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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
- An 18-months early career fellowships (now: mobility fellowship) by the Swiss National Science Foundation allowed me to kickstart the project in April 2011.
- The Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore funded the conference The Art of Neighbouring that took place in March 2012. In addition, ARI also paid my postdoc salary from October 2012 to May 2013 and provided access to travel and research funds.
- For the period from May 2013 to April 2015 I received a Marie Curie Fellowship under the 7th Framework Programme of the European Union.
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