopted in Asian settings?) with the latter's reflections on Asian biotech (how is, for example, the Taiwaneseness of stem cells or the Chineseness of DNA asserted?). Yet, Wahlberg relativizes the importance of (Asian) biotech (in Asia) arguing that ‘old school’ public health, epidemiology, population planning and so on continue to be more salient and relevant in the daily life of most.

Contemporary rearticulations of such nineteenth-century-style biopolitics are at the heart of five books discussed by Margaret Sleebom-Faulkner. They examine health and hygiene, ultra-low fertility and abortion in Pacific and East Asia, as well as the one-child policy and the governance of life through a hybrid form of Foucauldian sovereign power (deciding over life and death, for example, of unborn children) and governmentality (fostering life) in post-Mao China. However, Sleebom-Faulkner expresses her skepticism regarding narratives inferring the dawn of a liberal democracy from the emergence of a Chinese form of governmentality.

This steadily growing body of literature reminds us that concepts such as biopower, biopolitics, or biosociality do not form a theory applicable to any desired case study, but need to be reworked and, if necessary, replaced in response to different fields of research.

No biosociality in India

Aditya Bharadwaj and Peter GlasnerLocal Cells, Global Science: The Rise of Embryonic Stem Cell Research in India. Routledge, New York, 2009, US$140, ISBN: 978-0415396097Jacob CopemanVeins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 2009, US$25.95, ISBN: 978-0813544496

Reviewed by Dwaipayan BanerjeeDepartment of Anthropology, New York University, USA

Dwaipayan Banerjee is a doctoral candidate in the anthropology department at New York University. His research concerns the shaping of ‘life’ as a concept in the contexts of intensive biomedical care, health activism and postcolonial law in India.

What might it mean to invoke ‘India’ as a heuristic and empirical entity in explorations of the biosciences? Through the 1980s and 1990s, an influential group of Indian writers presented the region as a site of radical difference, where local epistemologies were in danger of being overrun by forms of violence embedded within Euro-American medical and scientific practice (cf. Nandy, 1990). In the more recent context of the last two decades of neo-liberal transformations in India, social science work has argued that India's entry into a global biotech marketplace requires new forms of relational inquiry and attention to how the region is being made subject to new forms of economic indebtedness while biological material is extracted from its poor (cf. Cohen, 2005; Sunder Rajan, 2006). As the global biotech economy unfolds, this ‘Indian’ context might well resonate with other geographical sites of shift and transition. With this in mind, the resilience of the Indian state as an actor in biosocial biographies has some important implications for the broader literature on the biosciences. At the same time, there is a long history of anthropological work in the region that has focused on the religious morality of biological substance and its exchange and organization as a form of therapeutics and self-fashioning (cf. Langford, 2002; Alter, 2004). The depth of this regionally focused tradition inflects the newer scholarship in exciting and unique ways. The books that are reviewed here illustrate this distinctiveness of the Indian context and its potential to enlarge contemporary social science work.

Both books reviewed here are concerned with the donation and exchange of biological matter in North India. They are drawn together by their interest in the ethical, and how the scales of the local, regional and global radically shift how we understand the ethics of a new sociality based on our biology. Both ask: what happens to social relations of biological exchange when they occur under conditions of proximity, distance or anonymity? What are the ethics of relational transactions as they occur across transnational networks or nationally imagined biographies? As they begin to answer these questions, both books display dissatisfaction with the existing vocabulary of the literature on the biosciences. What makes it particularly interesting to review them together is that while they share questions, their answers lead them in radically opposing and almost antagonistic directions.

Sociologists Bharadwaj and Glasner's short book is organized around the emergent practice of stem cell research in the context of recent shifts in Indian political economy. They join Cohen, Sunder Rajan and others in asking: what happens to conceptions of the Indian state and its relationship to its citizens when the state itself takes on corporate strategies and aligns itself with global market-forces? Bhardawaj and Glasner suggest that this contemporary configuration presents a particularly ‘dis-located’ space. India's recent emergence as a biotechnology hub and the uncertainty of its ethical regime has carved out a space of uncertainty and anomaly. One such ethnographic site of anomaly is a small, controversial clinic in New Delhi that has pioneered innovative stem cell extraction and insertion. Here, practitioners do experimental work that they claim to be ground-breaking for the treatment of a variety of medical conditions. Given that stem cell therapies are understood to still be very experimental, Bharadwaj first met this claim with some suspicion. However, after following the biographies of the clinic's patients, Bharadwaj discovered that they perceived significant improvements to their own health. In this context of at least a perception of efficacy, Bharadwaj and Glasner are then distressed to find that innovative facilities such as these are in danger of being rendered illegitimate by the Indian government's desire to become a viable player in a global market. Unable to make the financial investments required by high-cost global standards of practice, small centers of innovation such as these get devalued as forms of ‘maverick’ science.

Bharadwaj and Glasner come out on the side of these local centers of innovation also because they find global standards of ethics and practice to be often irrelevant to local ethical experience. For example, while the moral status of the embryo might be an overwhelming site of contention elsewhere, the ethical scene of stem cell donation in India is made up of more locally embedded concerns. Potential stem cell donors are often poor infertile couples in IVF clinics that donate embryos in return for free future IVF cycles. Also, given the intensely hierarchical relation between doctors and patients, procedures such as ‘informed consent’ offer little protection. Rather, they function to sanitize the entry of stem cells in a global market, disguising the conditions of constraint from which stem cells are extracted. Finally, given the enormous cultural stigma associated with infertility, couples often donate in the hope of helping others plagued by a failing similar to theirs. Thus, stem cell donors are motivated by an imagination of ethical proximity, built on the hope that culturally specific forms of suffering might be alleviated by their participation. On the one hand, Bharadwaj and Glasner describe the bioethical standards of the marketplace with its attendant abstract logic of informed consent and its ability to generate value. On the other, they describe a local ethical scene made up of conditions of constraint as well as empathetic donor-imaginations that hope to secure the reproductive futures of selves and proximate others.

