China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
The huge spatial and financial extent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) makes it difficult to study objectively. Measuring environmental impacts at such scales involves considering myriad tradeoffs, and the diverse actors involved in facilitating BRI investments often see terms like ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ through competing priorities and lenses so diverse their utility is diminished. This analysis answers calls for grounding studies of global China through more ethnographic, cross-border methods which connect Beijing’s vague proclamations to concrete, observable activities on the ground. It looks at large-scale Chinese rubber investments which flooded into Laos in the mid-2000s under the “Going Out Policy” – the precursor to the BRI. Rubber was long promoted in China through both reforestation and borderland development interventions, and is therefore seen as having significant environmental and development benefits. I trace how various actors (Chinese and Lao state authorities, Chinese investors, and Lao communities) use China’s rubber experience to craft discourses justifying its promotion in Laos, and compare expectations to actual investment practices. I argue that the use of China’s experience to model approaches in Laos ultimately shaped the geography of rubber in northern Laos, the balance of market power between Chinese plantation companies and Lao rubber farming communities, and therefore rubber’s environmental implications more broadly. The case of Chinese rubber investments in Laos shows that the environmental impacts of the BRI will be determined less by central level policy and more by pre-established, grounded networks of actors directly involved in promoting and enabling Chinese land investments.