How China joined the moral panic about human trafficking

June 27, 2011

World-Story, the news aggregator on China and development issues that is linked to the Chinese NGO Moving Mountains, recently circulated a list of articles that had to do with the trafficking of women, particularly from Southeast Asia to China. Opposing human trafficking is, like terrorism, one of those nice issues that all states can agree on, and the State Council approved a five-year action plan on fighting the trafficking of women and children back in 2007, but it was really last year’s cover story in China Economic Weekly, entitled “Rescuing the Burmese Women,” that marked the entry of Chinese journalism into the global hand-wringing.

The scale of migration of Burmese women (and men) to China seems fairly massive. According to a recent report bythe Palaung Women’s Organization, Stolen Lives: Human Trafficking from Palaung Areas of Burma to China, in one Palaung village, 31% of the population have left, and 70% of those went to China. In Jiegao, a border town, Burmese factory workers are paid around 750 yuan a month (although this information may be outdated), which is double the pay in Burma. In Nongbie village near Ruili, more than half of the wives, including that of the village head, are from Burma, according to a Global Post article. But illegal Burmese migrant workers have been apprehended, and abducted women sold as wives rescued, as far as Shandong (see News, 25 May 2011) and Gansu. Between 2005 and 2009, 835 women have been “rescued,” according to the China Economic Weekly story. In one case, 90 suspects were arrested in a village populated by ethnic Tai, in a border region where, according to one of the accused, “thousands” are in the business of importing brides.

All reports agree that most women who end up in forced marriages or in brothels have been tricked by promises of jobs. In some cases, however, the parents sold them knowingly. Some of the women were “resold” by their husbands, but some were released/expelled by after failing to conceive. All reports also agree that the recruiters are locals, often relatives or acquaintances, and in many cases women (one, in the Palaung report, was a nun).

Where the Chinese articles seem more nuanced is the issue of rescue. While the Global Post, like most Western reports, has little time for ambiguity, both the China Economic Weekly and Lanzhou Chenbao note that while some women have run away and others are grateful to be rescued and swear they will never set foot in China again, yet others — notably those who have had children — are torn but generally choose to stay if they are allowed to, or emphatically refuse to leave altogether.

The Lanzhou paper in particular succeeds in bringing out the complexity of the stories. In this instance, Guan Junming, a Gansu villager who worked, illegally, in the Kokang special region of Burma in 2005 came back with a Burmese wife for whom he only paid a bride price of 20 thousand yuan, compared to the 70-80 thousand that is the going rate in his very poor mountain village (as one peasant quoted in the article says, the poorer the village the higher the bride price, since few women are willing to marry into it). Guan’s fellow villagers implored him to help them get wives from Burma too.  Guan did so in 11 cases, for rates of 28 to 38 thousand yuan, which presumably included some modest profit. In some instances, the bridegrooms-to-be went to Burma with Guan, wishing to follow the proper procedure of xiangqin, visiting the bride’s relatives to ask for her hand. This was the case of Zhao Wenyi (pseudonym), described as an uneducated but good-hearted man. Zhao says he got along well with the chosen bride, introduced to him by two Burmese women, and she showed no opposition to the marriage, although when he asked to visit her family he was told that they live too far away. (The wives do not speak Chinese, suggesting that they aren’t actually from Kokang, which is a Chinese-speaking region.) Guan’s male fellow villagers were so grateful to him that, when he was arrested and tried for trafficking, 80 of them signed a letter to the court affirming his good character.

If bride price and go-betweens are part of custom (some might even say heritage), then where is the crime? The problem is, after Zhao’s bride’s arrival in Gansu, her mood changed: she cried and tried to run away, but was caught and beaten by Zhao; but once she stopped running away he treated her well. Only after a year did she learn enough Chinese to tell Zhao that the Burmese go-betweens had told her Zhao was a very rich man whose household was entirely run by machines, such that she wouldn’t need to work at all; she had only to press a button and a machine would put food in her mouth. Other brides too have tried to run away. Zhao’s wife, Lulu, has reluctantly opted to stay with him, but while her attitude to Zhao is ambivalent, she hates Guan. The reporter notes that, in this aspect, male villagers’ and the Burmese women’s views differ sharply. He adds that villagers must have known the women had been tricked, as several of them tried to run away or cried during the wedding ceremony.

