ARI Conference: The Art of Neighbouring – Old Crossroads and New Connections Along the PRC’s Borders 1-2 March 2012

ARI Conference: The Art of Neighbouring – Old Crossroads and New Connections Along the PRC's Borders 1-2 March 2012

I attended this interesting conference the past 2 days. More details at:

Knew little about the whole discipline of Borderland Studies till now. Some of the facts I learnt are:

1) There is an Association of Borderland Studies.

2) Mongolia's key "Third Neighbour" Diplomacy. 25% of Mongolia's armed forces are participating in UN Peace Keeping. Concept of Fortune Sovereignty – sharing Mongolia's mineral wealth with all nations. Mongolia's tradition of giving horses to visiting foreign leaders, which amused George W Bush.

3) Mongols have no problems with Kalmyks, Buryats and Hazaras. Antagonism or tension between Mongols and China's Inner Mongols because the two are too close and too alike. Latter seen by former as too crafty and cunning. Mongols also maintain a distance as any closeness to latter could mean potentially losing independence of Mongolia.

4) The former upper class of Russia's Blagoveshchensk (tends to be Soviet era's preferred professionals and managers of state-run enterprises, now poor) is Moscow-oriented and few have visited China's Heihe. The rich entrepreneurial class travels frequently all over China, speaks Mandarin, is interested in Chinese culture and whose young nurtures hopes of working in MNCs in Shanghai or Shenzhen. Few Russians and Chinese are keen on romantic relationship with each other. Blagoveshchensk puts up barriers to Chinese visitors whereas Heihe attracts (i) Russian visitors from Blagoveshchensk, (ii) Chinese visitors wanting a glimpse of Russia. Blagoveshchensk waterfront is deserted. Heihe is along waterfront, with shops, skyscrapers, tacky bear statues and kiosks that look like Russian dolls.

5) Tumen area is not very successful as a regional cooperative zone because Russia and North Korea see that as a Chinese idea to gain sea access, which is indeed what the Chinese wants. Chinese-Koreans are emerging as a key regional mediator in Dongbei. They are (i) running DPRK special zones on the borders, (ii) helping South Korean MNCs run business across Dongbei. Chinese-Koreans are ethnically closer to North Koreans but culturally (in terms of contemporary culture) closer to South Koreans. South Korean stereotypes of Chinese-Korean: Dirty, cunning, irresponsible, but both sides now increasingly rely on each other.

6) Russian Koreans have hardly any role in the region because they are monocultural – totally assimilated with the Russians. This concurs with my observations in London – the Russian-Koreans do not hang out with Asians. They are closer to the Russians and ex-Soviets.

7) Many Amdo Tibetans move to and fro China and India, for English schools, trade, pilgrimage, etc. The Chinese have some suspicions but welcome a number back as "Overseas Chinese". Many return to China because they found that the Tibetans-in-exile aren't as traditional as those in China. Many returnees actually become anti-clerical after felling disillusioned with the politics and "corruption" among the monks-in-exile, which is something not many Westerners would want to admit. Many also returned to China in order to take advantage of the rise of tourism and growth opportunities. Some run hotels and tour operators and quite often have become rich. However, post-2008 Lhasa Riot tension has curtailed much of such movement.  Chinese bureaucracy has also become less hopeful that returnees would support Chinese rule in Tibet.

8) The direct HK airport ferry transfers to Pearl River Delta ports are meant as transit points for (i) PRC citizens with rural hukou who cannot set foot in HK unless they join package tours, (ii) Nationals from countries in Africa & Middle East who cannot obtain HK visas. The transfers allow them to use HK Airport without officially entering HK.

9) China has built many roads leading to remote border communities adjoining Nepal. This has great impact on Nepalese communities living next to the Chinese border. Such communities were previously remote and cut-off from mainstream Nepal by tall mountains. Now they trade actively with Chinese communities across the border. They sell medical herbs and timber, in exchange for manufactured goods. The language on both sides of such borders are the same – Tibetan. No problem. No customs checks in most areas. Locals cross freely without documents. It's a lifeline for them. Thorough border checks only on Friendship Highway linking Kathmandu and Lhasa. 

10) These scholars found that locals in Mustang are excited about new highway being built though recent Al Jazeera documentary suggests that locals are more concerned about possibility of Chinese traders and influence, plus local support for the Tibetan cause. Martin Saxer said that many of these communities were once cosmopolitan and were centres of trade before the border shut down after the fleeing of the 14th Dalai Lama. In fact, even today, they were not completely cut off. A Mustang ritualist he interviewed has a son who's a sushi chef in New York and he wanted the son to return to take over him.

11) Two Chinese special zones in Laos: Golden Boten City and Golden Triangle City. The former has now been abandoned (or largely so):  The latter tries to cultivate a more wholesome image, with agricultural projects. Both have trappings of Chinese state, including use of political language/terminology (e.g., Ling-dao or leader), Chinese signs, RMB, uniformed security, etc. Former run by HK resident and latter by a Macau resident – but both were originally PRC – from Fujian and Dongbei respectively. 

