Sino-Reverie in Laos – Huiying Ng

Sino-Reverie in Laos: Chasing the Chinese Dream of Modernity

Huiying Ng

Walking through the different highland villages in Laos and Thailand, one might be lured into imagining that those in Laos are still ‘traditional’, whereas those in Thailand have become ‘mod- ern’. Yet the surface superficialities that give rise to this impression belie deeper resemblances between the two villages.

Ban Nam O, Nam Eng, Phoulan and Nong Kham are neighbouring Khmu villages situated within Luang Namtha province in Laos. Pigs and chickens run freely–on the dirt floors beneath wood- and-bamboo houses, and along the AH3 highway that winds, ribbon-like, up to China. For the villagers here, this highway seems to be their sole point of contact with modernity. Something quite different meets the eye in Thailand’s Hui Yuak village, home to a Hmong community in

Nan province. Here, the village spreads out around a steep, paved road, about which proprietary fences loom to demarcate public land from private. One holds almost no signs of modernity and development; in the other, symbols of modern living mingle with faded reminders of a more traditional past.

Yet, villagers in Laos are increasingly building cement houses, pursuing land contracts and selling produce at the market in Luang Nam Tha, the capital town of Luang Namtha province in north- ern Laos. These pursuits come despite considerable hardship and are variously motivated. Asked why she had a cement house built despite the financial and practical costs of caring for three grandchildren, a Khmu woman remarked, “I built it because it is beautiful.” The village headman, or naiban, of Nam Eng, Thongkham, said he hoped for villagers to build more cement houses as they were more “durable” and had “greater privacy”. These examples represent a growing desire for modernity and development amongst the Khmu in Laos, which they access partly through imitating the commodity culture manifesting itself just across the border in China.

In her study of the rubber industry developing along the China-Laos border, Diana (2007) calls this desire for modernity the “sino-reverie”, a desire supported by wealth from burgeoning latex prices and “embodied in house renovations, motorbikes and other commodity goods” (1). She argues that the “reflexive recognition” of their own disadvantaged condition and their simultane- ous struggle to escape from poverty reflect both the “desire to be (modern)” (Oakes, 1998: 7, cited in Diana, 2007, my emphasis), and at this very same instant, the state of “being ‘modern’” (17, my emphasis). It is in the act of striving for modernity that constitutes the modern subject, rather than the product of that quest. To Diana, the Khmu’s ways of dreaming, and their invention of “alternative opportunities to adjust to the abrupt changes occurring in their lives”, thus define them as modern subjects (17).

Such an understanding is uncommon amongst environmental and social critiques of this rub- ber-induced modernity [1]. Diana suggests that these critics “underestimate the desire of the farmers to become modern (and) precludes them from the possibility to emancipate themselves in the ineluctable process of change.” (18) In other words, the desire to become modern is a gen- erative, motivating force arising in autonomous agents. It should not be confused or misread as state-directed interventions of enforced modernity.

This polarity between enforcing change and supporting the individual desire for change is a daily source of tension in the developmental field. I contend, however, that Diana overlooks an alter- native role of the state: its responsibility to care for subjects even as they pursue, as autonomous agents, their own route to modernity. By looking at the government, market and land factors underlying the agricultural practices of the Khmu and Hmong, I present an alternative view to Diana’s argument, while showing that observable differences in the Khmu and Hmong villages aside, these villages are entwined in the same developmental narrative.

Land Use in the Highlands

Although situated within the same area of the highlands, the land use patterns of the Khmu and Hmong differ greatly under the governance of local policy. Lao governmental policy allows much greater freedom for Khmu to continue slash-and-burn activities in the highlands, despite official policy to stop them. Across the border, in Thailand, this policy was and is strictly enforced by the Royal Forest Department (RFD; Kaosa-ard & Rutherford, 2002). The different levels of enforce- ment reveal different political aims of banning slash-and-burn; in Laos, it is used as a means of claiming more land as national resource for economic use; in Thailand, where highland swidden- ing was forbidden on the grounds [2] that swiddening is destructive to the forest ecosystem, it is driven by environmental policy.

However, land use in Laos will soon change. By 2015, the government wants swidden cultivation on the highlands to cease, to be replaced by cash cropping instead. The Khmu are aware of this and are already adopting new practices that align with this policy. These practices—that mostly take the guise of investment in rubber either through contracts with rubber companies or indi- vidual investment—are supported and encouraged by the government.

