- Impact of China’s Rise on the Mekong Region ed. by Yos Santasombat
Since 2000, the countries in the Mekong River basin have received a new influx of migrants, traders, small and large scale investors, labourers and professionals from mainland China. In engaging with the Mekong states and societies, Chinese newcomers have contributed to producing significant social, environmental and economic change by establishing cash crop plantations, casino-centred special economic zones, markets and free trade areas, exploiting minerals and building modern infrastructures. Impact of China’s Rise on the Mekong Region, edited by Yos Santasombat, is one of the few scholarly works to date that explores the nature of such change.
The book makes an important contribution to understanding these new Chinese–Southeast Asian engagements on numerous counts. First, the essays in the collection are written by Asian scholars — seven of whom are based in academic institutions in Mekong countries and three in Taiwan — and present Asian views in an academic debate about “China’s rise” otherwise dominated by American, European or Australian analysts. Second, with contributions from anthropologists, economists, sociologists and a political scientist, the collection takes a multidisciplinary approach to analysing a phenomenon that has mostly been addressed in isolation within disciplines. Third, the chapters provide a geographically variegated overview of changes in each of the Mekong countries focusing on the revival of China’s socio-economic and political relations with Vietnam (Chapter 2 by Nguyen Van Chinh), Laos (Chapter 3 by Bien Chiang and Jean Chih-yin Cheng, and Chapter 4 by Pinkaew Laungaramsri), Thailand (Chapter 5 by Aranya Siriphon), Myanmar (Chapter 6 by Khine Tun), and Cambodia (Chapter 7 by Touch Siphat). The new links between China and the other Mekong countries are explained not only in terms of intensified interactions between local state and non-state actors and old and new Chinese migrants, but also in relation to China’s internal processes of modernization, supposed political restructuring, economic growth and social engineering (Introduction by Yos), as well as China’s foreign geo-economic strategies within regional integration frameworks, such as the Greater Mekong Sub-region initiative and the ASEAN-Plus 1 agreement (Chapter 1 by Hsing-Chou Sung). [End Page 499]
Yet, although intending to foreground “the complexity of the rapidly emerging Chinese presence” (Nguyen, p. 54) in the Mekong region, most of the authors do so more by relying on sets of figures and mere accounts of facts rather than drawing on ethnographically rich details or on a theoretically sound analysis, producing what I consider an oversimplified and ideologically biased depiction of the socio-economic and political reality under examination.
“Ethnographic thinness” characterizes, for instance, the chapter by Bien and Cheng, where, in discussing the changing Chinese ethnoscape in Laos (p. 85), little detail is provided on how the old and new Chinese communities are socially produced and reproduced, apart from a short description of the institutions that are the pivots of such reproduction. Even where there is some “ethnographic thickness”, this remains partial, as in the chapter by Pinkaew, where voice is given to the victims of the Chinese-established Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ) in north-west Laos (p. 132) or to “greedy” Lao government officials (p. 127). We are not offered the perspectives of those who, belonging neither to the victim nor to the culprit category, have been able to creatively reinvent their livelihoods through the idiosyncratic process of Chinese modernization. During fieldwork I carried out in the GTSEZ in June 2015, I became close to a few residents of villages within the zone, who had independently created new lucrative income-earning opportunities by taking advantage of Chinese presence. This proved that, along with resistence, violence and exploitation, individual’s agency is also part of the Chinese production of change in the Mekong. It should therefore be taken into account if we are to provide a complex analysis of such change.
Theoretical shortcomings are manifest in the Introduction by Yos. In alignment with the other contributors’ view, particularly Pinkaew’s, Yos identifies the source of...