China under President Xi Jinping is not only rising. It is reaching out. An array of Chinese initiatives, vigorously pursued, are carrying the country’s economic and political presence throughout Southeast Asia and to the broader world.
Beijing’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (bri) has begun building and financing physical infrastructure westward by land and sea from China, across Southeast, South, and Central Asia, all the way to Europe. In 2017 negotiations were underway to upgrade China’s 2002 Free Trade Agreement (ftA) with the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (AseAn).1By 2017 China could count 19 ftAs underway between itself and other countries or regions — 14 “signed and implemented” plus five “under con-struction.”2 China has greatly enlarged its regional financial footprint as well, by innovating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (Aiib), partly meant to finance the bri, and a New Development Bank jointly with Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa. Headquartered respectively in Beijing and Shanghai, they began operations in 2015.
By thus leveraging its domestic economic “rise” into a full-spectrum “going out” into the larger world, China is exporting its approach to development into the political economies of poor recipient countries on a major scale. The approach is best summarized as “high modernist” in character. “High modernism,” in the words of the Southeast Asianist James Scott, is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with indus-trialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its core was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature.3
Scott has chronicled the failures of development plans based on high-modernist presumptions and ambitions — state-driven, top-down, technocratic, and interested neither in learning from local knowledge nor in applying local practice. Yet it is just this approach that China has adopted in Laos, this chapter’s country of concern.
Over nearly three decades, from 1989 through 2015, Laos registered an annual average 6.96 percent rate of economic growth — among the highest of any country in the world.4 To the extent that China’s economic involve-ments in Laos contributed to that record, they were successful in aggregate terms. That said, the evidence gathered over nearly a year of fieldwork in Laos plus additional research5 yields a far more cautionary conclusion: that China’s high-modernist way of doing development has disproportionally favored the country’s elite to the disadvantage of its poor people, thereby furthering their marginalization.