Governing minorities and development in Xishuangbanna, China: Akha and Dai rubber farmers as entrepreneurs

TitleGoverning minorities and development in Xishuangbanna, China: Akha and Dai rubber farmers as entrepreneurs
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsSturgeon JC
Secondary TitleGeoforum
PublisherElsevier Ltd
Key themesAgriculturalModernization, MarginalisedPeople, Policy-law

In Xishuangbanna, southern Yunnan, Akha and Dai farmers, regarded in China as "backward", passive recipients of state-led development, have been "getting rich" on rubber and expanding rubber cultivation into neighbouring Laos. State cash crop campaigns to raise minority farmers' incomes inadvertently turned minority farmers into dynamic entrepreneurs. This paper builds on Vinay Gidwani's use of development as a "regime of value" to raise social and economic value to analyze these unexpected results. Local state agents believe they are the agents of development, bringing modest social and economic improvements to minority farmers of obdurate backwardness. Minority farmers see themselves as improving their own incomes and "quality", a term in China for social value, in an era when they are responsible for their own development. National development discourse encourages citizens to raise population quality by becoming entrepreneurial, a message heard by minority rubber farmers as well as urban elites. Through creative, post-Fordist production models and agile deployment of land, labour, and capital, minority farmers have achieved incomes that exceed those of workers on state rubber farms, large plantations whose Fordist production models are losing out in the uneven transition from a planned economy to a more capitalist market assemblage. Akha and Dai rubber farmers, the "backward" minorities on China's periphery, have unexpectedly become the forerunners of flexible production arrangements that are prevailing in the arena opened up by China's 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization.


Copyrighted journal article


Laos, Regional

Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

This article highlights the diversity of experiences within and between ethnic minority groups targeted by government led development programs. Ethnic minorities often challenge their position as ‘backward’ and ‘traditional’ ascribed to them by state development discourse. The case studies demonstrate how ethnic minority groups mobilise extensive social and familial networks to engage successfully with global markets in ways that are highly adaptive and representative of post-fordist models of flexible production. These examples provide evidence that essentialist framings of ethnic minorities as ‘passive victims’, culturally confined within ‘traditional’ understandings of the world, are misrepresentations of communities who have great capacity for adaptation. The paper is part of a broader critique that problematizes assertions about a fundamental rural-urban divide.

Key Themes: 
  • Agricultural modernisation: key ideas and debates relevant to land tenure security - The agricultural practices of ethnic minority groups are often presented as the antipathy of modernity and efficiency in mainstream development discourse. However, a closer examination of the choices made by ethnic communities challenges assumptions that posit ethnic minorities as passive recipients of development projects, unwilling or incapable of adapting their livelihood systems to the demands of the modern world.
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - Whilst it is true that ethnic minorities are amongst the most marginalised groups in debates and struggles about control over land, their marginalisation is often the product of forces that are outside of their control. Yet, ethnic minorities are often portrayed as backward and inherently lacking in ways that mask the dimensions of power and control imposed upon them by state actors. Portraying existing hierarchies of power and class domination as ‘natural’ can lead to misperceptions of rural ethnic minorities as somehow to blame for their condition of poverty because they are stubbornly backward and incapable of change, rather than accounting for their state of marginality as the product of power and structural inequalities.
  • Land policy and land law - Policy contains embedded assumptions about social hierarchies, and can reveal the constructedness of narratives that position rural farmers and ethnic minorities as inadequate and incompetent in a way that acts to justify their social subordination. Such assumptions about incapacity are frequently used by the state to justify control over its citizens, claiming they are unable to take care of themselves. Rural farmers frequently contradict these assumptions, challenging the efficacy of policies built upon essentialist constructions of indigeneity or class hierarchy.
Research basis: 

This paper is based on ethnographic research carried out in 2005-2006 in the China/Laos border area. The research included interviews with local villages on both sides of the border, state rubber farms in China, and various government departments and research institutes in both Laos and China. The author has conducted research projects in the area for the past 12 years.