About the Project

Neighbouring China is a research project initiated by Martin Saxer in 2010. It is concerned with the effects of China’s rise on the lifestyles and micro-economies of communities living along its borders.

The PRC’s increasing significance in the world attract much public interest: Chinese investment-cum-development aid shapes African realities, China finances the deficits of Western consumer societies, governments around the world are cautious not to hurt Chinese sensitivities, and most of the consumer goods we buy are “made in China”. While these questions make headlines, a related issue receives far less attention: What does China’s rise mean for its immediate neighbours? This question is the starting point of the present research.

As the borderlands, both in the PRC and its neighbouring states, are becoming targets of ambitious development schemes, “special zones”, pipelines, road- and railway-projects, the daily process of “neighbouring” China increasingly shapes dreams, ambitions, and fears. New opportunities arise, but legal uncertainty and political tensions remain high. As hotspots of conflict and avenues of exchange, the borderlands between China and its neighbouring countries play an eminent role in contemporary globalisation – not in the globalisation of Nestlé, MacDonald’s, or Samsung, but in an equally global economy at the edge.

A Chinese truck on the Karakorum Highway near Karakol, Xinjiang Province.

A Chinese truck on the Karakorum Highway near Karakol, Xinjiang Province.

Shared Histories

A common feature of many of the communities at China’s borders is their classification as “ethnic groups”, “hill tribes”, or “minority nationalities” – at least on one side of the border and often on both. They are known as Hmong/Miao, Yi, Karen, Monpa, Thangmi, Bhutia, Hunzakut, Uyghur, Mongol, Buryat, among dozens of others. Most of these groups look back on a history of troubled relations with powerful states, kingdoms, and empires (Stefan 1994; Sines 2002; Lary 2008; Khodzhaev 2009; Scott 2009). They were dealt with as backward, unruly, and barbarian, or they were seen as “living fossils” of ancient times that managed to “survive” modernisation in the rugged peripheries (Anagnost 1997; Oakes 1998; Blum 2001). Hoping to preserve a last glimpse of a world doomed to disappear, missionaries, colonial officials, explorers and ethnographers photographed, described, and collected their vanishing cultures.

Despite the fact that transnational trade has been a salient feature of most of these borderland communities, they were usually rather portrayed as local tribes than as cosmopolitan actors. Consequently, in Western as well as Asian imaginaries they occupy a place associated with remoteness and authentic tradition. They have been the subject of hundreds of dissertations and monographs (cf.Michaud 2006: 273-355) – carrying titles such as The Karen People of Burma (Marshall 1922), Kultur und Siedlung der Randvölker Chinas (Eberhard 1942), The Sherpas of Nepal (Fürer-Haimendorf 1964), or Islamic peoples of the Soviet Union (Akiner 1983). Many of these works are now regarded as classics of anthropological, geographical, or historical literature.

A Lahu village on a hilltop in northern Laos.

A Lahu village on a hilltop in northern Laos.

Regardless of disciplines, several perspectives on China’s frontiers can be distinguished. Scholars have approached the borderline either from within China or from outside. Diana Lary’s excellent volume The Chinese State at the Borders (2008) stands for the first approach; Fürer-Haimendorf’s (1975), James Fisher’s (1986), and Janet Rizvi’s (2001) accounts of Himalayan trade, as well as Hermann Kreutzman’s (2006) comprehensive volume Karakoram in Transition, exemplify the latter. All of them provide valuable insights into the lifestyles and histories of borderland communities. Some authors focus more explicitly on cross-border communities and long-distance trade. Wim van Spengen’s work on Manang traders (2000), Patterson Giersch’s book on the history of Yunnan’s frontiers (2006), Jason Neelis’ work on the Hunza valley in northern Pakistan (2006), and several studies on the Silk Road, where trade has traditionally been in the centre of the academic inquiry (for example: Ma 1996; Skaff 2003; Whitfield and Sims-Williams 2004; Boulnois and Mayhew 2005), shed light on the historical and geopolitical transformations of inter-Asian connections along China’s borders.

Closure, Opening up

Large parts of the PRC’s contemporary border were the outcome of geopolitics and the colonial demarcation of spheres of influence (Woodman 1969). A case in point is the McMahon line between India and China (Hoffmann 1990; Lin 2004; Warikoo 2009); another one is the Sino-French convention on Vietnam’s northern border (Turner 2010). Borderlines drawn on imperial maps often arbitrarily separated ethnic groups and had little to do with the realities on the ground, where state power was often weak or absent (Lary 2008). In the 1950s, when Communist China extended control to its peripheries, these borderlines started becoming more relevant. A phase of closure began, marked by border conflicts with India (1962), the Soviet Union (1969) and Vietnam (1979). As a result, many long-established cross-border relations were outlawed.

A tentative normalisation of China’s diplomatic relations with its neighbours started in the 1980s with Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening up. This process led to the resumption of Sino-Vietnamese relations in the early 1990s (Gu and Womack 2000), the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001, the resolution of the border dispute between Russia and China in 2004 (Zatsepine 2008), the reopening of the Nathula Pass between Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2006 (Harris 2008), as well as the construction of an oil pipeline between Kazakhstan and China (Pan 2007; Kerr 2010). The people who had grown accustomed to orient themselves away from the border (to Moscow, Delhi, Kathmandu, Hanoi, etc.) during the restricted decades have started looking again towards the People’s Republic. As old cross-border relations and trade-networks are being revived and new ones are being forged, the lives and futures of the borderland communities are increasingly shaped by their proximity to China (cf. Bulag 2002; Laruelle and Peyrouse 2009; 2009a).