Although this local ethical scene might appear to lend itself to the language of ‘biosociality’, a central concern for the book is precisely to resist this conceptual mapping. Via Rabinow (1992), ‘biosociality’ is understood here to refer to the formation of groups, identities and practices around one's biological futures in a situation where human biology has become artificial and malleable. While recognizing the conceptual worth of the term for the Euro-American context, Bharadwaj and Glasner follow Cohen in working through an alternative concept – ‘bioavailability’ (techniques and practices that enable the reincorporation of one's biological matter into another body). ‘Availability’ here indexes how the stem cells of actors in Indian clinics are capitalized in a global market in ways that produce few substantial returns for local patients and donors, while simultaneously excluding local medical practice from inclusion into global communities. In Bharadwaj and Glasner's understanding, social relations that appear in Indian stem cell clinics do not exactly qualify as ‘biosociality’ if the term is understood to indicate the informed, consenting and willed formation of biologically driven identities. The shift in emphasis towards ‘bioavailability’ is posed as a necessary limit and corrective. That is, ‘bioavailability’ calls attention to how socio-medical identities are pejoratively ascribed rather than achieved (as in the case of the ‘maverick’ scientist), occur under conditions of duress, and are produced through subjects unable to consent and make informed choices in ways that the idea of ‘biosociality’ assumes possible.

Anthropologist Jacob Copeman's slightly longer book is interested in another kind of biological donation in North India – that of blood. Copeman finds that a crucial mode through which blood is donated in the region is through the work of reform-minded Hindu devotional orders. His exploration consists primarily of an elaboration of their ‘donation theologies’ – recovering a space for what he terms the ‘biospiritual’ within the biopolitical. In stark contrast to Bharadwaj and Glasner's work, Copeman sets to work in opposition to the existing anthropological literature on extractive and coercive forms of global biological exchange. He characterizes this literature as full of moral panic and limited by a logic of political exposé. Instead, he takes seriously the ethical self-fashioning of donors and how practices of biological giving reveal not just structural constraint, but intensely creative ideational work within which conceptions of a modern Indian personhood are ‘in formation’.

Fascinatingly, Copeman achieves what he sets out to do not by jettisoning existing vocabulary, but by shifting it to suit his purposes. The concept of ‘bioavailability’ is dissociated from extraction and seizure, re-mapped instead to index how new forms of spiritualism enable and produce the contexts of mass biological transfers. The space he carves out at the intersection of religious belief and medical practice is described by another of Lawrence Cohen's (2005) terms – ‘interoperability’. The term recurs to describe how the ideational work of the sects he studies is able to align itself strategically with modern values of utility and shifting medical priorities. Copeman's crucial insight here is that blood-donation as a new form of exchange is not in necessary dissonance with existing forms of religious sociality; in fact, it felicitously maps onto them. Much of the classical anthropological work on India has focused on the distinctiveness of the Indian gift, where the cultural ideal is not of reciprocity – as conceptualized by Mauss (1954) in his early work – but of anonymity. The classical ‘Indian’ gift was one that was given without hope of return, which in the act of giving purified the giver. As a new form of anonymous gift-giving, blood-donation parasitically latches onto this pre-existing classical form. In so doing, it inherits its association with ethical self-cultivation, while at the same time taking on a new kind of utilitarian socio-medical value. ‘Biospiritual’ practices enchant medical utility while at the same time medical donation makes possible new forms of religious sociality and gives to it a new theology of action.

The context of Copeman's work was a governmental move to outmode an older form of blood-donation where relatives of recipients were asked to replace the blood they required. This ‘replacement’ mode was superseded by a newer form of anonymous and voluntary donation – a practice more in accordance with new global standards. Copeman charts the effects of this move through directional metaphors borrowed from the science of blood transfusion – those of centrifugal and centripetal movements. Thus, the form of anonymous donation makes necessary a centrifugal widening of the idea of donation, where one no longer knows but imagines one's recipients. This widening aligns blood-donation with the idea of service to broader imagined communities – the nation, the abstract entity of ‘society’ and of a ‘family’ larger than immediate kin.

Another of Copeman's key maneuvers is a novel rethinking of the place of violence in biological exchange. While Bharadwaj, Glasner and others have focused on the violence inflicted upon donors, Copeman is interested in the ability of donors to themselves engage in violence through giving. Building on prior work in the subcontinent, Copeman rejects any simple antimony of violence/non-violence. Instead, he traces a case of how a new non-violent reformist impulse sublimates a previous martial religious ethic through the medium of blood-donation. For example, one reformist order directly supports the army by donating specifically to soldiers. Copeman reads this as a strategy through which non-violence is allowed to exist alongside practices of violence.

In a final novel move, Copeman imagines blood-donation as a disruption of how the political economy of India is traditionally periodized. He eschews the familiar tracing of a movement from a Nehruvian post-independence socialism to the state's recent neo-liberal avatar. He finds ethnographic evidence of how in moments of contemporary communal violence, blood-donation becomes a way of espousing the older Nehruvian inclusive and integrative idea of a national sociality. As it operates through an imagination of a wide, anonymous community that does not differentiate along caste, class and religious lines, blood-donation imaginations tend to include social groups that have more recently fallen prey to a neo-liberal politics of violent exclusion.

These two books and their place in the literature make clear certain themes that have proved enduring sites of problematization in the region. Significantly, the resilient durability of the categories of ‘population’, ‘territory’, ‘nation’ and the ‘state’ in the literature on the region suggests a very different picture than the influential one presented by Nikolas Rose to account for contemporary Euro-America (Rose, 2007). As Rose himself emphasizes, concepts such as ‘biological citizenship’ and ‘biosociality’ (with their emphasis on engaged subjects actively shaping their biological futures) have little explanatory power outside ‘advanced liberal Western democracies’. The Indian state (a node in a global vendor-client relationship) continues to draw important caesura in adjudicating the life of its subjects at the scale of its population, even as it enters into a relationship with a global marketplace. As the literature has consistently argued, the underside of a global culture of biotech innovation and circulation is the partial withdrawal of the protective function of the Indian state, while – as a gateway to a global capitalist system – it continues to remain definitive in adjudicating the life-chances of its populations. In rejecting the concept of ‘biosociality’, Bharadwaj and Glasner suggest that sociomedical identities in much of the world are often negatively ascribed, in circumstances where the conditions for a politics of informed self-relation and willed solidarity do not exist. Significantly, work in the region seems to require conceptual innovation, at the limits of the vocabulary available in the literature.

