How nation-states give complicity a bad name

Hans Steinmüller, Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science

If responsibility is the attribution of an action to an actor, complicity is shared responsibility with an inward twist – the kind of responsibility that is not publicised. In that sense, complicity avoids accountability, if by accountability we understand public answerability and the expectation to act in turn. Complicity, on the contrary, relies on the implicit and un-spoken acknowledgement of co-responsibility. Such co-responsibility might be conceded, ruefully or spitefully, but if it is ever explicitly recognised, this happens only in private. When the acknowledgement is made in the open and in public, then complicity disappears, and we have public accountability.

The difference between implicit complicity and explicit accountability obviously depends on situation and context; and on what is left implicit and what is stated in public in different places and at different times. We can observe historical changes in the spaces that usually allow for complicity or accountability. For instance, modernising states have an expansive interest in family matters beyond simple census data, and thus increasingly held kinship relations accountable. In the process, they also shifted the clotheslines of the dirty family laundries that should not be discussed in public.

From the clotheslines of family laundries to the inner chambers of the self, nation-state institutions have re-drawn the boundaries of complicity, accountability, and responsibility. Whatever we understand as reasonable attribution of agency in a particular setting can only be understood against the background of the relevant social institutions. In most of the world today, these include the bureaucracies of the nation-state. These institutions have reversed the meanings of complicity: from a positive type of implicit co-responsibility to a repressed and illicit sense of concealment. In the following, I illustrate this change with a comparison of my two fieldsites, the Wa State of Myanmar, where nation-state institutions are weak, and Hubei Province in China, where they are relatively strong.


Good Complicity in the Wa State

A village in the Wa State (Hans Steinmüller, 2017)

To anticipate my core point: in the Wa State, complicity is neither repressed nor maligned, it’s not even seen as something negative. This is a de-facto state at Myanmar’s border with China, which has the size of Belgium but doesn’t appear on most maps. Historically, ethnic Wa have been in this mountain region before Lahu, Shan, Han and Bamar migrants arrived. Only in 1960, the new nation-states of China and Myanmar agreed on the exact border line in this region, dividing the Wa hills into two. On the Chinese side, the Wa became one of the 55 minority ethnic groups, whereas in Myanmar, local warlords and militias were eventually absorbed by the Communist Party of Burma, which in 1989 was disbanded and became the United Wa State Army (UWSA). This Army has been ruling the area ever since, on the basis of its military power, supported by the big neighbour China, with substantial income from the local drug economy and later from mining, real estate, business, and trade.

Even though the elite of the Wa State has amassed substantial wealth in these ways, backed up by the military strength of the UWSA, state building, schooling, as well as civil government are still relatively weak. There are secretaries in each government office, and there are public assemblies, and since 2020, there’s even a party school in the capital Pang Hsang. But rather than civil government, the kind of government people experience is always military in nature; just like most men in the countryside wear fatigues, the local offices resemble barracks; headmen and local militias help pressganging local children into the army, and the main theme of much cultural performance is war and sacrifice. In this de facto state, the pragmatism of personal relations substitutes for relations of state legibility: for instance, to capture boys and girls into the army, army officers do not consult local statistics or identity documents (which are unreliable), but instead mobilise their acquaintances in the army state. Conscription by capture relies on those personal networks, and on their dark flip side – the fact that the victims are excluded from those networks.

Not only the army captures soldiers; police units also commonly arrest offenders in the same way, by mobilizing personal networks. Police arrest and prison escape often look like hide-and-seek: neither the captured nor the captors worry about questions of guilt, but attribute detentions to blunder and lapse, or simply, bad luck. The father of a powerful commander, for instance, would tell me the first day we met that he spent various years in forced labour as a young man, because, literally, “he didn’t understand how things worked at the time.” The lack of continuous moralizing was particularly obvious when it came to drugs. The Wa State historically has been an important producer of opium and heroin in the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’, and more recently methamphetamines. Upon international pressure, drug eradication has become a core policy of the Wa State, and the fight against drug production and drug consumption is a core theme of public events, assemblies, and government discourse. The majority of prisoners in the border districts are drug mules, who transported or sold small quantities of meth. In light of this, it is remarkable how matter-of-factly members of the elite would use opium and methamphetamines in my presence. A local secretary, for instance, deputy head of a district, would spend half an hour lecturing peasants about the evil of drugs, to then ask two cars of police and district officials accompanying us to stop on the road for a few minutes so he could smoke meth.

