Add homesteading to China's toolbox of influence around the globe.
As Chinese investors buy up real estate from Manhattan to Addis Ababa, and the government in Beijing builds islands from reefs in a bid to dominate the South China Sea, Chinese entrepreneurs and peasants in search of a better life are migrating to Laos, Russia, and other neighboring nations.
In the process, the influx is threatening to dominate local economies and unsettle the natives.
"Chinese come to Laos partly because they no longer have enough land at home," Kalia Sompavong, a Laotian guide, told the Swiss newspaper Le Temps. "Also because they've been destroying their land by flooding it with pesticides for the past 30 years. Now, they want to do the same here."
Le Temps quoted an unnamed agricultural development expert who claimed that China pays its citizens an "expatriation bonus" of $100,000 to move to Laos, a desperately poor country that is ruled by one of the world's last remaining Communist governments.
The alleged payments, if true, reflect China's aim of exerting more influence internationally through "soft power" — building businesses, creating jobs, and developing industries, said Tracy Barrett, a historian at North Dakota State University who specializes in China and Southeast Asia.
"The government paying people to venture abroad is China's attempt to play a larger role on the global stage," she said.
In countries like Nepal, this soft power involves providing earthquake aid and investments like a Chinese-backed $1.6 billion hydroelectric project that is currently the biggest foreign investment in the country. The money pays cultural dividends: Nepalese are increasingly studying Chinese, while Chinese tourism to Buddha's birth country is booming.
In Laos, however, the Chinese strategy doesn't appear to be winning over people's hearts and minds.
In late September, Laotian officials ordered four Chinese companies to stop their "excessive use of pesticides" in banana plantations and banned the creation of new plantations, according to Le Temps.
But Laotians evidently don't think their government is doing enough.
This past summer, villagers staged demonstrations — rare in Laos — to protest against incoming Chinese displacing tens of thousands of people to build the "Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone," an area in northern Laos that sports a lavish Chinese-owned casino. The Laotian government gave the Chinese company a 99-year lease to control the land.
Similar dynamics are at play in Russia.
Fifteen years ago, the head of border control at Russia's Federal Border Guard Service raised alarm about a flood of Chinese immigrants, citing statistics at the time that claimed 1.5 million of them had illegally entered Russia in an 18-month period.
Today, concerns about the Chinese taking over Siberia appear overblown. But China is angling to take advantage of a Russian plan to give away as much as 540,000-square feet of land to Russian citizens for free in a bid to develop its sparsely populated far eastern regions. While Russia bars foreigners from receiving the free land, its citizens might rent their property to Chinese farmers — an easy way to make a buck without breaking a sweat.
"The remote region would be the main exporter of green food to China if the program pans out," the state-run newspaper China Daily reported in January when Russian officials first floated the idea. "The population of Chinese immigrants in the area is likely to increase as they could lease land from local residents, which would also benefit the local budget."
Chinese workers have sought fortunes abroad in the past, said Barrett, citing their role in the 19thCentury gold rushes in the American West and South Australia, as well as in helping make Singapore a hub of commerce.
They also met resistance. American and Australian lawmakers once sought to limit their arrival with racist immigration laws. Many Chinese came to the then-British colony of Singapore as indentured laborers — derogatorily called "coolies."
Today, even as the once-booming Chinese economy has slowed, Chinese businesspeople and workers are simply following in their ancestors' footsteps in their search for new riches, noted Barrett. Many believe they can do better abroad than if they stay at home, even if they have to deal with discrimination.
"This leaving to start a business, to try to make your fortune abroad, has been a staple of Chinese life," she said.
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