Out of place?

One of the earliest and most persistent tropes about Chinese migration is that it forms closed, impenetrable enclaves, which remain out of place (hence, as we know from Mary Douglas, polluting). Leaving Laos yesterday, I ran into a student of Chinese from Bologna University, who told me with dismay how a Chinese businessman in Xayaboury invited her to a Chinese dinner. “Why not a Lao dinner when we are in Laos?” My other Western interlocutors too frequently commented on the fact that recent Chinese migrants do not learn Lao and prefer hiring workers who can speak a bit of Chinese.

To be sure, I have seen few things that felt as out of place as Golden Boten City, and I can testify to the lack of interest of most Chinese in Eastern Europe to learn the local language (for two reasons: they do not connect it with upward mobility, and they can afford to hire locals who will learn Chinese). These issues are real and need policy responses.

But the trope of the inscrutable, self-isolating Chinese is nonetheless exaggerated, and is part of a general, and unhelpful, mystification. Thus, in a recent article, Joshua Kurlantzick — whose book How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World I found generally balanced — writes that a district in Phnom Penh seems “out of place” because of rapid construction by Chinese work teams. This conjures up the false image of a ghetto or gated community — whereas in fact these sites are hardly different from dozens of others manned by Vietnamese workers, and commerce in Phnom Penh has been run by Sino-Khmer businessmen for generations. 

Kurlantzick further quotes a French embassy official as saying that “no one knows” how much aid China disburses. Considering that this year, China released exact figures on its aid, broken down by projects and publicly accessible from the Council for the Development of Cambodia, a statement like this again gives an exaggerated sense of division between the way China and Western donors operate. There is of course considerable lack of clarity about how to distinguish commercial loans from aid, but now at least we can see, and dispute if appropriate, what it is that the Chinese government officially labels “aid”. Sure, the difference between Chinese and OECD financing mechanisms is real, but it is not as though the Chinese are the only ones to engage in quid-pro-quos. Hey, what about the West Point scholarship for Hun Sen’s s0n who went on to become the chief of Cambodia’s “counter-terrorist” operations?

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