However, one must heed Copeman's warning about the deceptive clarity and comprehensiveness of such presentations of political economy. Copeman's reaction against the overwhelming interest in the ‘neo-liberal’ conditions of the Indian political economy is to look for sediments of prior governmental configurations. His work is most convincing, however, when it pays attention to the multiple vectors and temporal overlaps that biological exchange is able to produce within the same historical moment. This is not just a call to heed multiple meanings; his work reminds us how forms of self-fashioning and imagination always undergird systems of exchange. These imaginations of exchange can at the same time accrue spiritual, utilitarian and medical value. New systems of biological transfer do not always violently replace older systems of sociality, but often articulate and enhance them in unpredictable ways. Thus, Copeman urges us to imagine processes of biological exchange as not only extractive, but also as sites of creativity where new ideas of virtue and personhood may be forged.

Finally, the ferment around the potential and limits of the concept of ‘biosociality’ points us to a novel presentation of the ethical scene of biological exchange. In both books, the ethical becomes the site of a contest over scale. Bharadwaj and Glasner imagine two kinds of ethical worlds – one that emerges as an abstract, global proliferation and another that is an imagination of both empathy and proximity. Copeman finds the ethical imagination of his informants straddling several forms without contradiction: one directed towards the self as a project of self-cultivation and improvement, another centripetally coalescing around figures such as the guru, a third whose quality of anonymity allows for imaginations of a national, integrative community at a safe distance. There are multiple scales of the ethical visible here – individual self-cultivation, the ethics of a proximate whose suffering is imaginable, the ethics of anonymity pitched in terms of a national imaginary, and the ethical as an abstract global form. The ethical scene comprises of multiple scales; social relation of biological exchange then only become clear when understood at the intersection of several vectoral movements across these scales.

Conceptualized under a neo-liberal Indian political economy, this model of the ethical serves both as a reminder of and a corrective to the new global moral economy that Nikolas Rose has recently described (Rose, 2007). In his characterization, he isolates a ‘somatic ethics’, where centrality is accorded to one's individualized relation to one's own health, body and biological future. Crucially, Rose adds, this form of ethical life has only come into being on the back of a systematic exploitation of many that fall outside the geographical ambit of the ‘West’. In pointing, however, to the overlapping intensities of several ethical modalities in constituting an ethical scene in India, the books reviewed here both demonstrate and exceed Rose's thesis. Particularly evident in Copeman's work, the ethical scene emerges at the interface of pre-existing social relations. It is neither the negative of a somatic ethics nor sufficiently explained by the term; as it emerges, it provides a conceptual framework to understand ethical worlds where the vectors of social relations intersect and overlap to produce a complex, ‘interoperable’ mixture of several forms. Although drawing from newer biomedical practices, contemporary forms of ‘somatic ethics’ and ‘biosociality’ are tethered to existing systems of ‘biospiritual’ self-cultivation that have their own biologically based vocabulary of ethical virtue, self-purification and anonymous exchange. To properly understand ‘somatic ethics’ in India is to articulate an old history of religious biomorality with the new ways in which biomedicine has made our bodies malleable. The kind of ‘ethopolitics’ (to use another of Rose's terms) that emerge at this site then takes its own very particular shape.

Local Cells, Global Science and Veins of Devotion might be taken together to suggest that the heuristic and empirical category of ‘India’ forces us to be careful with concepts that have begun to proliferate in the literature on the biosciences. The neatness of terms such as ‘biosociality’, ‘somatic ethics’ and of a ‘neo-liberal’ governmental form need both clarification and development in the Indian context as they articulate with particular forms of social life, imaginations of political economy and prior forms of somatically based ethical relations. Spaces of dislocation then might indeed be provisional starting points for more careful conceptual work in the study of the biosciences.

(Asian) Life (in Asia)

Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner (ed.)Frameworks of Choice: Predictive and Genetic Testing in Asia. Amsterdam Press, Amsterdam University, 2010, US$55, ISBN: 978-9089641656.Aihwa Ong and Nancy Chen (eds.)Asian Biotech: Ethics and Communities of Fate. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2010, US$21.56, ISBN: 978-0822348092

Reviewed by Ayo WahlbergDepartment of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Ayo Wahlberg is Asian Dynamics Initiative Research Fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. His current research is focused on reproductive technologies in China, for which he is recipient of a Sapere Aude Young Researcher Award from the Danish Council of Independent Research.

Two recently published edited collections examining the global unfolding of the life sciences provide us with an excellent opportunity to reflect first, on what might be thought of as a kind of geopolitics of analysis; second, on a very evident Foucault effect among anthropologists of Asia; and finally, on how to conceptualise (bio-)ethics amidst a global expansion of life science practices. Contributing scholars in Sleeboom-Faulkner's Frameworks of Choice empirically examine how biotechnological practices of predictive and genetic testing are unfolding ‘in Asia’ while, in Ong and Chen's Asian Biotech, a range of ‘Asia rising’ case studies are leveraged to theorise how biotechnology – as a sphere of scientific imagination and endeavour – has become ‘Asian’. At the same time, upon reading the two books in tandem, one cannot help but be struck by the importance that Foucauldian thinking continues to muster in social scientific analyses of life (science) in Asia. And, in tracking the emergence of biotechnology in Asian countries, both books critique universalist bioethics, suggesting instead that any forms of life science ethics must be grounded in local contexts.

