Cross-Border Ethnic Relations at Vietnam-China Border Markets since 1990

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At the Vietnamese-Chinese border, markets serve as places not only for exchanging and purchasing goods but also for socio-cultural exchanges among ethnic groups on both sides of the border. The Vietnamese economic renovation in the late 1980s and the process of normalizing Vietnam-China relations in1990 have contributed to the development of the market system at the borderline between these two countries, meeting the commodity trade needs of involved ethnic groups in the region and the surrounding areas, promoting cultural exchange, and maintaining and expanding kinship relations and friendship between the ethnic groups on both sides of the border. This article explores the cross-border ethnic relationships shown in trading, exchanging goods, and developing social networks of ethnic minorities in two typical border markets - Loc Binh market in Lang Son’s Loc Binh district and Can Cau commune market in Lao Cai’s Si Ma Cai district - thereby clarifying the dynamics of ethnic relations in the Vietnam-China border area since 1990.

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Introduction Cross-border ethnic relations can be established among people with the same and different ethnic groups in border areas with neighboring countries [Vương Xuân Tình và cộng sự 2014: 4]. These types of relationships have a long history, manifested in economic activities, cultural exchange, and religious beliefs. In the context of globalization, and with the impact of modern transport, modern communication, and the market economy, these relationships not only increase within the relevant countries that share a border but also reach out to many other countries where people with the same ethnicity and the same religion may live [Lý Hành Sơn 2014: 26]. The shared border between Vietnam and China stretches over seven Vietnamese provinces, which, from east to west, includes Quang Ninh, Lang Son, Cao Bang, Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Lai Chau, and Dien Bien, as well as the two Chinese provinces Yunnan and Guangxi province and parts of the Zhuang autonomous regions. Besides the major Vietnamese ethnic group of the Kinh, 25 ethnic minorities are living in this area [Vương Xuân Tình 2014: 59]. Ethnic groups with a large population - over one million people - are Nung, Tay, Thai and Hmong people. Ethnic groups with a small population - under 10,000 people- are Pu Peo, Si La, La Hu... [Tổng cục thống kê 2010]. Meanwhile, in the South of China, there are 12 ethnic minorities living for a long time, with kinship relationships with ethnic minorities in the border of Vietnam [Vương Xuân Tình 2014: 56]. For a long time, the residents in these border areas have had economic, cultural, and social exchanges, and these activities commonly take place at the bustling markets in the region and near the border. Since Vietnam implemented its economic reforms and especially since Vietnam and China normalized relations in 1990, a series of traditional markets has been re-established in addition to some that are newly established. Up to now, the Vietnam-China border area has nearly 200 large and small markets, distributed in cities, towns, commune centers in the region. The markets concentrate more in Ha Giang province (90 markets), Cao Bang province (32 market) and less in Dien Bien province (1 market). This market system meets the needs of goods exchange of residents and provides a place for maintaining and delivering cultural and social exchange of all participating ethnic groups on both sides of the border. The development of the market system in the Vietnam-China border area not only has the role of promoting exchange activities between residents but also often represents the largest commodity transactions by land in the Northern mountainous region as well as the entire country. Therefore, the relationships and social networks between several ethnic minorities in the region on both sides of the border are increasingly expanding. Based on field research at two of these markets-Loc Binh market in Lang Son’s Loc Binh district and Can Cau commune market in Lao Cai’s Si Ma Cai district-conducted over the past three years, this report presents an understanding of cross-border ethnic relations through trading and establishing and maintaining social networks between ethnic groups and traders in the border region, thereby clarifying the role of ethnic minority relations and trade among them. Academic Discours Before 2000, highland markets in general and Vietnam-China border markets received little research attention, with only a few ethnographic studies referring to these markets as cultural centers [Lý Hải 1995; Hà Thị Kim Oanh 1997]. Recently, many scholars have become interested in the transformation of border markets and the socioeconomic relations that take place there. Bonnin’s [2011] research in Lao Cai province focused on understanding the dynamics of local ethnic minorities in exchanging goods in these markets and the impact of the recent market development policies of the state on the commercial livelihoods of small merchants. Grillot [2014] paid greater attention to the experience of cooperating between Vietnamese and Chinese small merchants in trading at Mong Cai market in Quang Ninh province to overcome cultural differences and business risks. Endres’ [2019] research in Lao Cai focused