Rubber Fever in Laos

Villagers in the Luang Namtha region in Laos are aware of contracts made between Chinese rubber companies and villagers to have rubber grown on their fields. These companies work by first approaching the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources, before being directed by the ministries to suitable villages. In a village meeting, the headman then announces the proposed project to his village, with company representatives on hand to provide information and share the benefits and techniques of rubber cultivation. Through this process, rubber takes on “ethically correct and institutionalized qualities” (Diana, 2007)—it becomes institutionalized as a good, lucrative and legal crop. Indeed, one interviewee at Nam O village said, “The government says to plant something that can be sold on the highlands, because if you don’t earn enough income in the next 10 years you risk becoming a poor group and might need to (travel out) to do wage labour instead.”

Chinese companies are becoming so bold and expansive in their reach and labour needs that
a proliferation of new rubber contracts are being drawn up along the Chinese-Laos highway.
In Luang Namtha, for example, one Chinese company has recently set up a rubber-processing factory and is investing in land in Nam O, Nam Eng and Nong Kham. It is also starting to em- ploy labourers from the Khmu villages for both its farms and factories [3]. Similarly, an interview with two women, Sens Tom and Light, 21 and 50 years old respectively, revealed that “Chinese companies” that plant rubber trees will begin hiring labour on the factories this year. This is all unofficial—with land contracts between the rubber companies and villagers still unformalised, the company has already contacted villages through the village headman, to confirm the names of participating households.

The future seems bright for Luang Namtha and its surrounding area. The one Chinese rubber company in Nam O, Nam Eng and Nom Kham has seemingly laid roots—in some cases, liter- ally—and captured land in as many of the villages lining the AH3 highway as possible. That the Khmu are seen, by employers and by themselves, to be “cheap, hardworking and very diligent, no drinking and messing around, (and who) work on Sundays” even if it exceeds their legal maxi- mum working hours, suggests that the Khmu are well on their way to being established as a high- ly desirable labour force for low-skilled, menial labour, and for the farmland they have no formal ownership over [4]. This has implications for the type of jobs increasingly available to Khmu in the region, as more companies flock to the area in search of “good labourers”.

The Good Labourer: An Emerging Discourse of Economic Development

The push towards economic development is having its effects on villages all along the road.
Most individuals accept the change, although degrees of acceptance vary. Khmu are increasingly taking on ideas about what a good labourer should do to gain economic wealth. Some speak of the change with a tone of resignation, while others are more positive about it. Keo Chan [5], for example, says enthusiastically of development and rubber: “The province wants people to stop farming rice in the highlands by 2015 … to change to corn and rubber instead, and people don’t mind, they’re happy to grow rubber.” Asked why people cannot slash and burn anymore, he re- sponded, “The government wants people to get rid of poverty and have a better quality of life.” In other words, as good labourers, villagers have the responsibility to lift themselves out of poverty by turning to cash crops. Thongkham [6], on the other hand, sees integration into the economy less as a duty and more as the sole way to overcome poverty, health problems and limitations of land, saying, “Life is harder now because it’s all about money – now, we need money to access all the goods available – medicines, hospital bills, school and other expenses, whereas we only needed the forest to survive in the past”. Yet, he goes on to say, “we cannot rely on nature any- more, in the next few years the government will stop people from accessing natural resources.” Thongkham’s nostalgia and accompanying recognition of the present’s constraints point to the networks he is embedded within, and which motivate individual action: while economic develop- ment is increasingly internalized by villagers—gladly or reluctantly—as a matter-of-course, it is, in part at least, underpinned by government policy.

Conversely, this linear discourse of economic development is supported by an emerging semi- otic vocabulary, shared by officials and villagers alike, which shuns the antithetical image of the good labourer—the “bad labourer”, who is represented as lazy and undeserving of social sup- port. Asked about people who sell their land and consequently cannot rear livestock, Yin Pan, an official working at the Ministry of Agriculture, said, “It’s their problem, they don’t receive any help”. This view jars sharply with the usual motivations villagers have for selling off land, such as a need for quick cash to assist with a death or illness in the family [7]. Similarly, Keo Chan attributed individuals’ decisions to sell off land to their being “too lazy to work”. Perhaps most crucially, this good-bad distinction is also applied to individuals’ public self-narratives. Although the practice of intensive year-round agriculture necessitates increased usage of chemical fertil- izers, consequent soil erosion and declining soil fertility, and thus greater future financial need, an interviewee in Phoulan described Chinese companies’ use of this practice on contracted land as “hardworking”. In contrast, his decision not to do the same because he had no need for it was described as “lazy ”.