For two books that take the exact same point of departure, they articulate and demonstrate strikingly different analytical strategies that are captured in the very titles of the books. What is the point of studying Asian biotechnology as opposed to biotechnology in Asia, and vice versa? The most immediate way to distinguish Asian Biotech from Frameworks of Choice would be by invoking the ‘bench’ and ‘bedside’ so often used to situate the life sciences today. If Ong, Chen and colleagues set their analytical gaze upon high tech laboratories and clinics in countries like China, Japan and India, then Sleeboom-Faulkner's is a volume dedicated to the practice of genetic science at the ‘bedside’ in these same countries. That is to say, whereas informants in Asian Biotech tend to be the scientists and clinicians involved in developing the life sciences in Asian countries, informants in Frameworks of Choice are the community members, clinicians and nurses involved in prenatal genetic testing or population screening programmes.

Yet, this bench-bedside contrast does not in fact provide us with any clues as to how to approach this geo-political question of ‘Asian biotech’ vs. ‘biotech in Asia’. Instead, we need to look more closely at how the authors sketch out the task of their books. Ong, Chen and colleagues set about identifying a ‘configuration of common interests and imagination that we call “Asian biotech”’ (p. 24), whereas Sleeboom-Faulkner and colleagues focus on one particular form of biotech – genetic testing, both predictive and prenatal – in an effort to identify the ‘circumstances and socio-economic backgrounds in which people decide to undergo a test … referred to here as frameworks of choice’ (p. 12, emphasis in original). Perhaps the most prominent theme in Asian Biotech is that of nation-building, whether in an analysis of the ‘Koreanness’ of fallen stem cell scientist Hwang Woo Suk who had suggested that dexterous Korean chop stick users had sharpened the cell work done in his laboratory (Charis Thompson's chapter, p. 106); capacity building efforts to bolster an ‘Indian’ clinical research infrastructure as a way to attract lucrative multi-centred clinical trials to the country (Kaushik Sunder Rajan's chapter); the drive to ‘establish human Embryonic Stem cell lines with the genetic characteristics of the Taiwanese’ (Jennifer Liu's chapter, p. 251); or the demarcation of ‘Chinese DNA’ as a measure of ‘Chineseness’ where the ‘introduction of genomics since the 1990s … adds another spin to the discourses and practices on China's ethnic categorization’ (Wen-Ching Sun's chapter, p. 265). As such, this approach to biotech might best be summarised as an enquiry into the ways in which biotechnology as a scientific practice harnesses and aligns with ongoing nation-building efforts (which have long been fuelled by confidence in science and technology) throughout Asia, that is to say a biotechnology that quite palpably contributes to the negotiation and production of ‘Asianness’.

Frameworks of Choice, on the other hand, is concerned with the ramifications of biotechnological practices in Asia. In this book's chapters, it is not so much the making of (Asian) biotechnologies that is at stake, but rather the grounding of biotechnologies into different, often socially uneven, country contexts and all the unintended consequences that ensue. Who would have imagined, for example, that Thalassemia screening programmes in rural India – which aim to assist families with a history of Thalassemia in their reproductive planning – could have a devastating impact on the marriage practices of families in Chhattisgarh villages when test results come to be communally known (Prasana Kumar Patra's chapter)? Or, what happens when advanced prenatal genetic tests are provided in socio-economic contexts such as Sri Lanka's where potential treatments are all but inaccessible often resulting in glaring ‘therapeutic gaps’ (Bob Simpson's chapter)? This approach, in many ways, treats biotechnologies as a ‘universal’ set of techniques currently being used in different countries in Asia, opting instead to focus on the unintended effects of this use. To study biotechnology ‘in Asia’ is to draw attention to the fact that these techniques and practices are unfolding in contexts of cultural diversity, social unevenness and statist intervention. They have become a part of the daily life of many in Asia.

Between the two books, authors cite a total of 11 Foucauldian texts (more than any other social theorist), not to mention many references to the work of Paul Rabinow, Nikolas Rose and Ian Hacking. Although Asian Biotech is clearly the one with a marked Foucauldian bend, the notion of ‘frameworks of choice’ is also in part attributed to thinking derived from Foucault's work on governmentality (especially Jyotsna Agnihotri Gupta's chapter, see also p. 223). As such, these books are yet more testimony to what, by now, might as well be described as a ‘school’ within the anthropology of Asia. Over the last couple of decades, anthropologists working in Asia have increasingly invoked (and revised) Foucauldian notions of especially biopolitics and governmentality in their analyses and accounts of, for example, education programmes, employment practices, anti-smoking campaigns, population planning policies, biotech booms, herbal medicine revivals, prenatal screening programmes and the like in various Asian countries (for example, Ong, 1998; Kohrman, 2004; Greenhalgh and Winckler, 2005; Sunder Rajan, 2006; Wahlberg, 2006; Gammeltoft, 2007; Gottweis, 2009; Sleeboom-Faulkner, 2010; Kipnis, 2011). Yet these concepts were developed through Foucault's analyses of the emergence of modern power/knowledge configurations in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. How is it then, that they have become so relevant in scholarly studies of social processes and practices in contemporary Asia?

On the one hand, it should be noted that, in deploying the concept of bio-politics in the context of analyses of new biotechnologies, Asian Biotech and Frameworks of Choice are speaking with (and referencing) a growing body of literature that has argued – in ‘western’ contexts – that the most pertinent and potent sites for studying the administration of life in the twenty-first century are to be found in and around the ‘new’ life sciences of genomics, regenerative medicine and neuroscience (for example, Rabinow, 1999; Rose, 2006). Somewhat in contrast, earlier deployments of the concepts of bio-politics and governmentality by anthropologists working in Asia focused on ‘old school’ public health, educational, demographic and/or epidemiological technologies of government. It is these latter programmes that arguably remain much more potent as sites of life administration in Asian countries and, consequently, however hyped/pervasive biotechnologies have become in Asia, we should as a minimum ask ourselves where we should be looking if we are analytically interested in the government of life in Asia today. On the other hand, it is not at all difficult to grasp the relevance of the concepts of bio-politics and governmentality for scholars working in Asia when we remember that it was the figure of the ‘population’ and the place of expert bodies of knowledge (disciplines or sciences) in the configuration of modern power/knowledge relations that spurred these concepts. Anyone with even the mildest of interest in Asia scholarship will have noticed that science, modernity and population remain vitally constitutive of various forms of politics – from geo-politics to identity politics and bio-politics.