on understanding social relations in the context of market activities and economic transactions in the border areas, examining cultural practices that enable small businesses to build and shape their social relationships, thereby demonstrating the dynamics and challenges that small traders need to overcome. A study by Tạ Thị Tâm (2013) at Coc Leu market in Lao Cai province aimed to understand how small businesses build social networks based on kinship, relatives, and other relationships in such markets. Up to now, research on this topic has been mainly concerned with the social networks of Vietnamese small traders and the trade relations between Vietnamese and Chinese traders in general, but little attention has been paid to the relations of ethnic minorities in the area. While ethnic relations generally attract the attention of many social sciences in Vietnam, especially ethnography and anthropology, the study of cross-border ethnic relations has not been given adequate attention, especially when considering the perspective of ethnic history, cultural relations, migration and labor, and marriage and kinship relations [Vương Xuân Tình và cộng sự 2014: 6-7]. The research papers of Vương Xuân Tình [2011] and Lý Hành Sơn and Trần Thị Mai Lan [2017] are two of the most in-depth works on cross-border ethnic relations in the recent Vietnam-China border area. These studies show that up to now, the cross-border relations of ethnic minorities in this area still take place according to many traditions. Ethnic relations, kinship, and marriage continue to play a key role, making these the foundation for economic, social, and cultural relationships. These relationships are manifested through economic activities such as the exchange of crops and animals; cross-border trading; cross-border employment; land lease for production across borders, social systems (relatives and marriage), and cultural exchange (by using language, cultural products, and attending family rituals). Turner (2010) and Schoenberger and Turner (2008) studied small-scale traders in the Vietnamese-Chinese border area and pointed out that, although the state has measures to tighten border management in terms of administration, residents often take advantage of their socio-cultural capital (e.g., local expertise, available trading networks, language proficiency, and ethnic relations) to overcome challenges and seize opportunities in their livelihood development. This study will clarify how ethnic minority traders in both border markets make use of their cross-border ethnic, kinship, and friendship relations in commodity exchanges at the markets. Overview of the two studied markets Loc Binh market Located in Loc Binh town in Lang Son’s Loc Binh district, 15 km away from the Chi Ma border gate, and adjacent to the Ninh Minh district and Ai Diem border gate economic zone (China), Loc Binh market is one of the traditional, ancient markets with characteristics of the Tay and Nung people in Lang Son province. Formed before the French colonial period, before the 1979 border war, there were many Chinese traders at the market. In 2011, Loc Binh market was rebuilt on the grounds of the old market covering an area of 6,000 m2. Three-quarters of the market area are fully built and separated into rows with kiosks for clothing, footwear, electrical appliances, and household appliances, as well as breeders, livestock, poultry, and forest products. The market has a dedicated open-air area for amateur traders who come to sell agricultural products, but most people in the area retain the old habits and tend to focus on trading on the streets along the riverbank that stretches over several kilometers in length. Previously, the market had only six sessions per month on the 1st, 6th, 11th, 16th, 21st, and 26th of the lunar month. Since 1990, Loc Binh market has been held every day to enable the people in the district to buy and sell goods. For a long time, the market’s outstanding products were agricultural, forestry, and local products. About 80 households from the Tay and Nung communities have permanent stalls at the market selling seedlings, agricultural materials, and native agricultural products such as mushrooms, bamboo shoots, cloud ear fungi, and all kinds of valuable medicinal herbs, such as cardamom, anise, cinnamon, and ligusticum striatum. These specialties are often transferred by traders who sell them at downstream markets and to China. Several small traders also import Chinese electronics and household appliances to sell at the market and deliver them to regional stores. Can Cau market Can Cau Market is a traditional market of the Hmong people of Can Cau commune in Lao Cai’s Si Ma Cai district. Before 1995, Can Cau market was only a small-scale market where people sold cultivated products such as vegetables, maize, rice, chicken, and pigs; and some small traders brought groceries and necessities for sales to the market. There were 10 Hmong traders in the commune who bought buffalo and sold it to locals and Hmong traders in other parts of China. However, transactions usually only took place among families in the village. When the market was newly built at the current location, its convenience for traffic, along with the increasing purchasing power of local people, attracted more and more visitors to Can Cau and the neighboring communes around to the market. Families wishing to buy and sell buffaloes and traders in the commune also went to the market