The Gansu story, then, brings to light the difficulties of defining trafficking in both of its key aspects as defined by the UN and international agreements: the economic transaction involved and lack of consent (which, as the story highlights, can change in the course of the events). The preferred solution of the women who have had children, the article says, would be to legalize their status so they could freely move between China and Burma, but the papers they need to register their marriage under Chinese law — even if they were allowed to stay in the country — would be hard for them to obtain.

Further, this article — as well as the other reports — highlights that perpetrators are often ethnic or actual kin of the victims, rather than gangsters from Chinese cities. And finally, it shows the mutual impact of bilateral migrations: it is the appearance of Chinese investors and workers in Burma that created the mass appetite for Burmese brides on the Chinese side and the fantasies of Chinese modernity and wealth on the Burmese side.


Opposition to Chinese dams in northern Burma escalates

May 21, 2011

As Thomas Maung Shwe writes on the Shan exile news website Mizzima, a letter in which the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) warns PRC Chairman Hu Jintao that constructing the Myitsone Dam in northern Burma could lead to civil war signals an escalation of public opposition to the the largest Chinese hydropower project abroad. The article says that “while the KIO has previously opposed the Myitsone Dam, the language contained in Lanyaw Zawng Hra’s letter to the Chinese president is unprecedented in its criticism of the project.”

The series of dams in northern Burma (see News, 10 February 2011 and 4 March 2010) is a project that exceeds China’s Three Gorges, and is opposed by environmental and human-rights groups. KIO, which has maintained relations with the Chinese government, says it will not allow the Burmese army into its territory despite an announcement by the junta that it will begin “necessary procedures” at the project location. As Kevin Woods has argued, Chinese investments in northern Burma serve to strengthen the military state, which has already eliminated the de facto autonomy of Kokang, one of the four “special zones” (another is run by the KIO). It  may mean the death knell for the KIO as anything other than a guerrilla force, unless it is willing to be incorporated into the new developmentalism as a subordinate partner.

The KIO letter reiterates that it is open to negotiations over dam construction, but is concerned about massive relocations resulting from the current plan and the fact that one of the sites is near its command centre. The National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, has also expressed opposition to the dam.

Meanwhile, Burma Rivers Network reports that the Burmese junta ordered the relocation of 8,000 people from the site of the hydropower project 50 km southeast of Naypyidaw, being built by a consortium that is headed by a Swiss company called Af Colenco and includes a British company called Malcom Dunstan & Associates and Yunnan Machinery Export-Import Company. This project, which started in 2004, is a further signal of the return of Western investors — benefiting from Chinese labour — to dam building.

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.”

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.

People’s Daily cites Burmese dam opponents

December 31, 2010

A recent article in People’s Daily‘s popular-nationalistic offshot, the Chinese-language Global Times, cites concerns by the Shan Women’s Movement and another Bangkok-based Shan exile organisation about the dams built by China on the Mekong. These dams have been the focus of sustained concern in the downstream Mekong countries in the past two years, and blamed for a bad drought. So far the Chinese government has rejected the blame, but as of this year it has begun providing more complete hydrological data to the Mekong River Commission. Prominent Chinese public intellectual Qin Hui, who considers the accusations in China’s address exaggerated, has repeatedly called on the government to give up ignoring the concerns and enter into a reasoned discussion.

Although this article goes on to say that “many” consider these Shan organisations a front for Western interests and to cite Chinese “experts” who reject their allegations, it is nonetheless remarkable that these exile groups are given voice in the mainstream Chinese press in the first place, and described as “Burmese NGOs”. This might signal a shift in China’s relations to the Burmese government; greater concern with the fallout from controversial megaprojects (as already manifested in the rhetoric used in Africa), or else a shift in the relationship between Peking and Yunnan Province in relation to the border areas. (Yunnan has been keen on pursuing economic interests while the central government has been more sensitive to the political consequences, although so far this has mainly meant that Peking refused to talk to border-area ethnic organisations that oppose the Burmese junta.