This is certainly the case, as we learn, when it comes to the development and deployment of life sciences within Asian countries today. Advanced biotechnologies are being used to screen as well as genomically characterise populations in Taiwan, China, South Korea, Singapore and elsewhere. Such national biotech projects have become part of a global ‘prestige game’ or ‘race’ (who will be the first to …). Notions of progress, scientific advance and development continue to organize national, state-led development programmes and so on. Still, as already noted, amidst the hype and bustle of twenty-first century biotech, we will do well to remind ourselves of what Foucauldian concepts of bio-politics and governmentality allow us to do, namely to genealogically and archaeologically map out how life and its mechanisms continue to be rendered calculable and manageable (as objects of expert bodies of knowledge) and thereby become amenable to intervention, in different configurations of knowledge/power. Although life is certainly the object of the biological life sciences, there are many other forms of life that remain crucial in Asia, just as in other parts of the globe.

Both Ong and Chen and Sleeboom-Faulkner note in the introductions to their two volumes on biotech, that part and parcel of the globalisation of genomic science and technology has been a parallel globalisation of forms of (bio-)ethics. Ethics and biotechnology cannot be separated. Yet, both books set out to critique what are described as ‘universal systemic ethics’ (Ong and Chen, p. 12) or Asia's ‘new bioethics’ (Sleeboom-Faulkner, p. 12). Ong calls for anthropological analyses of ‘situated ethics’, proposing to approach ethics not as (a search for) universal principles, but rather as processes of ‘ethicalizing’ and moral reasoning (pp. 12–14). Sleeboom-Faulkner and colleagues, on the other hand, are not so much interested in critiquing ‘universal’ bioethical principles and guidelines as they are in critically and ethnographically examining the extent to which such guidelines are implemented (or not) in practice, how they are put into operation (for example, through which kinds of consent procedures) as well as their unintended effects as a way to ‘offer the possibility of understanding the consequences that technologies have in circumstances that are “multipartite, relational and complex”’ (Bob Simpson's chapter, p. 28).

In this way ethics are not ‘just’ those principles which allow us to diagnose certain practices – for example, recruitment of impoverished patients into clinical trials in India, genetic testing in contexts where therapeutic options are limited in Sri Lanka or coercion of female laboratory workers into oocyte donation in Korea – as problematic. ‘Instead of proceeding from a position of moral certitude to make judgements about particular ethnographic situations or seek to remedy them according to a universal set of ethics’, writes Ong (p. 13), ‘an anthropology of ethics is necessarily about locating ethical practices, that is, tracking ethical configurations where “ethicalizing” processes and decisions take place’. Ethics, then, are situated, relational and empirically-grounded; they emerge out of ethicalizing processes. It is this shift from principles to processes that is apparent in both books. Yet the two books give very different examples of where an anthropologist should go in order to track these processes – should it be to Ministry offices, laboratories and cutting edge clinics or to villages, town hospitals and family homes, or perhaps all of these?

For many of the reasons outlined in this review, Asian Biotech and Frameworks of Choice should, or in fact must, be read together, they are very complementary, providing us with ethnographic insight on a number of scales and within a number of arenas, from bench to bedside. Still, although Ong and Chen and Sleeboom-Faulkner have succeeded in streamlining and accomplishing the analytical intentions of their edited volumes, both volumes suffer from an unevenness in terms of the depth, richness and, frankly, amount of empirical material informing the different chapters. Can we analyse from afar, on the basis of multi-sited travels, through in-depth studies of particular laboratory sites or villages? And if so, how and what can we analyse? Negotiating access in biotech and/or clinical contexts – as indeed in any other field – takes time, and amidst this ongoing global biotech ‘boom’ where events continue to unfold rapidly perhaps more time is needed, whether in the laboratories, clinics, government ministries, cities or villages within which biotechnologies are currently unfolding.

Biopower in East and Pacific Asia

Susan GreenhalghJust One Child: Science and Policy in Deng's China. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008, US$26.95, ISBN: 978-0520253391Gavin Jones, Paulin Tay Straughan and Angelique Chan (eds.)Ultra-low Fertility in Pacific Asia: Trends, Causes and Policy Issues. Routledge, London, 2009, US$149.99, ISBN: 978-0415468848Angela Ki Che Leung and Charlotte Furth (eds.)Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century. Duke University Press, Durham, 2010, US$68.03, ISBN: 978 0822348153Andrea Whittaker (ed.)Abortion in Asia: Local Dilemmas, Global Politics. Berghahn Books, New York, 2010, US$83.26, ISBN: 978-1845457341Everett Zhang, Arthur Kleinman and Tu Weiming (eds.)Governance of Life in Chinese Moral Experience: The Quest for an Adequate Life. Routledge: London, 2011, US$53.58, ISBN: 978-0415597197

Reviewed by Margaret Sleebom-FaulknerDepartment of Anthropology, University of Sussex, UK

Margaret Sleebom-Faulkner is Reader in Anthropology at the University of Sussex. Her work focuses on nationalism and processes of nation-state building in China and Japan and on biotechnology and society in East Asia.

This review essay concerns the notion of biopower in five recently published works on governance, population planning, abortion, ultra-low fertility, and health and hygiene in East and Pacific Asia. Biopower in much Foucauldian thinking refers to the way the modern state establishes itself by fostering and extending life. This involves the devolvement of power from the state to local institutions where ‘technologies of self’ aid individuals with making rational choices in their own interest. The role of the state here would be to facilitate this process through security measures, guidance and surveillance, the provision of information and scientific knowledge, and resource allocation conducive to the wellbeing of the population. This interpretation is critical of conceptual usages of biopower that regard biopower as emerging from, or serving to support, a single power bloc, dominant group or set of interests, such as is the case in the writings by, for instance, Agamben (1998). Thus, Rabinow and Rose (2006, p. 203) believe that regimes aspiring to liberalism ‘can rule only because of the ways in which they manage to connect themselves up to these apparatuses [of governance], which have their own logics and viscosity’. These issues are relevant to whether, why, how and to what extent governing bodies should regulate and interfere with the reproduction of their populations, and have implications for social and ethical issues around family planning, public health, hygiene, fertility, abortion and governance, which this essay discusses.


