Chris Lyttleton (along with Paul Cohen) has been doing intermittent fieldwork in Boten, just across the Chinese border in northern Laos, and this time took me along to see Golden Boten City, the growing hotel-casino complex that sits on 21 sq. km of land leased by a Chinese company from the Lao government for 30 years (with the option of renewing the lease twice) and markets itself as the “most internationally modernized city in lao p.d.r” (sic, from the back page of the Luang Namtha Province tourism magazine). Plans for this large territory include a golf course, a convention centre, and residential real estate.
The concession works on Peking time, accepts only Chinese yuan, and speaks only Chinese (there is some Lao staff, but it is employed largely in cleaning, while those in front-of-house positions have learned some Chinese). Electricity and land telephone lines are from China, and electric sockets adhere to Chinese standards. Even the beer is from Fujian (where the owner comes from), a thousand kilometres away, not Laos. Groups of security guards in uniforms like that of Chinese police, with “特区治安” (Special Region Security) on their jackets, march around in military fashion. “Special Region” is a term applied to Hong Kong and Macau, as well as China’s own special economic zones. The place is a duty free zone, and the merchants who run the shops are from all over China: Fujian, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan. They need no passports to live in the zone: they only have exit permits are valid for a year. The overall Chinese population must exceed one thousand.
But the vision of the “most internationally modernized city” is hardly convincing, even for the Lao croupies we have talked to. For me, the place looks like the mountain resort of Wuyishan in Fujian in the late nineties: a sprawl of throwaway construction already showing its age just two years after opening; a warren of low-end eateries and shops (all Chinese, selling everything from underwear to cigarettes and mobile phones) surrounding the main structures, and a crowd that is squarely within the derogatory category of nongmin, “country hicks,” for a contemporary Chinese urbanite. Nothing like the hip real estate that the yuppies of Peking, Shanghai or even Kunming are saving for these days. Indeed, Golden Boten looks like China’s cast-off clothes, outgrown by about a decade and now dumped across the border and spiced up with a prominent and open availability of prostitution and pornography (the former Chinese, the latter international) that would not be possible in China. My wife, who is from China, described Golden Boten as a “tumor.”
Boten is an extreme example of a development that has next to nothing to do with the country it happens to be in. It does provide some, by local standards well-paid, jobs to Lao people, but it seems no different from the foreign concessions in China in the early 20th century: everything, including the time zone, is dictated by the foreigners who run it, and they enjoy effective extraterritoriality (apparently, when Chinese nationals are charged with crimes, which are frequent, they are handed over to the Chinese police across the border). It seems that this extraterritoriality is contested and constantly negotiated: Lao police maintains a presence in the enclave, and the concession is a private enterprise that cannot take the support of Chinese authorities for granted. Nonetheless, this is a striking example of the “zones of exception” described by Giorgio Agamben and, following him, by Aihwa Ong as essential for neoliberalism to work, and, it seems, especially rife in the case of China’s development. According to Chinese merchants on the site, more than ten such gambling concessions exist in northern Burma along the Chinese border, currently suffering the effects of China’s restrictions on its citizens’ travel to them, probably reflecting concerns about the uncontrolled outflow of money.