Other than conscription and drugs, local custom in the Wa State is also potentially sensitive. Headhunting was suppressed and abolished by the communist guerrillas of the 1970s but is still in living memory. The current government promotes a revival of indigenous traditions, including animist worship and buffalo sacrifice. The Christian gospel, however, is strongly opposed by the army elites, partly following advice from Chinese officials across the border. But in these aspects too, there is a characteristic lack of bad conscience; when such things are mentioned, they are often directly acknowledged, rather than hidden. The chief commander of the Wa State, for instance, made public references about headhunting to Chinese journalists, that might well be understood as a threat. Even though in the past there have been some government efforts to curb wasteful sacrifice, and today there is an ongoing campaign against Christian churches, most people are quick to acknowledge the presence of both in the Wa State.

What, then, are actually sensitive areas? Personal relations and histories of individuals are two instances. It would take me quite some time, for example, to understand long-term feuds, marriage exchanges and family histories, both of the neighbours in the village where I did fieldwork, and of commanders elsewhere in the Wa state. These issues are not accessible to the short-term visitor; but need long-time co-presence and co-engagement. What surprised me was the kind of secrecy formed around some issues I considered highly sensitive – for instance, the reasons why the parents of two commanders had killed each other. In these cases, it appeared that letting someone in on a secret, if it was done appropriately, was seen as a positive achievement, a creation of co-responsibility. Once others knew that I knew who the killer was, they would appreciate the bond created by shared knowledge. Even in the semi-public of the evening conversation at the fire, for instance, it never occurred to my interlocutors to condemn the leak. On the condition that appropriate care was taken in addressing such issues, the sharing of knowledge itself was not considered problematic.

If this sounds romantic, or difficult to follow, I trust it will become clear further below, when I contrast this kind of complicity that is positive co-responsibility, with its opposite, the negative kind of complicity we find in China. For now, it is sufficient to recall the nonchalant acknowledgement of responsibility for issues such as crimes, drugs, and religion. Officials in the army, in the police, and in government are clearly bothered by these issues. But the moral canvas they paint is quite thin, and doctrinal education and bureaucratic government are relatively weak. In the absence of strong institutions, crime, drugs, and religion may be sensitive, but are not considered shameful. Knowing about such things can create strong bonds of complicity, which are generally seen as positive co-responsibility.


Bad Complicity in China

All this is very different in central China. Here too, people talk a lot about crimes, drugs, and religion. The same issues are, however, surrounded by an aura of suspicion very different from what I had encountered in the Wa State. First of all, it took me much longer to find out about drugs and crime. It would take months before I got access to the kind of stories people in the Wa State offered at our first encounter. Only after a year in the villages of Enshi Prefecture of Hubei Province, did I have the first conversation with a neighbour about his time in prison. Drugs were similarly off-limits and unmentionable for much of my time in Hubei at the time, ca. 2005.  The few times I heard about them, my friends would not allow any doubt: anyone associated with drugs was deviant, a criminal.

What was however very common were all forms of custom, variably called “religion” or “superstition.” For instance, lavish funerals, weddings, fengshui, and ancestor worship. All of them were shrouded in ambiguity. They were clearly central to local sociality; but, at the same time, they were always condemned in public discourse, and considered particularly sensitive in the presence of outsiders, such as government officials or foreign anthropologists. The experience of how I learned about local fengshui is typical. When I first asked about it, after a few days or weeks, people would often flatly deny that anything like that existed here. “You’d need to go into remote mountain regions to find these backwards customs.” After staying in the same village for months, however, I would learn that most neighbours consulted fengshui masters, on where to build houses, on where to place tombs, and on auspicious dates for family celebrations. So then the conversations changed. Given it was impossible to deny that I knew what everyone else knew as well, the reactions I got to the same question included implicit and sometimes rueful acknowledgements, such as, “well, you know…”

