The Art of Neighbouring: Mediating Borders along China’s Frontiers

Edited volume based on the international workshop under same name. Currently under review.


What does China’s rise mean for its immediate neighbours? How do China’s rapid economic growth, its strategic decisions to foster trade, secure access to natural resources, and its efforts to prevent unrest affect the lives and futures of the people living along its borders? These questions present the key theme that this book aims to explore. The art of neighbouring thereby denotes both an every-day skill and an analytical lens to understand the ever-changing conditions along the frontiers.

Much of the current discussion on China’s rise and its growing influence concerns geopolitical and macro-economic issues; it focuses on state-centred policies and the various nuances of official rhetoric. Remarkably absent in this discussion are the borderlands themselves—their inhabitants, their linkages with each other, and their role as junctures rather than peripheries, as pathways through which the globalised economy’s flows of natural resources, commodities and people are channelled.

This book uses “neighbouring” as a critical concept to examine historical roots and contemporary experiences of the ways in which communities engage with each other across international borders. We argue that neighbouring in the frontiers is an active process—a process of mediating borders through social ties. Neighbours are seldom equals and neighbouring remains precarious. Negotiating the asymmetric relations and navigating the desires and fears along the way requires situated knowledge, cunning tactics and social skills.

Through vivid ethnographic accounts, this book tells stories of how various communities, from Laos to India, from Central Asia to Siberia, from humans to animals, deal with the anxieties about the Chinese expansion on the one hand, and actively embrace the “Chinese dream” on the other. This book invites readers to see the diverse groups and beings living all around China’s borders as a whole. Companions in fate at this particular historical conjuncture, they struggle and strive to find an edge in the precarious bordering situation, and often practise the art of neighbouring with great virtuosity.

List of chapters

by Zhang Juan and Martin Saxer
Chapter 1
New Roads, Old Trades: The Revival of Himalayan Pathways, by Martin Saxer, LMU Munich.
Chapter 2
Pilgrims of Development? Trans-Himalayan Tibetan Migrants in the Borderlands of Belonging, by Chris Vasantkumar, Hamilton College.
Chapter 3
Neighbouring in Anxiety along the China-Vietnam Border, by Zhang Juan, National University of Singapore.
Chapter 4
Realms of Free Trade, Enclaves of Order: Chinese-Built “Instant Cities” in Northern Laos, by Pal Nyiri, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Chapter 5
Bright Lights across the River: Competing Modernities at China’s Edge, by Franck Billé, University of Cambridge.
Chapter 6
Religion, Trade, and Contemporary Migration among Burmese Muslim Communities in the Yunnan-Myanmar borderlands, by Renaud Egrétau, The University of Hong Kong.
Chapter 7
Trading on change: Social Transformation, Modernization Outcomes and the Dynamics of Individual Trade in the Borderlands of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang, by Henryk Alff, Freie Universität Berlin.
Chapter 8
The Mobile and the Material on the Sino-Indian Border, by Tina Harris, University of Amsterdam.
Chapter 9
China’s Animal Neighbors, by Magnus Fiskesjö, Cornell University.
Chapter 10
A World Community of Neighbors in the Making: The Geoeconomics of Mongolia’s “Third Neighbor” Diplomacy, by Uradyn Bulag, University of Cambridge.