However, pockets of resistance to this discourse exist still amongst villagers. Sens Tom and Light, for example, do not want to sell land to rubber companies because “we don’t have much land and (this way) whatever benefit we earn is our own, will not be shared with others”—this despite the fact that “a lot of villagers sell land to Chinese companies because they can earn a lot of money”. While there is no obligation for them to cooperate with the Chinese company, their resistance speaks on two levels: 1) a recognition of the self as an autonomous economic agent, 2) an indif- ference to monetary pursuit, despite the benefits others accord it.

This mode of thinking offers an important balance to the discourse generated in part by govern- ment policy and by economic actors. First, it suggests that a single-minded pursuit of economic development may not necessarily be ideal. Sens Tom and Light’s ambivalence toward rubber [8] exemplifies both a nuanced acceptance of the unbudging reality of the market economy—a mar- ket economy that needs to be adapted to, and integrated into—as well as more traditional subsis- tence perspectives of necessity. Their perspective is particularly important in finding a balance between the drive for greater wealth and a sustainable trajectory of growth. Second, the pursuit of economic development without an accompanying change in social support systems would fur- ther marginalize already vulnerable people. The desire for economic development, at the expense of either of these points, would come at future social, environmental and economic costs. In the next section, we will examine a similar situation in Hui Yuak village in Northern Thailand, which faces the same quandary Luang Namtha is currently facing.

Chemical Fever in Nan

The drive for wealth and cash cropping in Laos is reminiscent of that of Hmong villagers in
Hui Yuak village in Nan province, Thailand, where rapid capitalist expansion occurred without adequate safeguards for sustainable development. While the Thai government is now attempting to rein in the unsustainable use of chemicals, it is failing due to a combination of misrepresenta- tion of the cause of chemical use, as well as ineffective policy implementation. While people are willing to protect the fertility of their lands, their knowledge about sustainability has caved to the pressure from two game-changing factors: growing market competition in light of government efforts to promote a quick transition to cash crops, and increasing land scarcity.

Chemicals, yes, but not from a lack of concern

Official rhetoric at the level of ministries continues to hold that minorities are a destructive force to Thailand’s natural resources. In the view of the director of the Social Development Unit in Nan province, whose highlands are home to a Hmong community, the top three priorities that need to be addressed in the region are 1) forest clearing for swidden agriculture, 2) drug problems, 3) the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

These priorities shape an image of the Hmong as the sole stakeholders in the picture, when the situation is more complex. While interviewees say they would like to find an alternative to chem- ical fertilisers and pesticides in order to reduce the damage to their soil fertility, as well as save
on the cost of external inputs, they have no solution to their problem. Prasert, a 30-year-old corn and rice farmer, has been attending sessions on making organic fertilizer and is interested in find- ing alternatives to chemical fertilisers for his commercial corn production, but currently has no solutions for it [9]. To probe this issue further, we need a fuller history of the current situation.

History of usage of chemicals

The intensive use of chemicals started about 4-5 years ago, and may be traced to three main rea- sons: first, insufficient land; second, inter- and intra-village competition; third, governmental de- crees that enforced no-burning zones. Prasert began using fertilizers four to five years ago, when the six to seven plots of land the family managed was split between his siblings and him. Left with three plots of land for his nuclear family, the traditional practice of rotating plots to regen- erate soil fertility was no longer possible. He thus turned to chemical fertilizers, which are easily available at wholesalers at Nan and through middlemen in the village, as a substitute for rotation- al swiddening. “Corn fever” was at a high at that time; a point corroborated by another villager, who had started growing corn for commercial purposes and with the intensive aid of chemicals. Villagers’ decisions to switch to corn production were driven by two existing governmental policies, which were key in promoting the widespread adoption of corn farming in the region: a microfinancing scheme during Thaksin Shinawatra’s time as Prime Minister of Thailand, which allowed members to borrow funds for any investments and which resulted in people “growing more things”, and a minimum price guarantee for corn during Abhisit Vejjajiva’s rule from 2008 to 2011, which fixed the price for corn at 7 baht a kilogram. It may be that a combination of gov- ernment-generated competition, the cessation of rotation due to decreased land availability per household, the easy availability of chemical input and information on the use of chemicals [10] led to the increased use of chemicals amongst villagers in Hui Yuak.

