Small Trade, State Regulation, and Social Exchanges at the Vietnam-China Border

Research Group "Traders, Markets, and the State in Vietnam"

The thriving cross-border trade between China and Vietnam (revived in the early 1990s), has turned the marketplaces of formerly sleepy border towns into bustling commercial hubs, catering not only to the local shoppers, but also to Vietnamese, Chinese, and foreign tourists. On either side of the frontier, the emerging "border economic zones" became popular draws for internal migrants from poorer regions in search of work and opportunity. Cross-border trade, on the one hand, was seen by the Vietnamese state as an important opportunity for the economic development of the border region that would create new (or better) livelihood options for both the ethnic Kinh majority as well as for the ethnic minority population in the highlands. On the other hand, the competitive advantage of China's economic growth soon led to an unfavourable trade balance for Vietnam, thus calling for tighter regulations and restrictions in order to keep the flow of Chinese goods from turning into a torrent that would undermine Vietnam's national industry.

Trade across the Lao Cai-Hekou international border gate

In order to control and regulate the cross-border trade flow of Chinese goods, the Vietnamese state has issued and implemented a multitude of laws and decrees. Alongside and despite these legal stipulations, small-scale borderland economic activity and market trade are facilitated by a diverse range of social exchanges and relationships between and among wholesalers, retailers, transporters, intermediaries, market vendors, clients, market management functionaries, customs officers and other border gate officials, border patrol police, market control officers, tax inspectors, and possibly many others. The aim of this project is to investigate the everyday dynamics and moral underpinnings of these complex and varied social relations and exchanges that ease and ensure the participation and survival of small-scale Kinh (ethnic majority) traders in Vietnam's transforming market economy. Research shall be carried out in major border towns, Lao Cai (bordering China’s Yunnan province), and Mong Cai (on the border with Dongxing town in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region).

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