The Anthropology of Chinese Capitalism in Southeast Asia: From Culture to Institution?

  • Michiel Verver
  • Heidi Dahles


This article outlines the contours of the scholarly debate on ‘Chinese capitalism’ in Southeast Asia. This multidisciplinary domain is business- and entrepreneurship-oriented, and concerns the ethnic Chinese who have migrated from Southern China to Southeast Asia and have come to play a dominant role in the region’s economies over the centuries. The debate revolves around the competing assumptions that ethnic Chinese business success in Southeast Asia relies either on ethnic affiliation and shared cultural values, or on strategic deployment of resources, power relations and institutional co-optation. We distinguish four perspectives on ‘Chinese capitalism’, and argue that the concept of culture holds the debate hostage in the divide between essentialism and anti-essentialism. The promise of an ‘anthropology of Chinese capitalism’ resides in matters of perspective, therefore, rather than in the theoretical concept of culture itself. We advocate a liaison amoureuse between business anthropology and institutional theory.