Factors maintaining continual chemical use

Although schemes are in place in address the problem of chemical use [11], villagers currently have no real incentive to use organic fertilisers that take time to produce, cannot be bought from shops, and which require a degree of prior knowledge to be effectively produced and used. More pertinently, the use of chemicals on cash crops is subject to perceptions of market competition: chemicals are not used just because they villagers do not only use chemicals because they aid faster and better growth of cash crops, but also simply because everyone is using it. This social comparison cannot be underestimated: while villagers cite technical reasons such as the increas- ing population and land scarcity—which reduces the number of rotations, and thus fertility of their swidden plots—as reasons for chemical use, land-rich families owning ten plots of land, too, use chemical fertilizers. Even now, no government policy governs the use of chemicals on farm- lands in Hui Yuak. Chemical use has evolved in a vacuum of adequate information and appropri- ate safeguards to ensure a more sustainable use of chemical input.

Developmental trajectories in Laos and Thailand

Despite obvious differences, the strategies of negotiation with state politics and a changing eco- nomic landscape of the Hmong and the Khmu might meet at certain “contact zones” (Pratt 1992; Clifford 1997, cited in Jonsson, 2010: 208) that allow them to be compared with each other. I suggest three that justify further analysis. First, both groups are currently in the process of being integrated into the state economy—the Thai Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare is in charge of dealing with the highland minorities in order to focus on them as a disadvantaged group (Bua- daeng, 2006) and the Laos government is officially encouraging rubber planting, “in agreement with the Chinese provincial and local administrations of Yunnan, planning the development of the crop on a large scale.” (Diana, 2007: 1) Second, just as chemical fertilizers became readily available to minorities during the corn fever, the Chinese companies possess the means to dis- tribute chemical fertilisers to contract farmers, already doing so with other cash crops such as watermelons. The logic of rubber contracts also incentivises landholders to maintain maximum soil fertility, and thus maximal latex production during the tapping years. While interviewees now are not using chemical fertilizers on their rubber plantations, decreasing soil fertility and increasing competition to produce higher quality and quantity of latex may quite easily push vil- lagers towards using chemicals. Third, the same drive for wealth, and thus the same response to market competition, characterizes the Khmu, with their rubber contracts, and the Hmong, with their commercial corn production.

The environmental and social repercussions of this phenomenon are immense. The Khmu are driven by a discourse of economic development that is not tempered with more cautious concepts of sustainability. As entire communities begin to contract land to rubber companies, in return
for wages working on their own land, changes in agricultural practices in one area would inspire a widespread adoption across the region—as we have already seen in this preliminary analysis of ethnographic material. In the case of chemical input, this would entail a greater financial strain on household expenditure, not least because the rubber contracts do not specify that rubber com- panies have to assist farmers with the costs of external input. Furthermore, there are few social support mechanisms to assist people with financial difficulties. Where attention is paid to them, the discursive imagery that is used bears negative connotations of the bad laborer who deserves no help as a result of his or her “laziness”.

This suggests that the future economic reality that Khmu farmers will face is a highly uncompro- mising one allowing for few mistakes and fewer chances. In fact, this is worsened by the greater reliance that Khmu have on intra-village information flows [12], in contrast to the Hmong’s extensive family networks outside the village that offer alternative sources of information with which to compare information from the headman or middlemen.


I have tried to show how the sino-reverie, which begins in the economic centres of Shanghai, Guang Zhou and Kunming—China’s expanding cities—is spreading beyond the borders of China and into once-remote villages in Southeast Asia. This spread occurs on a variety of scales that are geographic, transnational and semiotic. The highland villager’s sino-reverie resembles the Amer- ican dream of prosperity and the Protestant ethic of hard work in more ways than one, though it begins in, and is refracted back towards, a new and emerging geographic destination: China.

