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China's footprint on its neighbours

We were greeted by the sounds of frantic development as we walked across the border ‘friendship’ bridge from Hekou into the northern Vietnamese town of Lào Cai. All around us were residential complexes and office buildings under construction. Accompanying these rising buildings were huge advertising boards announcing ‘My China Dream’. It became increasingly clear that along with capital, the Chinese were exporting the ‘good life’ to its periphery.

The articles in this 'News from South East Asia' section originate from a project by the Regional Social Cultural Studies programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, which aims to better understand the impact of a rising China on its immediate neighbours in Southeast Asia. They are excerpts from a selection of chapters from an edited volume covering Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV), to be published by ISEAS Publications. Collectively, these chapters explore how Chinese capital and labour flows are pouring into these countries, as well as the local responses to these flows. With a strong ethnographic flavour, they attempt to capture the complexities that arise from the inescapable, sometimes undesired, presence of China on the one hand, and on the other hand, the convenient source of growth and development it represents to the CLMV governments.

As China continues to mature economically after reaching almost four decades of market reform and openness, its influence is exerted in different ways. From money, cheap labour and goods, to dreams, China’s footprint on its immediate neighbours is not only large but also ever changing. Fuelled by a complex mix of Chinese government policies, varied interests of private enterprises, and myriad strategies employed by different groups of migrants in adapting and seeking out new opportunities in foreign lands, the narrative of China’s rise and critique of modernity is now passé and debates should move on to examine how such an alternative modernity is presented and transferred from China to the region––and, indeed, beyond––and the local reactions.

Billboard advertisement for development (Source: Terence Chong)

The different historical and political experiences of these four countries with their giant neighbour ensure a diversity of local responses. While Laos and Cambodia seem to be more sanguine with the increased Chinese presence and influence, Myanmar more neutral and Vietnam more guarded, it is still important to, for example, understand the ways in which cheap Chinese plastic and electronic goods are driving local merchants out of business. Or how Chinese contract labourers do not return to China upon completion of their projects, but instead float between borders. Not to mention the longer-term impact of Mandarin as the most popular foreign language in certain communities. How will these everyday on-the-ground dynamics play out over time?

What is certain is that the China dream will have different meanings for everyone.


Chong is Senior Fellow and Loh is Fellow at the Regional Social Cultural Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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