Nepali truck near Rasuwa.

Nepali truck near Rasuwa.

My project approaches these communities not as local cultures or as vanishing tribes but as transnational actors in their own right. Taking the existing knowledge about their histories, cultures, social structures, and trade-networks into account, my research aims at providing an ethnography of “neighbouring China” and its role in contemporary life in the borderlands.


My interest in the question of China’s neighbours was sparked by numerous encounters during my previous research in Siberia as well as Nepal and Tibet. The project follows up on what I found to be one of the most pressing issues for the people I met in the Sino-Russian as well as the Himalayan borderlands. Although I was working on different topics, it was impossible to ignore the growing significance of “neighbouring China”. The People’s Republic captures the imaginations of those living along its borders in a variety of ways.

In March 2003, for example, while studying Russian in Irkutsk, my host gave me a tour of the enormous disused industrial complex in which she had been working as an engineer throughout her career. Several of the factory halls now served as markets for Chinese-made consumer goods. My host had bought a teakettle in one of them; it had broken down and she wanted an exchange. The Russian shop assistant, reluctant to take the kettle back, seemed lost amidst the dozens of Chinese traders and businessmen that clearly dominated the scene.

Dordoi Bazaar, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Dordoi Bazaar, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

In 2005, at the Sino-Russian border in Zabaikalsk, I witnessed an endless line of trucks waiting to cross into the People’s Republic. All the trucks were loaded with scrap metal: old household utensils, broken cars, and demolished machines that must have belonged to one of the dismantled factories. The sheer number of vehicles vividly illustrated the radical transformation the region had gone through over the preceding decade. While China’s booming economy was absorbing whatever scrap metal could be found, the industry in the Russian borderlands had imploded after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Many Siberians were anxious that the Chinese would now take over the remains (Wishnick 2003; Yu 2007; Ma 2008; Zatsepine 2008). Wherever one looked, China was present in the lives and imaginations of the people in Siberia – often as a threat and sometimes as an opportunity to be seized.

For Nurbek, a young Kyrgyz language student I befriended in Chengdu in 2007, China was clearly the latter. Being the youngest son of a well-off Kyrgyz family trading in honey, he had convinced his father that learning Mandarin was an important asset for the family’s future. He had enrolled in one of the Chinese language programmes for foreigners that many universities all over the PRC have established. For Nurbek, however, China was much more than a rising economic power, which a clever businessman had to take into account. In his eyes, the People’s Republic was an open, progressive place full of possibilities and freedoms – a place far away from the moral obligations to his family back home. Nurbek’s real dreams had nothing to do with his father’s successful honey business. His secret plan was to make a career in film and become a martial arts director in Guangdong or Hong Kong. His idol was Chan Kong-sang, better known as Jackie Chan.

Nurbek’s fascination stands for a less known tale about China. In his view, China was not the repressive Party State as which it is often depicted in the West. It was primarily a fertile ground for ambitions of all sorts – the locus of a “Chinese Dream”, so to say, a dream that Nurbek clearly preferred over the “American Dream”.

Researching the cross-border trade in medicinal plants between Nepal and Tibet for my PhD dissertation in 2007/2008, I found that some of the remote traditional trans-Himalayan caravan routes (Fürer-Haimendorf 1975; Fisher 1986) were again being used. They competed with the “Friendship Highway” – the official road link between Kathmandu and Lhasa. The erstwhile trans-Himalayan trade in salt, wool, livestock and grain lost much of its importance during the phase of closure that followed the incorporation of Tibet into Communist China (Hagen and Thapa 1998: 189).

However, as many new roads are currently being built on the Tibetan Plateau and the network already extends to the Nepalese border in several places, access to Chinese roads is now often more convenient for the communities living in the upper hills than access to the road heads in Nepal’s lowlands. At these remote Himalayan border crossings in northern Nepal neither salt nor wool is being traded today, but medicinal plants fuelling the burgeoning industry for Tibetan medicine on the Plateau, as well as solar panels, TV sets, trekking clothes, and kitchen utensils.

A group of Humli traders on their way to Tibet.

A group of Humli traders on their way to Tibet.

The new roads, together with the PRC’s policy of opening up and fostering trade, have enabled Himalayan borderland communities to revive old cross-border relations. Together with this revival, however, the efforts at rendering legible and controlling the flow of people and goods across the border have increased as well. New border regimes have created a grey area in which official trade can suddenly become smuggling again, and a business trip a case of illegal immigration (Schendel and Abraham 2005; Horstmann and Wadley 2006; Saxer 2010). China’s border regions, especially Tibet and Xinjiang, remain extremely sensitive. The Party State suspiciously tries to prevent revived transnational relations from being used as a disguise for “separatist” activities (cf. Ibraimov 2009; Khodzhaev 2009).

The rapprochement between China and its neighbouring states changes life in the borderlands. While some people and communities manage to profit from this rapprochement, for others it does not necessarily translate into economic benefit or increased freedom of movement.

Collaboration and Support

Neighbouring China is not only the focus of my own ongoing research and book project, but also a collective endeavour.

The conference The Art of Neighbouring and the forthcoming edited volume are the result of an intensive collaboration with Zhang Juan. Together with Liang Yongjia and Johan Lindquist, Zhang Juan and I also organised a panel at the 3rd conference of the Asian Borderlands Research Network in October 2012. Moreover, many of the ideas most relevant to the project germinated on the fertile ground of the Asian Connections Reading Group at ARI, led by Prasenjit Duara. At LMU Munich, I am working together with Martin Sökefeld.

The project is only possible thanks to the generous support of the following organisations:


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