Chinese companies contract white Zimbabwean farmers to plant tobacco

October 20, 2013

Just had an interesting conversation with a white Zimbabwean shipping manager in Harare. He told me some of the white farmers who were thrown off their farms by Mugabe in 2002 have come back and are planting tobacco under contract for Chinese companies, which provide seeds and technical support. Would be interesting to know if anyone has done any reserach on this.

Nomen est omen: portrait of Han Dajun, an Anhui planter in Burma

May 18, 2011

An article in Hefei Evening News profiles one of four “peasants” from the city of Fuyang 阜阳, Anhui, who, in January, signed an agreement with Burma’s Special Region 2, under the control of the United Wa State Army, to rent 8,000 acres of farmland (the duration is not specified in the article) to plant rubber and tea and raise livestock. The total investment is 3 million yuan. The man, 47, is called Han Dajun 韩大军, “Han Big Army.” Another fitting name after that intrepid pioneer of Chinese farming in Africa, Liu Jianjun (Liu Army-Founding).

 (Photo from

Han started as a poor peasant but began a small business reselling produce in 1989, and later became a shipping entrepreneur with 5 lorries. In 2009-10, he met some Chinese farmers who were planting rubber in Burma and said it made a lot of money. The agricultural machinery office 农机局 of 颍州区, one of Fuyang’s districts, gave Han a grant of 150 thousand yuan to purchase machinery to take to Burma (see photo).

The article describes the hardships faced by Han and his mates in Burma, and touts him as an example of how that with enough determination, “peasants too can change their fate.”

Report on contract sugar cane planting in Kokang

May 13, 2011

云南糖网 (Yunnan Sugar Net) has published a feature article on contract sugar cane planting in Kokang, a now-defunct Special Region 1 of Burma’s Shan State. The article does not mention the occupation of the region byBurmese  government forces in 2009, and the figures it gives suggest that contract farming has not been affected.

Yunnan’s Zhenkang 镇康 County signed an agreement with Kokang on the joint development of 30,000 mu (2,000 ha) of farmland in 1996 under a Chinese government “opium substitution” subsidy scheme. 13 thousand mu was actuallyplanted, of which 9 thousand with sugar cane. In Kokang’s Minzu Township 民族乡, for example, most of a population of 14 thousand now derive their livelihoods from sugar cane. At current prices, one mu of sugar cane results in 1,900 yuan of net annual revenue. One household made 40,000 yuan last year and bought a car.

The Kokang representative of 镇康南华南伞糖业, a Zhenkang sugar mill, recalls that locals met the — presumably more or less forced — “sugarification” with suspicion. The company provided the cash, seedlings, technology, and management, and collected the crop; the Zhenkang County government “mediated”, and the Kokang government organised the distribution of seedlings and fertilizers. In 2010-11, Kokang sugar cane made up 60% of the cane used by the company’s mill. By March 2010, it had invested 17 million yuan in the scheme, including road construction.

In 2008, at the time of the commodity price boom, two other companies from Zhenkang signed agreements to plant 100 thousand mu of walnuts and rubber, respectively, in Kokang. The article does not mention if these plans are now going ahead. The Zhenkang government also designated an industrial park next to the Kokang border.

New studies of Chinese investment in the Mekong

February 24, 2011

As more substantial research is being done on the impact Chinese investment in northern mainland Southeast Asia (I think there are now half a dozen researchers working in northern Laos alone!), so the quality of analysis improves. I recently read several impressive pieces, including two articles by Danielle Tan, based on her dissertation research and published by IRASEC, and one by Kevin Woods on New Mandala. (Tan’s master’s thesis, on the Chinese in Cambodia, was published as a MqVU working paper.) A third new paper, by Mike Dwyer on northern Laos, emphasises the agency, and power gains, of local village elites in and from rubber planting, and criticizes views that interpret this process as erosion of sovereignty.

Tan and Woods agree with Dwyer that Chinese investment does not bring about a territoiral expansion of Chinese state sovereignty, but unlike him, they argue that it in fact reinforces the expansion of lowland (Lao/Burmese) state control. The thrust of the two papers is similar, but Tan elaborates the argument in much more detail. Chinese businessmen, she argues, have very nearly regained the status of tax farmers that they possessed under colonial rule. They provide farmers with seedlings (mostly of rubber palm, but also other cash crops), fertilizer, and access to markets they collect produce and take care of its passage through the Lao-Chinese border, including negotiating payment with customs officials. “By producing rent and new opportunities of redistribution among influential personalities, they contribute to the viability of the state. This alliance of networks thus constitutes a strategy [or the Lao state] to impede the emergence of a counter-elite” in the form of a native moneyed class (p. 16), the same function “middlemen minorities” played under colonialism or Chinese in Indonesia under Soeharto. Thus, Chinese investment and migration helps to render the highlands “legible,” governable and profitable for the lowland state while minimising the risk of new regional centres of power emerging.

A hardwood importer’s story

December 5, 2010

A story called 东阳商人境外上演“疯狂的木头”  (Dongyang merchants perform in “crazy wood” show abroad), from 金华新闻网 (17 November 2010) has been circulated on China-Wire. I thought it contained a number of interesting details.

