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Rubber’s Reach: Chinese land investments and state territorialization in the Sino-Lao borderlands


Rubber’s Reach is a grounded, transnational study of China’s global economic integration through a focus on rubber expansion in the Sino-Lao borderlands. I examine how, as rubber reaches from China over the Lao border, the political, economic, and social processes engaged in the production of this crop translate consistently in some ways and are transformed in others. I argue that rubber has extended the territorial reach of both the Chinese and Lao states, serving as a tool for state territorialization in each country, but in different ways. This has fueled seemingly similar and totalizing constructions of rubber as a strategic resource and a means of advancing rural development and the integration of the remote borderlands of both countries. These narratives elide divergent ecological, political, and economic conditions between Yunnan and northern Laos, which have shaped rubber’s territorializing effects in each country.

I demonstrate the ways in which actors and agencies at various levels of the Chinese state have understood rubber as a strategic national resource, and as critical to furthering development and political stability in China’s Yunnan Province. I then show that this characterization followed rubber across the border where both the Lao state and Chinese rubber investors draw on the crop’s history in China to envision and construct its future in Laos. Other aspects of Chinese rubber production, such as state protections for domestic rubber producers and an emphasis on large-scale plantation modes of production, have not directly translated into the Lao context. Instead, Chinese investors encountered fragmented, decentralized land governance practices in Laos and contrasting ways that rubber is important to state territorial projects. These decentralized land governance practices have created more obstacles than opportunities for Chinese investors, while also creating openings for local state authorities and Lao rubber farmers to take advantage of Chinese capital in unexpected ways.

By tracing the changing relationship between Chinese capital and the state, examined through the grounded experiences of rubber investors as they move beyond the country’s borders, I demonstrate the micro-processes by which China’s global integration is taking place. I find that the multiple ways that the Chinese state continues to treat rubber as strategic and support its production and expansion as such have influenced Chinese companies’ decision-making in Laos. At the same time, the ability of companies to derive benefits from that support once they move beyond the border becomes limited in important ways, and once they are forced to also navigate a new set of interests. I conclude that the Chinese state-capital relationship shifts as Chinese investors enter a new country context and must contend with the multiple, sometimes conflicting demands of regional and national Lao state land authorities and with layered local histories of land management and agricultural production.

As the world is reshaped by China’s rise, I find particular value in a focus on the grounded engagements, the micro-processes, and intimate interactions between Chinese investors and the people and places they encounter beyond the border. My findings, explored through a political ecology lens in the seven chapters of this dissertation, enhance critical social science understandings of how foreign investors encounter land politics and reshape development practices, specifically in post-socialist countries of Asia. They also speak to the ways the material practices, political discourses, and economic logics of iconic resources like rubber are both inseparable from each other and become transplanted and embedded into new spaces and societies.

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