We don’t have to look far for an explanation; local religion and customs, including fengshui practices, have been attacked for more than seventy years in the People’s Republic. During the Cultural Revolution, people were subjected to class-struggle sessions for ‘heretic believes’. Those days are long gone, but even now, local custom – such as banquets or Daoist rituals – are frequently denounced by the official media as ‘wasteful superstition’. No wonder then that villagers’ relation to exactly these things has changed. It is practically impossible to be direct and literal about the customs and traditions that have been excoriated for so many years, and that’s why the people who keep doing those things share a particular complicity: that is, the complicity of those who know that their traditions are really important locally, but that these same traditions have to be belittled and disparaged in public. Such communities of complicity define the delicate spaces of political sensitivity, for instance in regards to what is acceptable ‘religion’ and what is dangerous ‘superstition’, or what is harmless entertainment and what is problem gambling.

As such, communities of complicity are central to public life in central China. Successful social actors tend to be good at ‘playing edge ball’, that is, creating complicity through ambiguity. The same skills are particularly important for officials operating within the hierarchies of the party-state. The kind of complicity people can produce is inextricably linked to the history of state building in the People’s Republic of China. Mass literacy, education, and propaganda multiplied the technologies available to create public accountability. Nation-state institutions paint a moral canvas of society in thick and bright colours; every action should become distinguishable, and attributable to an actor, and no grey space of ambiguity left. In this environment, the co-implication in shady business and the complicitous enjoyment of murky traditions, is not just risky, but morally wrong and shameful. From the perspective of the nation-state institution, such hidden knowledge is a scandal: because keeping to oneself about those abominations denies public accountability.


                                                                 *     *     *

Maybe the people of Hubei and the people of the Wa State are “half victims, half accomplices, just like anyone else,” as Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quote of Sartre has it. In fact, this kind of know-it-all declaration is typical not just of blasé intellectuals, but also of nation-state institutions. Schools, prisons, and offices are premised on foundational claims of human universality and national essence. Chinese propaganda endlessly repeats its verdict on the original sin of the people: they are both too authentic (ignorant peasants stuck in the countryside) and not authentic enough (masses of uprooted individuals). In brief, “our people” are either victims or accomplices.

Nation-states do not only reduce the colours of social life to the black-and-white of conviction and acquittal, but always presume the guilt of their subjects. That’s quite a farcical assumption, if you think about it: In everyday life there are never just victims and accomplices. There are also suspects, perpetrators, defendants, judges and, of course, audiences. While nation-states like formality and role-play, they allow them only within their own rules. If they call you a victim, or an accomplice, that basically just means you didn’t accept their rules. Nation-states, in this way, fundamentally change the meaning of responsibility. In regard to our topic, the strength of nation-state institutions is the most important explanatory variable for the kind of complicity we find in a particular society. Or rather more precise, nation-state institutions determine how complicity is judged locally.

The value of complicity changes according to the efficiency of local government bureaucracies, the length and intensity of schooling, and the spread of mass media. All these measures are weaker in the Wa State when compared with Hubei Province. Mass mediated state discourse is omnipresent in everyday social reality in Hubei, where it reaches deeply into the privacy of people’s conversations and shared feelings: it is this presence of official modernism that is essential to what I have described as “communities of complicity.” Here, in principle, responsibility is individualised or attributed to specific groups (e.g. ‘the peasants’); and its public acknowledgement is required. Co-responsibility that remains private is a private collusion of knowledge that goes against the standard attributions of responsibility. Complicity, therefore, is unequivocally bad.  

In the Wa State, on the other hand, nation-state institutions are present, but they are incomparably weaker. It is much more difficult to convince people who don’t pay attention to written media that an abstract benchmark exists and is respected by everyone. Things such as dirty family laundries, drugs and violence, are considered sensitive, and people are clearly afraid of being caught. But the actions done in the name of the military state are fundamentally concrete and personalised, and no one pays much attention to the moralising discourses that are read out, sometimes, at trials. Co-responsibility, here, is the default assumption. However, if someone manages to create a new and intimate relation of co-responsibility – i.e. complicity – that is a positive achievement. Complicity, in this environment, is generally seen as good.

Citer ce billet
blogterrain (2022, 23 novembre). How nation-states give complicity a bad name. . Consulté le 13 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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