People & Power

Laos: On the Borders of the Empire

We investigate China’s rising influence in Laos and the potentially disastrous consequences for the local population.

Mandarin is the language of choice among its residents and on its street signs and advertising hoardings; clocks are set to Beijing time in homes, stores and even municipal buildings; and the Yuan is by far and away the most common currency.

Any overseas visitors dropping in to Ton Pheung could be excused for thinking themselves in China – albeit a slightly raunchy theme-park version with an unusual preponderance of massage parlours and nightclubs along its streets.

But Ton Pheung is actually in the far northwest of communist Laos – on the border with China, but still in name, if increasingly not in reality, a sovereign district of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Yet few here see it that way.

Over the past decade, Chinese investors have moved in, building shopping malls and casinos and glitzy hotel complexes and importing a way of life that is a long way from the traditional norms in Laos – an impoverished landlocked nation where 80 percent of the population still scrape a living from small-scale farming.

And the enclave is far from being an isolated case. One by one, communities across northern Laos are gradually taking on the appearance of de facto Chinese dependencies.

Tourism, transport, property, energy, high-intensity agriculture … with the blessing of the Laos government, China has set out to develop, some say exploit, the potential of its hard-pressed neighbour.

Given the country’s desperate need for foreign investment, the Laotian authorities clearly believe that the economic advantages of the relationship outweigh any drawbacks of surrendering sovereignty.

But critics say the consequences for the indigenous population of this unbridled, spill-over capitalism are truly dire – ranging from gambling, prostitution and illicit trade in the newly urbanised border communities to widespread land expropriation, deforestation and pollution in the rural hinterland.

Furthermore, the profits and benefits of all this activity flow back to the Chinese rather than to the locals.

So is it possible that this former French colony, South Asia’s poorest state, has given away too much? And will it ever be able to reconcile the needs of its people with the demands of its voracious benefactor? Filmmakers Gwenlaouen Le Gouil, Brice Lambert and Cedric Esteve went to Laos to find out.