Why Aren’t There More Exclusionary Populists in Asia?

We live in the age of populism, and its global spread has produced a wealth of research and commentary. We now know more about what populism is and how it varies than we did two decades ago, and this emerging body of research is truly global in scope, putting comparativists in conversation with Americanists, theorists, and historians.

One question that has long interested me is this: why don’t we see more European-style anti-immigrant populists in East and Southeast Asia? Specifically, why is exclusionary populism so rare in East and Southeast Asia, and inclusionary populism the dominant mode of populist mobilization? The answer cannot be “because there are no migrant minorities to target,” because there are; it also cannot be “because there is no ethnic or religious conflict, chauvinism, or bigotry,” because there is. In a new essay, I develop an answer to this question that focuses on the timing and sequence of the emergence of mass politics and the stickiness of the concepts of national peoplehood that followed. Here is the abstract.

Populists in East and Southeast Asia generally refrain from invoking anti-migrant and anti-minority sentiments as part of their mobilizational strategies. This differentiates them from “exclusionary” populists in Europe and the United States, even though many Asian countries are diverse societies with long histories of migration and ethnic chauvinism. In this essay I propose that Asian populists work within rather than against existing categories of peoplehood that were set alongside the onset of mass politics. Because these categories of peoplehood remain salient today, they constrain contemporary Asian populists’ rhetorical and mobilizational strategies. Exceptional cases such as the Rohingya and Chinese Indonesians, who are vulnerable to populist mobilization, provide further support for this argument about how contested notions of peoplehood make exclusionary populism possible. The Asian experience thus reveals the flexibility of identity, nation, and membership in contemporary populism.

If you’re reading this and saying “hey wait, what about…?” let me emphasize that I agree that there are exceptions. Those exceptions—instances where we do see exclusionary populism in Asia—-are actually useful evidence that is consistent with my argument about timing, sequence, and membership.