The “Chinese plan” for Northern Laos

I have read through the 175 pages of the document 2008 ~ 2020: Planning for Industrial Economic Development and Cooperation in Northern Part of Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which can be downloaded here. (Actually, it is a bit shorter, as an appendix on tourism has been included twice in two very similar versions.) The document, which is a “draft for opinions,” has been prepared on behalf of the Yunnan Province Reform and Development Commission (see my earlier post). 

It is an interesting document in a number of ways. My first reaction was  that it was jarring to see the official language of Chinese development (phrases like “seek truth from facts,” “improve the quality of the people” and so on) applied to a different country (though presumably it is not that different from the language of Lao documents modelled on Vietnamese and Soviet ones). It helps appreciate the document that it has been translated more or less word-to-word, which often makes for incorrect English but allows the reader a much better sense of what the original says.

At any rate, the language is no greater imposition than the jargon of the global development industry with the likes of “gender mainstreaming” and “participatory development.” The document does make a gesture to this Western consultancy discourse when it starts out with a “SWOT analysis,” but its conclusions are squarely within the Chinese discourse, such as

The mentalities of most people are still at the starting stage of agricultural economic development, which is unsuitable for development of market economy and economic globalization. Their awareness of development, competition, openness and self-reliance and hard working still need to be improved (p. 15).

The idea that people’s backward mentalities need to be transformed is central to the discourse of development in China. Although the document advocates “‘participatory’ pverty reduction,” it does not discuss how people’s well-being will be affected by the proposed changes; on the contrary, it postulates that “poverty reduction work … is to closely combine conversion of the people’s mentality with improving commodity awareness” (p. 65).   

The document is very comprehensive: it covers infrastructure, agriculture, four proposed backbone industries (mining and metallurgy; power; rubber and other forestry product processing; and tourism), and trade, and has a small section on poverty alleviation. Both the proposed strategy — with a strong emphasis on tourism — and the document itself seems to be modeled on Yunnan Province’s development planning, which is indeed reviewed in Attachment 5 (Yunnan has made tourism one of its core growth industries). The discussion of “harmonious regional development between the North and the South” seeems similarly copied from China’s Great Western Development policy aiming at reducing regional disparities, of which Yunnan is a beneficiary.

Parts of the document are quite general and repetitive (like an essay by the bad student who doesn’t know how to answer the question and fills the space with descriptions of all known methods) or pick numerical targets out of thin air (e.g. Northern Laos should achieve a foreign trade volume of $632 million by 2015). Other parts — about the location and scale of proposed industries, such as the expansion of the capacity of Vangvieng No. 2 Cement Works to 0.8 million t/annum — are specific enough to suggest that the writers interviewed some prospective investors.

The draft proposes to make Northern Laos a major base of metallurgy, with steel, lead and zinc smelters; to build cement, brick and tile factories; to establish a small-scale fertilizer industry; to extend rubber planting to 200,000 ha and set up rubber, sugar, starch, tea, coffee, and hardwood processing facilities; to set up 100-200 ha model farms for everything from rice to sesame; to set up export trade zones on the borders with China, Vietnam, and Laos; to build shopping centres in all provincial capitals; and to build 6,000 km of roads, two railways, and two new navigation channels for 500-ton ships. Laos should also introduce e-commerce and e-government. Where the money for all this will come from is not clear, except that the readers should “work hard” and “spare no effort” to apply for international funding.

In some aspects, the proposal is certainly very different from what Western organisations might prepare. The document advocates the expansion of processing in all sectors, moving northern Laos from a raw-materials exporter to that of at least semi-processed goods. In agriculture (apart from rubber and biofuels) the draft proposes to focus on goods that can be marketed as “pollution-free”, a strategy that Yunnan has also been keen to pursue, though without apparent success. The draft encourages urbanization, advocating the resettlement of highland dwellers and the concentration of the rural population in periurban clusters (in line with government policy). It proposes to expand Luang Prabang’s urban area to 25-30 and to improve urban roads, sanitation and power. On the other hand, it proposes stricter controls on mining and logging and more environmental protection, going beyond advocacy to “strictly prohibit” and “harshly crack down” to the more specific suggestion of “whoever benefits pays.” It also calls for greater efficiency and transparency in the use of funds, adhering to a tendering system in construction projects, greater fiscal independence for provinces and (of course) even more benefits for foreign investors. It stresses the need to develop skills, incuding by setting up occupational schools and “special trainings to the rural poor labors, one person from each household” (p. 90). Finally, it proposes to “conduct AIDS control movements” (p. 96). Many Western NGOs would agree with these goals.

It is in tourism — the sphere I am most familiar with — that I bristled most. The document proposes to build up a Chinese-style mass tourism industry with large, gated “key scenic spots” (p. 40) with mortgage and franchise rights (Attachment 3, p. 4); to “accelerate excavation, protection and use of ethnic minority cultures” (ibid., p. 1) to develop “national festival tourist products … gigantic in scale, and with thick folklores” (p. 35), in order to “convert [places] into tourist products that are suitable for the needs of the general public” (p. 39). The writers of the document, who envision the expansion of the Sipsongpanna Water Spraying Festival to Laos, seem to have no idea that Laos has been remarkably successful in developing a lucrative, high-end if relatively small tourism and handicraft market. What they want is scale: large roads, airports, large 5-, 4- and 3-star hotels — a kind of tourism development that will undoubtedly bring lots of revenue from the lower-end Chinese market as an extension of ethnic and nature tourism in Southwest China, but one that is now vigorously opposed by tourism planners in Peking (who unsuccessfully tried to persuade Yunnan against developing mass road tourism in its northwestern region and keep it instead for small-scale, air-only, high-paying tourists).  

I don’t think the document is a dark plot to turn northern Laos into a theme park dotted with mines (or vice versa), or that it is a reflection of government intentions. I think it is a flight of fancy by a team of people used to writing similar documents for China, who were given the task to do it as a goodwill gesture and threw in the latest buzzwords they had come across for good measure. I don’t see any reason to believe that anyone will implement this plan, just like most similar documents prepared inside China are never implemented. This said, it does provide indications for the kinds of investment and aid projects that Chinese companies may be pursuing in northern Laos. Some of these may well be good, others — like the idea of tourist villages contracted to Chinese companies that charge entry fees and put on ethnic song-and-dance performances — make me shudder.


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