to trade, thus forming a trading area for cattle at the market. From 1995 to 2000, Can Cau market gradually increased in scale, meeting not only the demand for cattle and buffalo exchanges in the commune and the region but also providing a large number of buffaloes for the Chinese market. Starting with one session per week on Saturdays, in 2018, Can Cau market opened three more sessions on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for buffalo trading. While in the 2000-2009 period, each session saw only a few hundred buffaloes traded, from 2010 to 2018 that number increased to thousands of buffaloes. From the end of 2018, the volume of traded buffaloes in the market decreased compared to before, with only about 300-500 buffaloes sold per session due to the impact of China’s border ban . Since 2010, each market session saw the participation of 480 Hmong households from the commune (trading in all categories including buffaloes); about 120-150 Hmong buffalo traders and some other ethnic minorities from the neighboring communes and districts of Bac Ha and Si Ma Cai; 50-70 Kinh traders from delta provinces, such as Bac Giang, Vinh Phuc, and Thanh Hoa; and about 30-45 Chinese traders. About 80% of buffaloes traded at Can Cau market are sold to Chinese traders, 10% are sold to merchants looking for fighting buffaloes from Hai Phong and the Central Highlands provinces , and the remaining 10% are traded with people from the area and the surrounding communities who buy buffaloes for breeding and work. Cross-border ethnic relations in the markets The Tay and Nung people in the Vietnam-China border area have had long-standing relations with the Zhuang people in Guangxi province, China [Vương Xuân Tình 2014]. Many Tay and Nung people in Loc Binh have relatives and neighbors across the border, especially marital relations, because their ancestors have migrated from China to Vietnam for many generations. Before the border war in 1979, traveling during the holidays took place regularly through local roads. Since 1979, the number of Tay and Nung families and lineages who remember and keep in touch with relatives in China has decreased due to the impact of the war and border controls by local police forces of both countries, both of which led to gradually split relations between the clans over time. However, since Vietnam and China normalized relations in 1990, goods were traded again, and cross-border economic relations among these ethnic groups became more prominent and diversified in forms [Lý Hành Sơn 2014: 26]. Since the opening of the border and the development of the nearby economy, many commodities such as food, livestock, poultry, and medicinal plants from the Loc Binh border area have been purchased and sold to Ai Diem market in China. Some items such as medicinal plants, sugarcane, and poultry are brought to the other side of the border by minor Chinese traders - mostly Zhuang people - who come to Loc Binh market to order or buy directly for the other side of the border. Mrs. Phuong, a Tay saleswoman at Loc Binh market, has relationships with three Zhuang business friends from China who often come to the market to order Vietnamese medicinal plants such as true cardamom, tuber fleeceflower, honeysuckle, and Himalayan ginseng. She buys these from people in the area to sell them at the market. Mrs. Phuong has had a trading relationship with these three friends for over 20 years since 1999. Mrs. Hai, a Tay woman who has been trading medicinal plants for 15 years in front of the gate of Loc Binh market, buys fresh medicinal plants for Chinese traders. She has relationships with five Zhuang friends and one Tay relative on the other side of Ai Diem town. Mr. Bay - a Tay seller of Chinese medicine - has good business relationships with three Zhuang friends and two of his aunts, who are Tay people, married in China. They all asked Mr. Bay to buy the honeysuckle and sarcandra glabra. They go to Loc Binh two to three times a month to collect goods. Mr. Bay has been a medicinal plant purchasing agent and has had business relationships with Zhuang friends for over 30 years, from 1990 to the present. The above stories show that the business relationships of the sellers in Loc Binh market with small traders on the other side of China were mainly established after 1990 based on the new social relationships. Cross-border kinship relationships in market trade are also a part of cross-border relations and play a vital role in assisting the work of small traders. Mrs. Bong, a Tay woman selling chicken at Loc Binh market, has three aunts (on her father’s side), two aunts (on her mother’s side), one younger sister who are all Tay people, married to Zhuang husbands in Ai Diem, China, of which there are two aunts on the mother’s side and one aunt on the father’s side, who also sell chickens at the market in Ai Diem. They also have business relationships with Mrs. Bong and often go to Loc Binh for Lunar New Year, the Grave-visiting festival, and anniversaries of deaths. In April 2018, Mrs. Bong held a wedding for her daughter and all her relatives from China who went to Loc Binh to celebrate her daughter’s wedding. Mrs. Hoan, a Tay ethnic woman who sells plastic goods at Loc Binh market, has two aunts and four nieces who are Tay and married in Ai Diem, China. She also has six other relatives who belong to the Zhuang, of which four are related to her husband’s family. Mrs. Hoan’s relatives in China have important