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.