Brief mention of the Myanmar Kokang and Wa Special Zones. Both has suffered decline or even conquest by Myanmar Government. All failed examples of attempts by former drug lords or warlords to transform their wealth into more legitimate looking businesses albeit with PRC characteristics and trappings of state power. All have support of PRC local county governments but such support can collapse overnight if the Central Government feels that they may compromise Chinese international standing.  

TWC suggests some parallels with tax heavens in the Caribbean, e.g., BVI and Cayman Islands, which are hybrid or forgotten political remnants of past empire now attempting to serve businesses or individuals seeking regulatory arbitrage. 

12) Burmese Muslims such as the Indian-looking Rohinyas might be seen internationally as oppressed and poor refugee peoples, but many have in recent years moved to Yunnan and prospered in the Myanmar jade trade, especially in Ruili/Baoshan areas. Transnational, hold Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Saudi passports. Chinese allow them to stay and run jade shops, though they tend to send children daily to schools in Myanmar. Speak all the languages of neighbouring countries. Many have epic stories of being chased out of Arakan homeland, across to Bangladesh, India and re-enter Myanmar from the far north, then China. China open to them. Benign. Muslim communities in South Asia and Malaysia can be unfriendly to Rohinyas but the Huis of China welcome them to their mosques. China has become a sanctuary if not paradise to them.

13) Anxiety on Sino-Indian border over opening of border at Sikkim. Story of Indian ghost soldier "border baba ghost" who warned about war and materialism. Shrine taken care of daily by soldiers and even Chinese soldiers had seen him. Chair left for him at Sino-Indian border meetings.

14) The divide between different categories of Chinese: The Constructors (建设者) who came with the Bingtuan (兵团) – PLA soldiers who settled after the conquest by CCP and all "opportunistic" late-comers. Even among the Constructors, there are those who say that they are with Bingtuan Spirit and consciousness (觉悟), and others who do not. Examples of those who do not ("the Subalterns") may include some of the 8,000 Hunnanese girls who went to Xinjiang to work but ended up being persuaded to marry men of the Bingtuan, some of whom were much older. In 2007, amidst the Urumqi riots and rising tension, films were made about the heroic Bingtuan and the women sent to marry them – 八千湘女上天山 (8000 Hunnan Girls Going to Tian Shan ) and 戈壁母亲 (Mother of Gobi). TWC: I wonder what are the perceptions of the Bingtuan of the oldest group of Han population in Xinjiang, i.e., the 10% of XJ population that was Han before the arrival of the PLA.

15) Chinese stereotypes of Vietnamese traders: Cunning, irresponsible, crafty. Many Chinese businessmen claimed that they have been cheated by Vietnamese and yet have no choice but to continue to trade with them. Some even said they should "punish" Vietnam militarily. But is this a fair comparison? More studies needed on Vietnamese perception of Chinese.  TWC: Interestingly, during my days working in a China company, the Vice-Chairman's son had spent many years as an engineer with a Chinese industrial group in Vietnam and he said the same about the Vietnamese.  Since the same has often been said about PRC businessmen by other Asians, I suspect that business ethics and practices of PRC and Vietnam are probably quite similar and some PRC businessmen cannot get over the fact that the Vietnamese sometimes beat the Chinese in terms of craftiness. 

16) An environmental and animal rights movement is rising in China. This is a good sign.

17) More than 50% of married Dai women from the Menglian Dai-Lahu-Wa Autonomous County (孟连傣族拉祜族佤族自治县) in Pu'er Prefecture move to Hat Yai or Dan Nok on Thai-Malaysian border to work in massage parlours.  Red light district with people from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and other parts of China, but few Thais. But these Dai women do not see themselves as sex workers but providers of companionship. They speak Thai in the open to avoid detection but speak Mandarin to Chinese-Malaysian men to promote intimacy and relationship. Not clear immediate sexual transaction but complex emotional comradeship. They seek long term relationship with these men during which the men may put the women up in an apartment in Hat Yai or even money to build a house in China. There is no attempt to lie to the Malaysian men about the marriage status of the women. In fact, that status makes them more attractive as personal confidante. This is what Chris Lyttleton calls "Entrepreneurship of Intimacy". 

Some of the women have become so well-off that they run hotels and shops using money earned from such relationship. They often spend 5-10 years in Southern Thailand during which the same Malaysian men had special arrangements and then return to their homes in China. Some Malaysian men even visit them regularly in China. The phenomena have become so embarrassing to local county authorities that they no longer issue passports to Dai women between 18 and 35 years old. Since then, Dai women who leave their counties tend to bring along their daughters who were below 18 years old so that they can also eventually participate in the same "trade". Dai men do not typically work overseas. Some Dai men are quite happy to receive remittances from their wives overseas while a few instances of bitterness have been reported – Lyttleton admits that more studies of the family impact of this "trade" has to be done.