Phoenix Weekly on Chinese investment in the Mekong region

April 17, 2010

After the disappointing Ming Pao story I blogged about earlier, Phoenix Weekly, the Rupert Murdoch outlet not known for a penchant for independent reporting, came out with a quite balanced feature on Chinese investment in Laos, Cambodia and Burma. The article, much of it reads like the more balanced of Western media coverage of the subject, takes its cue from the ubiquitous Qin Hui, who says that Chinese companies and individuals must “respect local civil society and rights [and] don’t play the games they are used to from home” if they are to play a constructive role in the region. The author starts with the example of the real estate development on Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake by a shadowy company that has been linked to a state enterprise from Yunnan province. Both environmentalists and 4,000 local residents facing resettlement who are dissatisfied with the compensation offered have tried in vain to contact the company, and the Chinese embassy refused to reply to inquiries as to whether the investment was indeed from China. (The Cambodian Development Council’s data do not list it as such.) Similarly, a Chinese company building a hydropower project in Koh Kong province apparently promised that it would build a school, a water reservoir and a road for local villagers, but the promise failed to materialise and the contractor refuses to accept responsibility. At this site, 200 out of the 500 workers are Chinese, while others tend to be migrant labourers from other parts of Cambodia, employed only for simple physical labour and getting $5-8 a day, which while a high wage for Cambodia is much lower than the 5-6 thousand yuan (around $1000) a month the Chinese workers make (suggesting, incidentally, that these workers are not, or no longer, as cheap as they have been believed to be.) These cases, the article comments, compare  unfavourably to the behaviour of investors from other countries. While  Chinese managers are quoted in the article, this part of the coverage relies mostly on local NGOs and Western-run media such as the highly critical Phnom Penh Post, generally in a sympathetic way.

The article also diverges from the usual triumphalims in pointing out that the success of Chinese companies in securing infrastructural investment has been enabled by the retreat of international lenders from most dam and mining projects. In Laos, donors and lenders have reconsidered their inititial support in 1999. In part, the article comments, this was to avoid projects that were vulnerable to NGO criticism, but in part it was caused by the steep rise in costs that these projects entailed after they were required to conduct stringent environmental and social assessments and ensure that their construction follows a sustainable strategy. Chinese companies are not subject to these strictures and enjoy access to politically facilitated capital, but as Qin Hui points out, they too are encountering difficulties: in Laos (and in northern Thailand) resistance to projects on the Mekong mainstream is such that Chinese companies can only count on building smaller dams on corollary rivers, while the capacity and profitability of hydropower projects in Cambodia (where Chinese companies have achieved a near-hegemony on the market) is limited. This leaves Burma, where political risk is the highest.

The article ends with what now seems a “politically correct” view in Chinese policy circles: the fuss kicked up by Western media about China’s “resource imperialism” is politically motivated, but this does not mean that Chinese companies’ actions are beyond reproach. Indeed, the author warns, while Chinese loans and aid are an attractive alternative to the strings-attached World Bank packages, a windfall of resource revenues under non-transparent conditions in badly governed countries will increase corruption, and locals might “mistakenly” blame it, as well as environmental damage and rapid social change is, on Chinese investors or even China itself.  A conclusion that could have been written by Sarah Raine or another Western analyst.

Elsewhere in Phoenix Weekly, Qin Hui wrote approvingly that in Laos, the feasibility studies companies must supply for the government approval of their projects include showing a positive or at least neutral impact for local residents and the advanced settlement of land acquisition issues — rather than, as in China, merely showing that the project will be good for the country and expecting that the government will then take care of land settlements. This is part of a long and decidedly un-academic Laos travelogue, observant in parts and simplistic in others, but generally written on a note of positive feelings for a country that does not seem to embrace high-speed development but appears to offer its people a considerable measure of existential security and community pride. (I am paraphrasing Qin here.)

In yet another article, written for Jingji Guanchabao (Economic Observer) but republished on the website of Qiushi, traditionally the Communist Party’s conservative journal for “Marxist theory,” Qin writes about disputes over dams on the Mekong within China. His point here is while the dams have varying and often effects on downstream countries — for example, if they cause drought in Laos they will likely prevent flooding in Cambodia — nobody there seems ever to thank China for the positive effects, while blaming it automatically for the negative ones. This, he says, is because the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge that it has any responsibility for whatever happens downstream. His advice to the government: be open with downstream NGOs, and then you can take credit for some of the positive outcomes.

