My research project aims to develop my PhD dissertation into a book publication. Tentatively entitled Roses and Rifles: Experiments of Governing on the China-Laos Frontier, the book explores the use of the border in governing under regional integration in mainland Southeast Asia in the 1990s-2000s. Taking as its focus the China-Laos frontier, the book poses the following questions:

  1. How has the re-opening of borders affected governing and sovereignty in the Mekong Region, re-configured the interaction between centers and peripheries, and more broadly, re-shaped the relation between states and society in the age of globalization?
  2. How are we to conceptualize the contemporary socio-economic and cultural transformations of the China-Laos frontier in relation to globalization and regional integration in mainland Southeast Asia?
  3. How do border actors (traders, farmers, entrepreneurs, brokers, state officials, and a group of educated youth) manipulate, contest, or enforce the national border, through their socio-economic and cultural practices?

The book attempts to provide answers through a multidisciplinary approach that combines the empirical power of ethnography with history, and anthropological, political, cultural and social theory.

By focusing on the notion of ‘frontier’, my work breaks with views of border regions as sites of anomie and state avoidance. It presents the frontier not simply as a as a field of confrontation between state and society but instead, as a “middle ground” (White 1991): a zone of multiple sovereignties, and a socio-economic and cultural space where the practices of peripheral subjects intersect with central powers, producing heterogeneous scenarios of manoeuvring, negotiation, collaboration, and resistance.

By embracing a view of power as simultaneously totalizing and individualizing, the research also stresses the ongoing significance of the nation-state as a regulatory agent of human, capital and goods mobility across borders. It questions the dissolution of borders suggested by some globalization theories and highlights the current paradox of the simultaneous reinforcement of state authority and economic regional integration in mainland Southeast Asia.

The book suggests that the practices enacted by border dwellers are not to be traced back to a waning of state powers on the periphery due to the inroads of globalization. Rather, they are the product of an on-going governing pattern of “experimentation under hierarchy” (Heilmann 2008). This is a mechanism whereby the margins are allowed to experiment autonomously under the scrutiny of the Lao and Chinese centres. Local experimentation flourishes like ‘roses’. When these bloom into a centrifugal vortex, they are contained by an authoritarian backlash which, in extreme cases, resorts to ‘rifles’.