The volume edited by Everett Zhang, Arthur Kleinman and Tu Weiming, Governance of Life in Chinese Moral Experience: The Quest for an Adequate Life, explores the nature of governance in China, and the way it has changed since the Dengist reforms and opening up of China in the late 1970s. The main editor, Everett Zhang regards biopower as a positive force inherent to governmentality, as a way of caring for and improving the conditions of life of the population. In Zhang's view, respecting freedom and working to create conditions for freedom constitute the work of governmentality. Sovereign power, then, is destructive and about coercion and death, although governmentality is productive and about enabling life: it respects the ‘naturalness of the population’ (pp. 13–14, 16). In Europe, a transition has taken place from ‘sovereignty’ whose power relies on control and dependence – a power of death – to ‘governmentality’ in the modern state where awareness (disciplining) and the self-knowledge of individual subjects are exercised through the power of life. As these two forms of power do not aptly characterize China before the reforms of 1978, Zhang introduces a third power based on the Communist Revolution. Communism in China, supported by xenophobe discourse, meant a reinforcement of sovereignty, but by mobilizing the masses it also empowered governmentality. Its utopian nature, however, also meant the use of coercion in projects of class struggle, collectivization and production.

The volume is divided in four parts shedding light on the central life issues of food, death, life and citizenship. The first part on food covers James Watson's chapter on the practice of eating together in public mess halls (coercive commensality), Stephan Feuchtwang's chapter investigating the memories of food production during the Great Leap Forward (1959–1960) in Fujian Province, and Everett Zhang's chapter focuses on Maoist sovereignty in Sichuan Province during and after the Great Leap Famine. The chapters show how the pre-reform era characterised by ‘sovereign power’ of coercion and ideological struggle led to cheating, corruption and indifference, and how entrepreneurial spirit, charity and care were in short supply and often suppressed. The second part concerns ‘death’: Liang Zhiping analyses contemporary status politics in China through a case study of a college graduate Sun Shigang, a male migrant job seeker in Guangzhou Province who was beaten to death at a police station due to his mistaken ‘peasant’ status; Matthew Kohrman's chapter on smoking in China queries the state's stake in the tobacco industry, while allowing cigarettes to kill over a million citizens annually; and, Wu Fei's chapter analyses why suicide in China is the number one killer in the age group 15--34, is three times higher in rural than in urban areas, and is much more prevalent among females. The chapters indicate that despite the reforms, the rural population and women are structurally disadvantaged, and examines the role of the state in looking after citizens is ambiguous.

The third part on ‘life’ presents cases illustrating that under Mao's ‘sovereign power’ life was sometimes nurtured by ‘communist power’, and after Mao a shift took place to ‘governmentality’. Nianqun Yang's chapter ‘Memories of the barefoot doctor system’ shows how Mao's outrage about the lack of funding for medical care for the peasants led to the establishment of the rural cooperative medical system in the late 1960s. Joan Kaufman's chapter on the state's policy regarding AIDS describes how a decade of denial was followed by a state policy of pro-active concern. Utilising the leverage of funding, activists in NGOs and public intellectuals have fought to reshape the public perception of AIDS and to adopt international norms to manage the social problems faced by those affected. In Part 4, Nikolas Rose's chapter on biological citizenship indicates that the making of biological citizenship in post-Mao China entails a shift of concern from survival to human development, from mortality to vitality, as the right to live has become less of an issue than the right to health. The notion of biological citizenship here leads to the question of whether it will take the form of authoritarian paternalism, neo-Confucian self-cultivation or neoliberal techniques of enticing the desire of citizens to stay healthy and avoid becoming an economic liability to society while participating in the governance of life.

Though I found the volume thought-provoking, including the stimulating chapter on the perception of governance by Tony Saich (showing that the central government enjoys more support than lower, local levels of government), the introduction's approach to sovereign power, communist power and governmentality seems to cram into PRC development a subjective notion of progress towards liberal democracy, which I found more hopeful than convincing. The introduction could have explored questions of to what extent American or European priorities of public health (smoking cigarettes, healthcare access) and governance (the role of NGOs and the form of democratic elections) are expedient to Chinese development strategies.

One Child

China's one-child policy, when it started off, seemed to be an expression of sovereign power: it was directed at death and did not require individual consent. But the policy can also be said to be productive, as it is aimed at economic growth meant to benefit all. For this reason Susan Greenhalgh discusses it in her book Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng's China in terms of governmentality. Greenhalgh makes it clear that the one-child policy, despite the moral outrage it has caused in the West, bears the imprint of western science. For, the disciplines of population science, demography, cybernetics and systems theory form the rationale behind population governance. Using a methodologically sophisticated approach, including detailed documentary research, ethnographic research, and the notions of ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973), policy assemblages, networks (Latour 2004), and Foucauldian concepts of biopower, governmentality and problematisation, Greenhalgh tells three stories about the making of the one-child policy in the early Deng years: the science story, the political story and the cultural story. Greenhalgh describes how, in the 1970s and 1980s, intellectuals of various disciplinary backgrounds emphasised the importance of improving China's living conditions by means of scientific strategy and educating the people. Thus, sovereign power was discursively presented as enabling the survival of China's population. Initially, it was enforced coercively, later increasingly through persuasion.

