Laos in danger of losing jobs and culture as Chinese pour in

By Ken Quimbach Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-24 0:33:02


Illustration: Liu Rui
Illustration: Liu Rui

A friend living in Vientiane recently complained of incessant noise next to her house where a Chinese gang was busy constructing a new feeder road.

None of the residents had been consulted. The residents are afraid that asphalt will bring speed and accidents.  To the slower paced Laotians, the Chinese are unwelcome. "Why can't Laotians do that work? Who asked if we wanted this road?" one onlooker asked. Good questions.

Across Laos, Chinese laborers are building huge malls, dams, factories, golf courses and airports, taking jobs that could easily done by Laotians. Tiny Laos with its population of over 6 million is being made to look increasingly like China. Many Chinese projects dispossess Laotians of their land. The Laotians need the work.

There is no question that the Chinese have always been in Laos, but it is the massive increase in numbers, influence and visibility that are causing concern.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times drew approbation over a story they did on what was to be the joint China-Laos railway project. Hidden in the story is the threat that Laotians are increasingly naming; colonization by stealth, and with that, a commodification of Lao culture.

In the story, the Chinese hotel owner was waiting for the floods of his countrymen into Laos to complete the circle of purchase and profit. The Laotians are increasingly left with nowhere to go.

Hidden below the grandiose plans are the subtle corrosion of what it means to be Laotian. China, which guards its own heritage and ancestry, is seemingly happy to destroy that belonging to others.

The traditional Lao skirts are being replaced by cheap mass-produced synthetic skirts made by machines in China, marginalizing both the weavers - whose work makes significant contributions to village incomes - and the fabric's cultural meaning. 

Some of Vientiane's best loved colonial buildings are slated for demolition. The National Museum is, perhaps ironically, to be replaced by a 20-story five-star hotel.

Chinese projects are operated under a Godfather model. There is no competitive bidding or tendering process.  Instead, concessions are given by political insiders for various favors.

The Yunnan-derived Northern Plan perhaps best sums up the insensitivity to non-Chinese culture. The famously successful but intimate World Heritage city of Luang Prabang has become a tourist megalopolis of 30 square kilometers; ethnic minorities can be shown off in what could be described as human zoos, to be gawped at and photographed by Chinese tourists.

But more ominously, it reveals how easily and cheaply Laos can be bought. Laos has been described as a vassal state, and the Northern Plan makes it obvious that this descriptor is apt.

Recently, the Global Times published two opinion pieces, which talked about the Chinese presence in Laos. Their pieces presented the middle class critique. They talked about roads, infrastructure; all the stuff of the urban elite.

Laotians are still largely poor and rural. They do not have access to health services, or decent education, much less Range Rovers for comfortable cross border travel.

Chinese road projects provide lessons in how not to proceed. A recent trip up the Nam Ou River showed how appallingly managed some Chinese infrastructure is.

The road built to maintain the cascade of Chinese hydropower dams had already caused massive landslips and loss of river bank farmlands. When I asked the boatmen who ply the river and upon whose skills thousands of people, including a burgeoning tourist industry, depend, if they had been consulted or compensated, they all said no. A small group of highly skilled men will become occupationally extinct.

The signs of urban economic growth have given the government of Laos legitimacy, while the Chinese have gradually inched out the traditional protectors, the Vietnamese.

The recent abduction of Laos' national Sombath Somphone underscored that the transfer of telecommunications from Thai to Chinese oversight has had consequences for Laotian civil society. Phones and the Internet are under surveillance.

But more seriously, Chinese incursions into Laos' economics, commerce planning, and resource management are now so pervasive and entrenched, that they can never be reversed, even if a more dignified government comes into power.

The author is a freelance writer based in Bangkok. He spent eight years in Laos.

Posted in: Counterpoint, Viewpoint

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