Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Constructing the Neighbourly "Other": Trade Relations and Mutual Perceptions across the Vietnam-China Border

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Constructing the Neighbourly "Other": Trade Relations and Mutual Perceptions across the Vietnam-China Border

Article excerpt

"Without the border we couldn't make a living; there would be no tourists, and no special things to buy. Our houses on either side would be equipped with the same items. So to whom would we sell?" (1) For "Mr Manh" and many of his fellow traders at Lao Cai's central market, the border between Vietnam and China is a vital economic resource upon which they draw to sustain their livelihoods. In common with cross-border traders in many parts of the world, they take advantage of arbitrage opportunities by exploiting "differences in prices and exchange rates over time and space via circulation activities" (Williams and Balaz 2002, p. 323). More often than not, their economic transactions fall into the realm of the "subversive economy" in that they challenge state attempts "to regulate the movement of people and flow of commodities" (Donnan and Wilson 1999, p. 88), for example by evading (or negotiating) custom duties or by smuggling goods whose importation the state prohibits (Endres 2014). Although the border regime between the two countries imposes certain constraints on cross-border trade, Mr Manh considered the existence of the border a necessary precondition for securing a living in the region. "If Southeast Asia would open its borders like Europe, we would have no way of earning our food [lam an]", he argued. (2) For Vietnamese small-scale traders like Mr Manh, as well as for his Chinese trading partners, the border between their two countries thus constitutes a zone of ultimately uncertain, oftentimes risky, but potentially highly profitable economic opportunities. These opportunities require people to meet and interact with the neighbourly, yet in many ways unfamiliar, "Other" against and through which borderland identities and alterities are constructed and articulated (Brambilla 2009, p. 584).

Extending for approximately 1,300 kilometres (Amer 2002, p. 1), the land border between Vietnam and China connects the northern Vietnamese provinces of Bien Bien, Lai Chau, Lao Cai, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Lang Son and Quang Ninh with Yunnan province and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in southern China. Its degree of permeability varies widely from one location to another, depending, for example, on the physical and geographical characteristics of the landscape and/or the ethnic group affiliation of the population, which often transcends the national border. Whereas the northern Vietnamese highlands have long been integrated into the structures of the nation-state, many borderland residents in fact "have continued to avoid the intensity of the state's gaze" (Turner 2010, p. 287) and "negotiate the borderline in the way that they best see fit, be it overtly or covertly, to meet and trade" (Turner 2010, p. 284). The overall themes that relate to the dynamics of cross-border trade between Vietnam and China, such as transnational mobility, seasonal or permanent migration, local and international tourism, thus play out differently in different places. Likewise, the marketplaces of different borderland communities are characterized by a high degree of diversity in spatio-temporal features, ethnic composition of vendors and patrons, product specialization (local produce, China-made goods), clientele (local/translocal) and in seasonality. Whereas periodic upland markets and ethnic minority trade relations have been extensively studied (for example, Bonnin and Turner 2014; Tugault-Lafleur and Turner 2009; Turner and Michaud 2008; Turner 2010; Schoenberger and Turner 2008; Turner, Bonnin and Michaud 2015), anthropologists have not yet accorded much attention to Vietnamese and Chinese ethnic majority crossborder traders and their discursive strategies of self-representation and "othering".

A central concept in post-colonial theory, the notion of the Other is "rooted in the Freudian and post-Freudian analysis of the formation of subjectivity" (Ashcroft et al. 1998, p. 169). It has been used in Subaltern Studies to conceptualize colonial subjects as constituted by the discourse of domination. …

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