Week 9: China China China

As my co-fellows can confirm, multiple times a day I can be heard excitedly gasping then screaming “CHINA!” One of my favorite parts of this summer has been seeing how visible Chinese influence is. After spending 9 months tracking the extent of China’s Belt and Road on AidData’s Transparent Development Funds team, I was well aware of the size and quantity of these investments. But knowing that and seeing the multidimensional physical impact on the urban geography of Laos, are two different things.

Another thing I’ve enjoyed this summer: Meeting people who are familiar with AidData! One of my friends here is a Ph.D. candidate researching Chinese investments and SEZs in Laos. She was familiar with AidData and asked me to explain our methodology / terminology (ODA vs. OOF, etc.)! Later I saw her with one of her coworkers and she introduced me by saying, “This is Caroline, she’s the one who works at AidData!”

Anywho. At work I’ve been researching the impact of increased investment on land rights and how to ensure tenure security (see blog post 8). In my free time I’ve been visiting Chinese investment zones around the city: the new shopping center, the under-construction hospital, an SEZ, the Chinese Propaganda TV, the Chinese neighborhood, etc. (I wasn’t joking, Chinese influence is SO visible and Laos really wants foreign investment. As in at That Luang there are park benches advertising for an SEZ, all the visa arrival/departure cards have advertisements on them) Here are some very brief observations from some of these explorations:


  • My first big exploration was to the Saysettha SEZ outside of Vientiane. While very few of the projects within the SEZ have been started, the streets are all paved and include pedestrian walkways (despite the lack of pedestrians). Signage about and around the SEZ broadcasts how it will be an economic powerhouse and tourist destination, once it is completed (keyword: once). But most of the depictions and plans don’t match the reality that has barely been created, as in, the diagrams of the SEZ’s set up don’t match the roads already installed. The most interesting thing for me was the temporary worker housing- China had imported Chinese labor and set up the same temporary housing utilized in other SEZs. A large problem in Laos is China not considering Lao labor “skilled enough.” The importation of foreign labor limits the economic benefits Lao receives from the investment.


  • Patuxai Park and its Arch is the second most important monument in Vientiane and in the park is a billboard funded by Silk Road Media, which I refer to as the Chinese Propaganda TV. One evening I decided to watch the segment they constantly play a loop which features 3 stories and advertisements for ICBC, Huawei, etc. The first “story” is about the Lao-China railroad, broadcasting the extent of it and the cultural exchanges it’ll produce. The second story is about everything that will be in the Saysettha SEZ and how the SEZ will connect Laos to everywhere in the world via the Belt & Road. The third story is about the Nam Ou dams and the progress that is being made on these massive infrastructure projects.


But how much control does Laos have over these investments? Are the investments coming largely from private companies or state-owned entities? How does the “Turning Land Into Capital” initiative impact investment? And the exciting thing is, between the independent research for my research paper in the Freeman class and returning to work at TDF, I can probably find out all these answers.