The article profiles a furniture manufacturer in Dongyang, near Shanghai, who has invested in a 50-year lease of 150 thousand mu (10,000 ha) of forest in Cambodia via a Hong Kong intermediary, for logging and a subsequent rubber plantation. (The intermediary part is interesting: in my research in Cambodia, I too encountered Hong Kong businessmen, often of Cambodian Chinese origin, acting as brokers/gatekeepers for Chinese investors.)

Presumably, the concession was granted for rubber, but the manufacturer considers the rubber plantation a liability and is only interested in the tropical hardwood that, according to an estimate commissioned from a Shanghai expert, could make up 3% of all timber. Since 2002, prices of certain kinds of hardwood in China have risen 400 times.

The article explains that Dongyang furniture makers used to import hardwood from Vietnam, but the supply dried up both because of exhaustion of resources and a ban by Vietnamese authorities. Importers then shifted to Cambodia, but that supply too has been exhausted. Now 90% of hardwood comes from Africa, but prices are much higher both because of local government restrictions passed under environmentalist pressure and because of rising local wages. (Interesting detail!)

(As an aside, there is a complete ban on hardwood export in Madagascar as of this year, an interesting comment on the relationship between the new government, which came to power after a coup partly driven by opposition to commercial land concessions, and environmental organisations such as the WWF, which also have land concessions in Madagascar, but for conservation purposes.)

Because of these price increases, more manufacturers in Dongyang have sought to go directly to the source instead of buying timber from exporters. One of them secured a 70-year logging concession in Cambodia back in 1997. The one portrayed in the article is also planning to set up a processing factory in Cambodia since costs are lower than in Dongyang.

In sum, the article demonstrates how the desires of Chinese consumers and  environmental campaigners produce complex changes on two continents: trees disappear, wages go up, jobs are created, and plantations that perhaps no one really wants spread.

Highlights of final Rising Powers workshop

November 26, 2010

The last of a series of three workshops on China’s engagement in low-income countries under the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s Rising Powers research network programme is about to conclude at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton. This workshop focused on environmental issues. Topics included carbon emissions trading and China’s participation in environmental governance, as well as more down-to-earth issues such as dams and land leases. Some highlights:

Data shown by Yahia Mahmoud (Lund University) suggest that Chinese companies are second only to Korea in the area of land leases, but that most of these leases are in the Philippines. Andreas Wilkes of the International Forestry Research Council cited a figure of 6 million ha leased by Chinese forestry and agricultural companies in Africa, and talked about research conducted at the institute by Cerutti et al. that concluded that European forestry companies not certified for sustainability engage in practices quite similar to Chinese companies, and that locals often felt that their livelihoods were better under non-certified forestry regimes. I raised the point that the different types of new civil initiatives that are emerging in China concerning the environmental impact of China’s overseas engagement — organisations with direct overseas contacts but also looser formations like Minjian International that provide a discussion platform — would be an interesting subject for research.

The workshop were intended to result in the elaboration of cooperative research proposals.

A shift towards agriculture and manufacturing?

July 10, 2010

Yesterday I was told by senior researchers at the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR, a think tank producing reports for the State Council) that although Chinese investment in agriculture and small-scale manufacturing could help African development, the central government is reluctant to  support it because it does not want to encourage migration, which is hard to control and causes harm to China’s image. But over a month ago, Xinhua reported (Chinese firms told to invest more in Africa, 29 May 2010) that Lu Shaye, director-general of the African affairs department with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, encouraged Chinese companies to “explore more opportunities in sectors like agriculture and manufacturing, apart from the current focus on infrastructure and energy resources.” Liang Guining, deputy director of the research center for foreign investment under the Ministry of Commerce, also said: “Chinese firms could shift their focus more to sectors like agricultural developments that are much easier to operate and more in line with African countries’ needs.”

After this, a number of articles reported on African officials calling for more Chinese investment in African agriculture.

If this shift is real, then it raises a number of question: Does it reflect a turn away from mining and infrastructure, and if so why? Does it target primarily state companies or does it represent an opening to smaller private enterprises? Will China now embrace the agricultural concession model that it has so far shown little enthusiasm for? What conflicts within the Chinese bureaucracy are behind the arguments for and against this move?

At least part of the background could be lobbying by Chinese agribusiness to allow more room for its overseas ventures to offset the impact of imports from ASEAN countries after the start of the China-ASEAN free trade area. One article that makes this case cites the Chongqing (Laos) Agriculture Combined Zone [重庆(老挝)农业综合园区] as a positive example. The zone received 50 hectares from the Lao government for an experimental demonstration zone, with a promise of a further 5000 ha for a commercial farm as well as special privileges for the importing of equipment, materials, and personnel. This model seems to combine the traditional “demonstration farm” approach with that of non-agricultural special economic zones in Laos and Cambodia, for example the Golden Boten City and Golden Triangle gambling zones. But the article also cites other models, like contract cane farming in Vietnam (where the Chinese partner provides the technology), a “research and experimental coffee plantation” in Champasak, Laos, and the “Hongniu organic agriculture science and technology park” in Bokeo, Laos, both set up by Yunnan Province.