Governmentality, as Greenhalgh explains it – a combination of governing and political rationality – is the particular regime of modern government that takes population, its size, health, welfare, security, and prosperity, as its primary end. In deciding what kind of reproduction is problematic, top policy-makers use the ‘upstream’ framings of the policy constructs formulated by experts. For instance, an understanding of certain notions of development, sustainability and family size is required before it can be decided that having more than one child is a problem. Policy problematizations, here, are particular formulations of the problem at hand, together with the policy solution and an assessment of that solution's costs and benefits. In this case, problematisations were designed by the urban elite and political technocrats who had little understanding of the consequences of the one-child policy for the rural population. Greenhalgh illustrates how family planning severely affected local power relations through education, propaganda, family-planning committees and the implementation of the policies by local cadres, who had to work within the allocated quota of newborns. Population problematisations, then, are powerful, because they do not simply reflect a reality that exists in nature. Instead, they may actively constitute a new reality by shaping living conditions in the domain of population to remake or ‘optimise’ the world we inhabit. In this sense biopower is said to be productive.

In contrast with that of Zhang, Greenhalgh's notion of biopower is used more clearly as an analytical tool, in a way taking distance from politics by registering relations, causalities and rationalities of governance. Her approach integrating anthropology, political analysis and science and technology studies, I find highly commendable to studies in political anthropology and sociology. A drawback may be that this mode of analysis is pertinent to existing discourses, but has little to say about phenomena falling outside the discursive limelight. Thus, the question whether China's fertility rate may have decreased if the population had been left to the forces of socio-economic development and the free market (demographic transition theory) falls outside the scope of this discussion.

Low Fertility

Though little discussed, low fertility has become a general problem in Pacific Asia, including China. For a long time, the extended family household has been a simulacrum for much of Asia, but as in all urbanizing and industrialising nation-states, the nuclear family in fact became the dominant form. In contrast with countries that regard lowering fertility as crucial to sustainable development, this kind of low fertility is regarded as harmful to the ability to reproduce the national working force, looking after an increasingly ageing population, and the costs associated with small or single-person households. The volume Ultra-low Fertility in Pacific Asia: Trends, Causes and Policy Issues edited by Gavin Jones, Paulin Tay Straughan and Angelique Chan (2009) is very accessible, and lucidly shows how problems associated with ultra-low fertility in Pacific Asia are at least as serious as they are in Europe. The authors give various reasons: First, the political acknowledgement of the serious nature of the problem is late; second, due to the centrality of the family, measures have little effect; third, the dilemma of women, who struggle to keep both a job and a family going, is not being resolved; and fourth, the financial climate is not conducive for taking measures or higher fertility (p. 11).

The book has 10 chapters. Apart from eight ‘country’ chapters, the book has a useful introductory overview (Chapter 1), a comparative chapter (Chapter 2) and a summarising concluding chapter (Chapter 10). Chapters 3–9 are interesting country chapters (Japan, South Korea, Singapore, China and Hong Kong SAR), in which the specific histories and problems of fertility are analysed and/or compared with other countries. I focus on chapters discussing Mainland China.

Baochang Gu shows how the PRC has become a low fertility country since the late 1990s. Estimations of China's fertility level range from 1.35 to 2.3, although the official figure insists on ‘about 1.7 to 1.8’ (p. 75). A relief is that chapter authors are careful not to over-interpret either individual choice or political ideology: thus, Chapter 4 describes a survey held in Jiangsu Province showing that, although over 90 per cent of the population says watching children growing up is the greatest happiness in life, even those allowed to have more than one child have a preference for one child over two children. But politics do matter, it is noted, as the percentage of respondents desiring to have a second child is clearly higher among those who are qualified to do so under the current policy (pp. 83–86). Chapter 5 by Dudley Poston Jr, Heather Terrell Kincannon and Jungwon Yoon, compares socio-economic development and population policies in the PRC and South Korea. It puts into perspective the effects of crude measures taken in the PRC: in 1960 both countries had fertility rates of around six children per woman, and by 2005 these had declined to 1.7 in China and to 1.1 in South Korea (p. 96). Both countries have undergone profound changes, but China had a coercive population policy, while South Korea had not. Although China lags behind South Korea with respect to levels of social and economic welfare, fertility levels in both China and South Korea have been well below replacement level since the 1990s. There are reasons to believe, then, that China's fertility rate would have declined over time with socio-economic development, a phenomenon predicted by the theory of demographic transition.

Another of the many interesting questions explored in this book is why political response to low fertility tends to be slow and much delayed, explaining the effect of population momentum (when population growth at the national level, even when levels of childbearing have declined to replacement level), the anti-natalist political mindset, and the failure of demographic theory itself to focus on low fertility.

This volume is appealing as it links political discourse with unexpected empirical observations, showing, for instance, why population momentum allows Chinese politicians to ignore population trends and why a reversal of population policies is unlikely to be imminent. This book, rather than trying to illustrate the workings of biopower to fit phenomena related to life, death and governmentality, looks beyond the political issue of governance to examine fertility rates, social relations and policy effects by comparing these across borders in Asian countries with different political systems, thus giving a novel perspective on state-biopower workings.


The volume Abortion in Asia: Local Dilemmas, Global Politics, edited by Andrea Whittaker, relates discussions on population policy and abortion to the practices and experiences with abortion of women in Asia. Whittaker reminds us that, although the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 and the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 called for access to life-saving abortion and post-abortion care and reaffirmed the human rights of women in the area of sexual reproductive health, statistics show that 10.5 million unsafe abortions take place in Asia annually, of which 35 000 women in Asia lose their lives due to unsafe abortions (p. 7). The book aims to understand this discrepancy by describing the structural factors – for example, the distribution of economic, political and institutional resources – fundamental to the degree of control women and men have over reproductive decision-making and how cultural processes shape the contexts and meanings of their reproductive decisions.

The book has 11 chapters (including an overview chapter and epilogue), nine of which present cases ranging from nations with liberal abortion laws to those with strict restrictions, and highlight the fact that liberal laws alone do not ensure safe abortion services. The chapters draw on the disciplines of anthropology, demography, women's studies, public health and development studies to present insights into the micro-politics of gender relations and the lived experiences of abortion decision-making, and mean to contribute to a dialogue between academics and advocates, and between anthropology and public health.

