Making and Breaking the Humanitarian

Date: 25-26 April 2013
Venue: Room 436, 4F, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, The University of Hong Kong


posterSince its institutionalization in the nineteenth century, the 'humanitarian' has been understood as a key aspect of modern governmentality, closely linked to the espousal of 'human rights.' Humanitarian movements and legislation in the West from the closing decades of the eighteenth century sought to liberate human beings from various forms of suffering through specific 'humanitarian' interventions, with the state assuming an increasingly central role in the welfare of its citizens. Today, the humanitarian is widely understood in terms of moral action and ethical practice involving the humane treatment and provision of assistance to others in need. Both in political discourse and in practice, the humanitarian has provided a forceful argument for the exportation of Western models of participatory democracy and liberal economics, fundamentally shaping modern international politics.

The historian Bruce Mazlish has recently argued that the idea of Humanity and its associate terms, such as humanitarian, humanism, and humanitarianism, are being fundamentally reconfigured by globalization. In the course of the last two centuries, the meaning and scope of the humanitarian has extended to encompass a broad range of concerns, including social welfare and the abolition of slavery, emergency responses to epidemics and natural disasters, the abolition of torture, and prison reform. At the same time, however, the idea of the humanitarian as a universal category that transcends divisions of gender, sex, tribe, and religion is being called into question under the pressures of mass-migration, economic crisis, military intervention, disease, and inequality.

Making and Breaking the Humanitarian explores this tension between the extension and fragmentation of the humanitarian from the perspective of East Asia. Following the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress in 2012, the spokesman of the Chinese government, Wang Chen, proclaimed that the Congress had enriched the theory of human rights with distinctive Chinese socialist characteristics. Yet despite its espousal of human rights, the Chinese government has been widely criticized internationally for its poor 'humanitarian' track record. Conversely, interventions framed as humanitarian by Western powers, including NATO’s involvement in Kosovo and the invasion of Iraq, are censured by China as acts of aggression. Such examples underscore fundamental incoherencies in the meanings and values assigned to the 'humanitarian' in non-Western and Western settings.

Against this backdrop, Making and Breaking the Humanitarian seeks to address a number of critical questions, including: How has the 'humanitarian' been articulated and enacted in different East Asian settings and at different times? What are the connections between governance and security, charity, philanthropy, and the politics of humanitarian aid? And to what extent are alternative Asian models of the humanitarian reconfiguring our understanding of 'humanity' in the past and the twenty-first century? Speakers from a range of disciplines explore histories and futures of the humanitarian in East Asia.

Conference Conveners
Dr. Harry Wu, Centre for the Humanities and Medicine, The University of Hong Kong
Prof. Didier Fassin, Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton
Dr. Robert Peckham, Centre for the Humanities and Medicine, The University of Hong Kong

Programme (tentative)

Day 1 (25 April 2013)


09:45 – 10:00

Registration and Coffee

10:00 – 10:55


Keynote Speech:
Prof. Didier Fassin (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton)
The Age of Refugees. Between Asylum and Humanitarianism (abstract)

10:55 – 12:30

Session I: Humanitarian: the Normative and the Adaptive

Prof. Emily Chan (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Community Resilience to Health Risk of Disasters and Humanitarian Crisis. What Have We Learnt? (abstract)

Prof. Kosuge Margaret Nobuko(Yamanashi Gakuin University)
Humanitarianism in Modern Japan: The Historical Context (abstract)

Dr. Paul Kadetz (University College London)
The Good Dragon? How Sino-African Health Diplomacy Has Challenged the Normative (North-South) Humanitarian Discourse (abstract)




14:15 – 16:00

Session II: Aboriginal alcoholism in Taiwan

Prof. Hsiao-Chuan Hsia (Shi-Hsin University)
The De-Spirited Drink: Exploring the Capitalization Process of Indigenous Societies in Taiwan (abstract)

Dr. Yu-Yueh Tsai
 (read by proxy)

Dr. Yi-Cheng Wu (Hsinchu Mackay Memorial Hospital)
The Struggle of Biomedical Intervention for Problematic Drinking in Underprivileged Minority: a View in a Taiwan Aboriginal Area (abstract)




Day 2 (26 April 2013)


09:45 – 10:00


10:00 – 12:00

Session III: HIV/AIDS (China)

Dr. William Wong (The University of Hong Kong)
Ripples Can Turn into a Storm: Two Stories of HIV Intervention Programs in China (abstract)

Dr. Shao-Hua Liu (Academia Sinica)
Global Health in Question: Reflections from My AIDS and Leprosy Research in China (abstract)

Dr. Johanna Hood (Australian National University)
Chinese HIV Identities: Maintaining Inequality through Place and Suffering (abstract)




14:15 – 15:30

Session IV: Vicissitudes of the Humanitarian

Dr. Yosuke Shimazono (Osaka University)
Human Kidneys as Contested Commodities: An Ethnographic Critique of Bioethical Discourse on the Kidney Trade (abstract)

Dr. Harry Yi-Jui Wu (The University of Hong Kong)
Sparrows in the Cuckoo’s Nest: The Moral Economy of Bei Jingshenbing in Post-Socialist China (abstract)




15:45 – 16:45

Roundtable discussion

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