In borrowing Gaonkar’s (2001) contrast of the “way through which farmers ‘make’ themselves modern subjects” and the way they are “made” modern by “the State’s standardizing forces” (Diana, 2007: 16), Diana sees the desire to become modern as a positive force, originating as it does from the subjects of modernisation themselves. Farmers who make themselves modern are autonomous agents with the power to “confront and negotiate … socio-economic changes” (16). However, her argument too easily frees the state of its duty, as a provider and guarantor, to its subjects, and underestimates the discursive influence of state policy over its subjects. Although the ‘good Khmu labourers’ are “making themselves modern” in their pursuit of modernity, this discourse of modernity and development is created by the inter-locking narratives that the Khmu perceive around them: in state policies, contract and job opportunities with “Chinese companies”, and the increasing pursuit of commodity culture in the lifestyles of villagers. More problematical-

ly, this discourse builds a vision of development that is both exclusive and exclusionary. It cre- ates an antithesis of that which is not trying to “make itself modern”, either through laziness,
poor economic decision-making skills, alternative discourses or plain bad luck, all of which are embodied in the image of the “bad labourer”. By alienating the discourse of sustainability from that of economic progress, and typecasting marginalised individuals as bearers of irredeemable qualities, the developmental rhetoric of Laos and Thailand—whether taken up by individuals themselves or not—naturalises an all-consuming drive for expansion while creating a vulnerabili- ty invisible to the subjects pursuing modernity for—so they think—themselves.

Huiying Ng graduated from the NUS Department of Psychology with a minor in English Literature. She became fascinated with ethnographic research through her time at the University Scholars Programme; once down that rabbit hole, it was hard to stop. Her interest in urban alienation, spaces of psychological well-being and the role of social collectives in prefiguring the future led to her thesis on a mixed methods study of cancer caregivers. She is currently working in several capacities in research, and in community-based programme development and evaluation. In her spare time, she co-runs Foodscape Collective, a project focusing on urban agriculture and food, and The Photo Thing, a participatory photography project.


  1. Critics have cited the destructive impacts of rubber on watersheds and soil erosion, as well as in the way it strips farmers of the “capacity… to manage ecologically diverse landscapes and to participate in market networks” (Xu, Ma, Tashi, Fu, Lu, and Melick 2005:13, cited in Diana, 2005).
  2. “The notion of removing forest-dwellers who carry out ‘shifting cultivation’ from forest areas was condoned by international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the 50s, long before commercial logging became a problem connected with serious deforestation, and had a strong influence on Thai conservationist thinking.” (Boys, 2007)
  3. The headman at Nam Eng stated that Chinese factories that approach him to broadcast messages to the people in his village tend to look for labour for both their farms and factories, in planting rice, corn and rubber.
  4. This then allows individuals and companies to rent the land for commercial purposes.
  5. Keo Chan once sat on the village welfare committee (naihom).
  6. Tom Kam: the current naiban of Nam Eng
  7. While a community fund exists for villagers who are in financial need, an interviewee who had engaged in a rubber contract with an buyer from Luang Namtha said he had not wanted to use money from the fund as it offers loans with interest, and would thus be a source of greater financial burden in future.
  8. Sens Tom has worked as waged labour on Chinese watermelon farms, and is not averse to working in Chinese factories.
  9. He has tried using strong smelling leaves to make organic pesticides for the vegetables that he grows on his land, and intends to continue doing so. However, he has not done this for commercial corn production, which currently requires increasingly expensive chemical input. Due partly to the cost and to the environmental impact on the land, he thinks that he should find alternative ways to maintain plant yields. However, he also mentions that it is not easy for people to grow crops in a big farm without using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which is one reason why he does not grow organic produce despite its higher sale prices.
  10. Most information on chemicals tends to come from either middlemen who sell the fertilisers and pesticides to villagers or from relatives in other villages. As Trebuil (1995: 78) says, “‘Advice’ to farmers is monopolized by myriad technical salesmen who travel through the countryside with their samples and supply networks of Sino-Thai village middlemen, who themselves often fill the multiple roles of technical, commercial, financial, administrative and social supervisors of agricultural production.” Within Hui Yuak village, there are several middlemen who acted as channels between the market and the village, buying harvested corn and selling fertilisers to villagers. It is possible that these middlemen also provide advice on chemical usage to villagers. Interviewees also mentioned that they learnt techniques of chemical use from relatives living elsewhere.
  11. These projects, both under the patronage of the Royal Family as well as by the government, range from demonstrations of organic fertilizer production to introducing new methods of upland rice production.
  12. Most of the Khmu interviewees received their information about rubber contracts and labour opportunities from the village naiban, while Hmong invariably spoke of hearing about corn or chemical use from their relatives “living outside the village”.

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