Although the overview of abortion in Asian countries in the introduction is outdated, the book's comparative perspective enables the making of insightful and worthwhile claims: first, strongly patriarchal societies tend to have a greater prevalence of unsafe and clandestine abortions; second, countries with similar religious profiles may carry very different legal approaches and different attitudes to the issue of abortion. Thus, despite a Muslim majority population, attitudes towards abortion differ greatly in Malaysia and Indonesia. Third, when religion and national ideology become mutually supportive, we may expect the enforcement of restrictive abortion laws and intense sanctions against abortion; fourth, different state attitudes depend upon the colonial histories and legal structures inherited by states; and, fifth, the populations of countries with liberal abortion laws are not always aware of these laws, so that public health cultures and popular images around birth in local institutions restrict the access to safe abortions. Low levels of family planning services, appropriate post-abortion care, and staff training in many cases are the result of a low priority to funding for reproductive health.

The academic value of this book lies in the comparative materials of the country studies. They show that, even though the most ‘productive’ and scientifically ideal fertility norm in policy planning is 2.1 children, coordination (governance) between regime and people in practice results in lower or higher fertility. The book indicates that abortion in most countries is not mainly used to ‘correct’ diverging or ‘abnormal’ figures in practice, but is an issue laden with ideological and cultural struggles. The book reminds us that without a framework that can capture the relationship and meaning of discourse and observed practice, our understanding of reproductive governance remains poor.

Health and Hygiene

The historical approach to health and hygiene adopted in Angela Ki Che Leung and Charlotte Furth's edited volume Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century shows clearest how modernisation has altered attitudes towards life and death through biopower, if interpreted as the ways in which public meaning was given to health in the context of state policies and bureaucratic administration. The volume is divided into three sections on ‘tradition and transition’, ‘colonial health and hygiene’ and ‘campaigns for epidemic control’. As explained by Furth, the modern notion of hygiene (weisheng) came about only when weisheng was given public meaning, first as part of Meiji Japan's modernizing sanitary movement, and later throughout the Chinese cultural sphere. Over time, hygiene was to be associated with the ideals of modern state power and the bureaucratic institutions charged with public health policies. But the chapters in this volume complicate the picture: Xinzhong Yu's chapter on the treatment of night soil and waste in China in pre-modern China shows how clean city streets in Qing dynasty Jiangnan were achieved through a combination of commercial and community management of night soil; Chia-Ling Wu's chapter on lay midwives in colonial Taiwan shows their resilience in the face of Japanese campaigns for ‘scientific motherhood’; and, Shang-Jen Li's chapter shows how the British residents in treaty-port Shanghai appreciated the local Chinese regimens for healthy living.

Chapters on the notion of ‘contagion’ (chuanran) illustrate the ways in which Western germ theory only partially modulated Chinese traditional theories about disease transmission. Leung shows how, although pre-existing understandings of chuanran facilitated the comprehension of novel views of contagion, they also confined the Chinese perception of contagion to certain traditional categories of chronic disease through environmental (wind, climate) or polluting agents (poison, breath, qi (vital energy), energy). This excluded new forms of epidemics through germs from consideration. The chapter by Sean Hsiang-lin Lei argues that the main concern for the Chinese government in fighting the plague in Manchuria in 1910 was the relationship between medicine and sovereignty. The government feared that the epidemic would lead the Russians or the Japanese to take over the area, considering their ownership of the South Manchurian Railway, to control both disease and territory. Thus, for the sake of assisting the Chinese state to protect its sovereignty, Chinese medicine had to be assimilated into the newly emerging global surveillance of infectious disease. In this way modern transnational forces directly penetrated into the organising principle of indigenous medicine through state sovereignty. Marta Hanson in her chapter on SARS in Guangzhou shows how in 2003 a great number of Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors preferred to use a herbal prophylaxis and criticized the reductionist view of germ theory. Bypassing the idea of infection or contagion, they regarded SARS as a recognizable kind of southeastern regional disease outbreak, following the pattern of ‘warm disease disorder’ (an indigenous nineteenth-century revision of ‘cold damage disease’).

Part 2 is daring as it questions the concept of human experimentation by comparing the behaviour of colonisers and native medical workers. Ruth Rogaski's chapter shows how in Manchuria, hygienic modernity came first in the form of scientific investigation, which has been symbolised by the notorious hospital of Military Medical Unit 731, dedicated to biological warfare. Japanese rule in Manchuria (1931–1945), which was in the hands of the military from 1937, used Manchurian local prisoners in lethal wartime experimentation. But at the same time, mass-vaccination campaigns to control plague and other epidemic diseases, medical examinations and help involved both thousands of Japanese physicians and Chinese biomedically trained experts working side by side.

Part 3 on public health campaigns shows how issues in colonial medicine submerge in longer-term patterns of public health policymaking and action. Over time, similarities appear in the health goals and strategies pursued by political regimes, partly reflecting the roles played by global powers. Where the campaign against pneumonic plague in Manchuria was felt to be of crucial importance to China's sovereignty, later campaigns, such as the 1950 anti-schistosomiasis campaign (Li Yushang's chapter) and SARS in 2003, were important to China’ s national reputation and prestige. And, as Furth observes, the large-scale anti-schistosomiasis campaign was comparable, not so much to the smaller scale environmental strategy of the Japanese against malaria in Taiwan, but with the American-inspired war on Taiwan's malaria-carrying mosquitoes with DDT spraying (Lin Yi-ping and Liu Shiyung's chapter).

In Foucauldian terms, public health campaigns based on Enlightenment ideology of health underpinned modern state governmentality, partly served to legitimate state power, and eventually to inform the subjectivity of citizens. But the reviewed books witness that the ways in which biopower underpins state governmentality play out variously in the different Asian countries discussed. They also show that without relating the evolution of dominant state discourses to the actual consequence of policies in different countries we have no means to judge the value, power or effects of these discourses.


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Langlitz, N. Is there an Asian biopolitics?. BioSocieties 6, 487–500 (2011).

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