Off the Record in Vientiane

By Iain Manley Dec 29, 2011

Jonnee Green menthol cigarettes, made by the China-Laos Good Luck Tobacco Company

A man I met in Vientiane, who spoke eloquently about the city and how it had changed, initially gave short, guarded answers to my questions. When I promised not to quote him, he opened up, but I couldn’t fit what he said into my portrait of the Chinese people changing Laos without either revealing his identity or allowing faceless, out-of-context accusations to creep into my narrative. I’ve transcribed a part of my conversation with him instead, and published it below. Among other things, it contains some strong criticisms of the path Laos’ government has chosen; they may or may not be well founded, but are at least an indication of what some people in Vientiane think.

How has Vientiane changed in your lifetime?
In the eighties, there were no cars on the road, no restaurants, nothing. It was dead after six o’ clock. You could lie down on the main road.

Wow! It’s changed a lot. Is that all in the last twenty years?
Mostly in the last five years. The tallest building was the government office – seven storeys. Now there are all these high rise buildings under construction.

How do people feel about the changes?
They have mixed feelings.

Do they think that their quality of life has improved?
In what sense? Happiness? How do you measure this?

Well, I don’t feel like people are materialistic here. Do you think they are?
No, but we are pushing them in that direction.

Who’s we? The government?
Do you think the government knows how to write papers to get grants overseas? It’s organisations like the World Bank that send in experts to write these reports – to say this is what you need. Even if a government official writes a great report, do you think they’ll get grants? I don’t think so. Development in Laos is a Western idea. Now people are trying to push Laos into the World Trade Organisation. Why? Look at the country’s biggest project, the Nam Theun 2. Whose pet project is that? The World Bank’s.

Isn’t there a lot of poverty in Laos?
How do you measure poverty? In other countries, the poor don’t own land, but in Laos, they own the land. In five or ten years, most of the poor in Laos won’t own land, because they’re selling it now for big bucks. Five or ten years down the road, they’re going to be worse off than before.

Would you say that there is hunger? That’s one way of measuring poverty.
There’s not much hunger, but in terms of material wealth, the people are poor.

What about education and healthcare?
It’s still minimal I think, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Most of the Lao people, they’re tribal – subsistence farmers. They move from place to place. But now Western people have come and said slash and burn farming is bad for the environment, but the people have been doing this for how many thousands of years. These teams of experts, they give them three plots of land, but these people are used to having ten plots of land and then moving, so land has time to regenerate. With only three plots it doesn’t work – it’s actually worse for the environment.

I suppose the experts are trying to teach people to make do with less land – to take pressure off it.
These people don’t kill or harvest for the next market, they only take what they need. The experts are telling them they need to plan for themselves and plan to sell at the market. It’s positive and negative, it depends on how you look at it.

What do you think of the Chinese people coming to live in Vientiane?
There’s no tension in the city, so most people don’t think about it, but some people call it the ghost invasion, like a shadow behind you, taking over…There is a push by the Chinese government. They are trying to migrate a lot of people to Laos, especially closer to the border. They are building their own town in Huay Xai.

[A friend of the interviewee arrived at this point, and when he heard us asking about development in Laos, the conversation turned to the Xayaburi Dam.]

Friend: Have you heard that the Xayaburi Dam is on hold?
I saw that in the paper today.
Friend: Everyone was behind it at one point, and then the Vietnamese prime minister called Thongsing aside and said ‘Hey!’. Because you know where the power comes from, right?
Interviewee: Political power isn’t from China. Economically it comes from China, but politically – the system – it comes from Vietnam. Every leader is sent to Vietnam to train. Most of the leaders in Vietnam are sent here too, to manage in Laos first, and then when they go back they move up. China is powerful economically everywhere, but in Laos – politically – it’s Vietnam.
But economic power comes with political influence.
To a certain extent. China and Vietnam both want Laos to be a buffer zone between them. It’s a pawn in their game.

[After interrupting the interview for a few minutes, to discuss something in Lao, the friend left.]

We’ve read that after the [Chinese-built] stadium for Southeast Asian Games was finished, China was supposed to move 50,000 people into Laos – but that it never happened…
It’ll still happen, they’re just deciding where.

Why does China want to relocate 50,000 people to Laos?
Just think, four-five million people, that’s all Laos has. If China can move enough people here, it’ll get the country for free. Most of the people doing business here are military; it’s part of their strategy.

Believe me on this.

What projects are they involved in?
They’re just ordinary people, selling things. The first thing you should ask is how do they get all their money? They transport all these products overland, into a country where they don’t even know the language. Who’s funding them?

But the Chinese are selling their products everywhere – in Africa especially…
You have to find out what they were doing before they came out. If you were a farmer, where did you get the capital?

The conversation trailed off after this. I was never able to corroborate the man’s assertion that the Chinese in Laos were ex-military, but I was struck by the phrase “ghost invasion”. It was the same expression Chinese people had used when European traders arrived at their ports in the eighteenth century, and the expression they continued to use in the time of foreign concessions and extraterritoriality.

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3 Responses to “Off the Record in Vientiane”

  1. Heather says:

    Really interesting. I have often wondered how the apparently humble Chinese traders setting up shop all over Southern Africa have been able to afford the set-up costs. They carry large amounts of stock at prices that are normally only possible with the sort of discounts available on massive orders. It does seem as if they are getting some form of support.

  2. Jalal says:

    I also find it interesting that there seems to be a dialogue questioning the value to Laos of jumping on the international bandwagon, with the encouragement of the IMF, to participate in an international market economy. Iain do you think this is a discussion that is taking place in other poor SE Asian countries? Is there an alternative being discussed?

    • Iain Manley says:

      Jalal, I'm not sure how well the man I spoke to reflects the wider concerns of people in Laos. The alternative presented here seems to be staying poor and not falling into the trap of materialism, but its wistfully put, and in my limited experience the young, urban people of Laos expect many more creature comforts than their parents.

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