Shan organisation reports fighting around dam site in Burma

September 2, 2009

According to 1 September press release by the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation, disseminated on the International Rivers mailing list,

Shan activists are calling on China to immediately halt all investment in dams on the Salween River following the recent heavy fighting between the Burmese military regime and the Kokang ceasefire army near the site of the Upper Salween Dam planned by Chinese companies in northern Shan State.

Heavy clashes have taken place just east of the town of Kunlong, about 15 kms from the planned dam site. Fighting broke out on August 27, 2009, after the regime deployed thousands of troops to seize control of the Kokang territory, shattering the 20-year ceasefire and causing over 30,000 refugees to flee to China. Kokang forces have sought to repel the Burma Army troops.

Plans to build the Upper Salween Dam, also known as the Kunlong Dam, were announced in April 2007 by two Chinese companies, Hanergy Holding Group (formerly Farsighted Investment Group) and Gold Water Resources Company. Since then a team of Chinese and Burmese technicians have been conducting feasibility studies for the 2,400 MW dam, 25 kms from the Chinese border.

The Kunlong Dam is one of five mega dams being planned on the Salween in Burma by the SPDC and Chinese and Thai companies, to produce electricity to be sold to China and Thailand. The Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation, together with the Salween Watch coalition of environmental groups from Thailand and Burma, has been monitoring the controversial dam plans for ten years and advocating for their immediate halt.

“The renewed fighting and the flood of refugees into Yunnan should be a wake-up call to China about the risks of investing in Burma,” said Sapawa spokesperson Sai Khur Hseng.   “Not only is there no free and informed consent to these dam projects, but they are being built over the dead bodies of our people.”

The other mega dam being planned in Shan State is the giant 7,110 MW Ta Sang dam, 100 km from the Thai border. In early August, the regime renewed a scorched earth campaign in townships close to the Ta Sang dam site, torturing and killing civilians and driving 10,000 villagers from their homes.

In an earlier post, I noted the cooperation (or perhaps sometimes multiple identities) between environmental and ethnic organisations in northern Burma, how they represent a certain potential form of sovereignty in that highly contested terrain, and how the ethnic Chinese enclaves (like Kokang) represent another, more real form. What is particularly interesting in this news release is the claim that 30,000 refugees have fled the fighting to China. China is not a state that officially allows refugee flows across its border, so if this is true it raises additional questions about the nature of sovereignty and border in Kokang and the other “special zones.” Or are these people who possess Chinese citizenship?

Le Monde on Chinese casinos in Burma

May 7, 2009

Le Monde on 5 May ran a short article on the Chinese-run casinos in Pangwa, a town across the Chinese border controlled by the New Democratic Kachin Army. Pangwa is not one of the “special regions” but, like those, seems to be run by a combination of an ethnic Chinese civil elite and an armed faction. 

Referring mostly to reports in Chinese media, the article writes about the closure of bigger casinos to the south in the zone controlled by the Independent Kachin Army, where Chinese police has intervened. In Pangwa, rumours have it that some Chinese customers who have threatened to denounce the owners to Chinese authorities have been killed.

The article is far from being well-researched, but it does point to interesting questions about the different ways in which local elites in various “special regions” articulate with interests and powers inside China. It also suggests that in at least some cases, greater influence of Chinese authorities may be preferable to local ones. (I was reminded of Russia’s withdrawal from Chechnya: there is little doubt that now the local despot, anointed by Russia, is alone with his subjects, it will be so much the worse for them. Obviously, there are many parallels from the history of Western colonialism too.)

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).

Chinese media reports kidnappings of gamblers in Burma

January 28, 2009

Several recent articles in 今日早报, a Zhejiang Province newspaper, report on residents of the province being “tricked” into gambling trips to casinos across the Yunnan border in Burma by usurers who first lend money to their clients and then imprison, beat and threaten them when they are unable to pay back their debts. In Tonglu 桐庐 County  alone, ten cases of such false imprisonment had been reported by the end of 2008 (and most are not reported, as gambling is itself illegal in China, and the gamblers may face punishment). One of the victims has not been recovered, and the total of the money involved is over 10 million yuan.

The article credits Chinese police with forcing the closure of several casinos across the border, and suggests that such methods of recruiting clients in faraway Zhejiang are partly a result of casino owners’ worries about dropping business.