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NON-FICTION: LIVING ON THE BORDER

March 25, 2018

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A woman sells food and water out of her car to truck drivers plying the China-Mongolia border | Reuters
A woman sells food and water out of her car to truck drivers plying the China-Mongolia border | Reuters

Having driven regularly since 2012 from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, to Syafru Bensi, a Nepalese town bordering China, the changes I’ve seen take place along the way are striking. Initially, traffic was limited to a few trucks and mostly private cars along a bumpy road that was often blocked by landslides. The large trailers coming from Delhi or Calcutta all the way into the valleys beyond Kathmandu were much more numerous along the route. A hydropower plant deep in the gorge, allegedly solely built by Chinese engineers, was slowly progressing from year to year. When an earthquake hit, construction on the plant came to an abrupt halt, but lorry traffic from China suddenly flourished. Because another major route had been blocked, this rugged road suddenly had to bear the weight of heavy traffic, and we wound up sharing our campsite with truck drivers waiting for the border to open so they could pick up apples grown on the Tibetan Plateau and take them to market in Kathmandu.

Another change was how quickly shops in the border town mushroomed, offering t-shirts with misspelled Italian brand names and ‘Adibas’ shoes with four stripes. While international NGOs in Kathmandu were busy advocating for more efficient ovens in the mud-built houses off the main road for reasons of health and also sustainable wood consumption, the solution very suddenly came from the other side: locals bought the ovens at cheap rates on the Tibetan side of the border and had them delivered to their doorstep.

Looking through the larger, geopolitical lens, these changes are a result of the Chinese One Belt One Road initiative, the country’s strategy to enhance its connectivity within Eurasia. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Pakistan is one building block, but many more exist in all directions. China has been actively trying to manage its vast borderlands for many decades and, while attention often lies on the announcement of grandiose plans of investment, few stories exist of those actually living at these borders. As Tina Harris, one of the contributors to The Art of Neighbouring: Making Relations Across China’s Borders, edited by Martin Saxer and Juan Zhang, puts in the chapter ‘The Mobile and the Material in the Himalayan Borderlands’, “... the border is seen as governed by top-down laws and policies that are intangible to the inhabitants who live in these lands. Yet it makes more sense to think of how people deal with their borders instead of the other way around.”

Seeing China’s vast borderlands through the eyes of those who must deal with the challenge of living with neighbours on friendly terms

This book provides such an attempt. Although not comprehensive in the geographic scope and — especially disappointing for readers with a keen interest in the Chinese borderlands along the Karakoram Highway — lacking accounts from Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the book combines, in an easily accessible manner, a number of different approaches to describing what (commercial) life along the frictious borderlands can look like.

An overarching theme is the challenge of living with a neighbour on friendly terms, but with suspicion always lurking underneath. “Amidst the most amicable efforts to be good neighbours, suspicion lures, waiting to be confirmed,” writes Zhang in ‘Neighbouring Anxiety Along the China-Vietnam Border’. What if those traders, speaking another language, suddenly decide not to show up the next year and buy the produce waiting for them? What if they don’t return to pay debts? What if their provincial government suddenly decides to ban any trade over the border post, or no investments are made to reconstruct an essential road devastated by landslides?

This suspicion is, however, counteracted by the allure of the exciting ‘Other’ that possibly offers opportunities not found on this side of the border. In ‘Bright Lights Across the River: Competing Modernities at China’s Edge’, Frank Billé describes an old Russian border town — Blagoveshchensk — that has a Chinese twin on the other side of the Amur river, mimicking it in many ways, only doing so with much more ample resources. The Russians feel humiliated, but at the same time more and more cross the border for the economic opportunities on offer on the other side.

In the chapter ‘Odd Neighbours: Trans-Himalayan Tibetan Itineraries and Chinese Economic Development’, Chris Vasantkumar, with accounts from Tibetans who crossed into India but eventually returned to China, argues that casting all Tibetans who have sought this path in the first place as refugees is not very helpful. Motivations are more complex and the opportunity of an English education on the Indian side, which in turn translates to economic opportunity on the Chinese side, intertwines with religious, cultural and political drivers. This way, those familiar enough with the border and the people on the other side become agents of exchange — or, as Renaud Egreteau puts it in a description of Burmese Muslims on the Myanmar-China border — “middlemen minorities” between the two countries.

While I expected the Tibetans I work with on the Nepalese side of the border to harbour ire against China for reasons of religious and cultural conflict, they see their neighbour largely through the prism of their daily livelihoods. The opportunities to import cheap handicrafts to be sold to Western trekkers in Nepal, and the chance to acquire household goods that improve their living standards — as envisioned in long documents of development agencies in the Western world, but without the bureaucratic hurdles — trump any suspicion on grounds of religious persecution.

If they can read the tide — that is, developments in often far away provincial and national governments — and remain flexible in their business endeavours, these middlemen can become prosperous merchants in these often remote areas. Pakistan-China relations are currently often seen through the CPEC prism, economic development in Punjab and pompous meetings in Islamabad and Beijing, but it is the people from Gilgit, Gulmit and Sost, or Pakistani students doing their PhD in western China, who have been and are in touch with their Chinese counterparts all along. They are likely able to tell a story of more immediate effect of the ups and downs of this long-standing exchange. And exposed to this neighbouring in their everyday life and versed in the languages of exchange, they are likely the better experts to judge how this friendship will look like many years down the road.

The reviewer is a PhD student at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and works in research and development projects in Europe and Asia

The Art of Neighbouring — Making Relations Across
China’s Borders
Edited by Martin Saxer and Juan Zhang
Amsterdam University Press, the Netherlands
ISBN: 978-9462982581
269pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 25th, 2018