One World One Dream: the Rise of China in Laos

Report from Dr. Phill Wilcox, 2018 ASEAS(UK) Research Impact Award Recipient

Luang Prabang Station | Image Credit: © Phill Wilcox

This project expands existing scholarship on China in Laos by using the railway to understand perceptions of China by the Lao population. China impacts much of the Lao population but not always in the same way. This project investigates what the Lao-China Railway means, both in and of itself but further as a tool to understand perceptions of Chinese influence in Laos more generally. It considers how, when and why citizens engage with China and what this means for the future of Laos.

At the time of writing in September 2019, the main period of field research for this project has just been completed. The project proceeded as per the outline in the original application, except that thanks to arranging to be away from Bielefeld for the entire spring semester of 2019, I was able to undertake seven months fieldwork in Laos rather than the five proposed in the original application to ASEAS(UK).

The fieldwork took place in and around the proposed railway station in Luang Prabang. In addition to interviewing key individuals, I asked them to document the building of the railway and their reflections via their smart phones. This project extends traditional ethnography through combining conventional ethnography of participant observation and semi structured interviews, with digital ethnography conducted largely by research participants themselves.

The question of China in the developing world is a complex one, often portrayed in very binary terms that are either uniformly positive or negative, depending on the viewpoint of the speaker.

Yet on the ground in Laos, people recognise that the question of development and China’s role in that is complicated. They may criticise the rising presence of China in Laos, yet at the same time may express desires to go there, and/or buy Chinese products.

All are aware that as the high-speed Lao-China railway progresses, Laos will become far more closely linked to China both physically and metaphorically. Scheduled for completion in 2020, this research demonstrates that China is a growing presence in the lives of many Lao and that perceptions of China in Laos are complex, nuanced and often contradictory.

Dr. Phill Wilcox is a published doctoral researcher at Bielefeld University, Germany, focusing on contemporary Lao culture, politics and society both within Laos and the diaspora.