CfP: Africa for Sale

February 16, 2010

A call for papers has been announced for  Africa for Sale: Analysing and Theorizing Foreign Land Claims and Acquisitions, a conference to be held at Groningen University, the Netherlands, on 28-29 October 2010. 

While the nature and scope of large-scale, foreign land acquisitions has been taken up by the non-governmental arena (e.g. NGOs) very little academic scholarship has addressed these deals both analytically and theoretically, from [comparative] historical and contemporary perspectives. 

In turn, several important questions remain unanswered: What are the implications of foreign land leases for local populations? How are these deals mediated, structured and legitimized? What is the role of multinational corporations in the economic, political, social, and environmental governance of developing countries in Africa? 



Contributions addressing the following four fields are particularly welcome: 

1.) Food security: Foreign (government or company) investments in “unused,” arable land for large-scale agricultural production. 

2.) Large-Scale Mining: Multinational claims to land for mineral exploitation 

3.) Conservation Projects: International environmental NGO acquisition or control of land for biodiversity conservation and/or protected area management. 

4.)Tourism: Land acquisitions for purposes of tourism development.



Abstracts should be submitted by 15 May 2010 to NVASconference2010 (at) . 



Undercurrents issue on rubber boom in northeast Burma

April 17, 2009

The current issue of Undercurrents, the bulletin of the Lahu National Development Organisation, deals with changes in the economy of northeastern Burma, largely as a result of contacts with Yunnan.

The issue can be downloaded here. The editors write that Chinese agents have been handing out traps, poison, and skinning tools in Lahu and Akha villages in Shan State while contracting trappers to look for various wild animals. “These days in every village either the headman of an agent of a Chinese boss keeps a certain amount of cash” to buy animals and forest products, as well as gemstones from villagers (p. 4). This is reminiscent of the networks of Chinese tax farms in remote villages in the colonial era, when they served as both collectors of primary products, providers of consumer goods and of cash loans (as well as collectors of taxes and suppliers of opium). Souchou Yao writes about this in his ethnography of Chinese shopkeepers in North Borneo, but the situation was similar in the Russian Far East at the turn of the 20th century. Incidentally, today, similar accusations of poaching of endangered species, ginseng, trepang etc. are again being made against Chinese in the Russian Far East.

According to a report by the Yunnan Hongyu Group to the Yunnan Province Narcotics Control Commission, the group plans to plant 100,000 ha of rubber in Shan State (notably in the ethnic Chinese-run Special Region No. 2) in 2004-2014 under the Chinese government’s opium eradication provisions (p. 9). Much as in Laos, these large plantations coexist with smaller ones owned by various army and militia commanders, as well as with villagers planting rubber trees under contract to Chinese entrepreneurs, who provide seedlings and some cash (3 Thai baht per tree planted). As in Laos, Akha villagers in particular see rubber as a lucrative crops because they associate it with the higher incomes of Akha in China.

What is different from Laos is that both the Burmese army and the various former rebel armies have used a mixture of paid and corvee labour to clear the forest for their own as well as Hongyu’s plantations, according to the report. Also, because of the lack of a civilian administration, land confiscation is far more arbitrary. The United Wa State Army, which controls the essentially ethnic Chinese-run Special Region No. 4 in Mong La, has promoted rubber as an opium substitution crop and has benefited from Chinese policies supporting this. The commander of the region, Lin Ming Xian (like his colleague in the No. 2 region, a former drug lord), ordered his officials to grow rubber but was later disappointed with the production. Some Wa commanders have forbidden villagers to cut forest for rice fields but allow it for rubber plantations. The report points to the dangers of rubber monoculture for food security, especially in the short term, before the rubber trees mature.

Finally, the report mentions the opening of new mines, usually as cooperative ventures between local armies, Chinese, Thai and/or Japanese investors, and individuals linked to the ruling elites (such as family members of the Burmese junta and of the former Shan drug lord, Khun Sa). Some of these mines employ some Chinese workers. There are also freelance Chinese miners, poor farmers who cross the border to prospect for ore on their own.

One effect of Chinese involvement, then, appears to be the strengthening of local military elites who can now command more resources, and the relative further marginalisation of powerless highland groups, a situation similar to Laos and Cambodia. Yet, clearly, individual Akha and Lahu do benefit, or hope to benefit in the future. China has become a more attractive market not just for endangered wildlife but also for other things, such as water buffaloes, which fetch higher prices there.

The Lahu National Development Organisations seems to have a partnership with the Burma Rivers Network. I don’t know what kind of organisation it is, but it writes in the language and with the imagery of professional Western environmental activists. On the other hand, there are Wa and Shan groups that write in Chinese, in a language very close to that of the Chinese state. I suppose that in Burma’s border areas, there are all sorts of client groups/client polities, or simply groups that espouse varying development agendas. Perhaps it is lowland groups, which stand to benefit more from the export of Chinese development, that embrace Chinese models, while highland groups remain under the protection of Western NGO patrons. If so, this would create interesting political tensions over time (not unlike those that played out in Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War).