contacts in business and trading, and the above-mentioned relatives helped Mrs. Hoan import products, choose manufacturers, provide capital support, and transport goods to Loc Binh. In 2014, Mrs. Hoan made losses and borrowed from a loan shark to import goods, but one of her aunts, two nieces, and three friends from China lent her VND300 million and introduced her to three sellers who allowed her credit when importing to Loc Binh. After two years, Mrs. Hoan paid off all debts and is now independent in her business. Compared to many small traders in the market, Mrs. Hoan has an advantage, as she received a lot of help from her relatives on the other side of the border. These relationships are important to Mrs. Hoan, and they often meet each other for Lunar New Year, the Grave-visiting festival, weddings, funerals, and anniversaries of deaths in Loc Binh and China. Relationships such as those between Mrs. Hoan and her relatives that result from or relate to the market happen often, and sometimes lay the foundation for many cross-border marriages. Up to 15 women who trade at Loc Binh market have married Chinese husbands . These women got to know their husbands from going to China to pick up goods, meet friends, and visit relatives. According to Linh - a Nung woman who had been married for 13 years to a Chinese Zhuang small business owner - before 2000, she followed her mother to China to import goods and had a business relationship with her husband’s family. After getting married, Linh stayed in China but often returned to Loc Binh to deliver the goods for her husband. Since then, she has helped her husband sell more products and expand the family’s business relationships. At Can Cau market, the Hmong are considered one of the ethnic groups with the strongest cross-border relations among the 26 ethnic groups in the Vietnam-China border area. Hmong customs stipulate that people with the same surname and ancestors are brothers, wherever they are, and are forbidden to get married. When they know each other, they should help each other. The Hmong also have free migration practices, so up to now, the Hmong often go back and forth between the border areas to visit and attend festivals of relatives and ethnic friends. Based on the lineages and their regulations, the Hmong have expanded into other relationships through livelihood activities, ethnic social organizations, and cultural activities. However, the number of Hmong people who marry their co-ethnic group across the border is less than other minorities in Northern Vietnam [Lý Hành Sơn 2014: 126-127, 149]. Among the Hmong women in Can Cau commune, only two have recently married Chinese Hmong across the border. According to the local people, the Hmong place greater emphasis on maintaining and consolidating kinship and ethnic relations in all areas of life, taking place among men from many generations to now. Thus, women do not have an important role in socioeconomic exchange through cross-border marriage. Moreover, the Hmong in this commune strictly follow the custom of not marrying people of the same lineage. Therefore, they maintain and strengthen kinship relations with their relatives across the border through other socioeconomic activities, rather than through marital relations. Before 1979, several local Hmong traded buffaloes in Lao Cai to serve the need for traction between the local Hmong and those in China [Bonnin 2011]. In the past, these transactions have remained on a small scale, but a commodity connection and social relationships exist between the Hmong buffalo traders in Can Cau and those Hmong, as well as other ethnic groups, on the Chinese side. Since the market was restored and expanded, the Hmong who bought buffaloes from previous generations to Can Cau market passed their experience and their business relationships to their descendants. Owing to that, the trading relations between the Hmong in Can Cau and the Hmong on the other side of the border have been maintained and increasingly expanded. Cross-border kinship and a network of ethnic relations play an important role in the buffalo trade in Can Cau market. Mr. Trang A.D., a 69-year-old trader with many years of experience in buffalo trading, said that before 1990, he bought buffaloes at Pha Long market, where he met Mr. Trang A.V., a 65-year-old Hmong from Yunnan province, China, at a pub. After talking to each other, they realized they were relatives from the same family lineage. Since then, Mr. Trang A.V. has often asked Mr. Trang A.D. to find and buy buffaloes and introduced Mr. Trang A.D. to four other relatives in China who also traded buffaloes. Later, they stayed at his house when Mr. Trang A.V. came to buy buffaloes in Can Cau. Mr. Giang A.Q. is a large buffalo trader at Can Cau market. In the past, he bought buffaloes from Bao Yen to sell to people in the area. Ten years ago, Mr. Giang A.Q. met three uncles who had lost contact with the family after emigrating across the border in the 1980s. He only bought buffaloes for them and asked his relatives to buy horses from China and transfer these to the people in his area and the lowland areas. Mr. Giang A.Q. recounted that, in addition to the three uncles from China who bought buffaloes at this market, he had five brothers, two younger brothers-in-law, and five younger brothers who also buy and sell buffaloes at Can Cau market. One of the Chinese uncles often bought buffaloes from Mr. Giang A.Q. and their relatives. According to Mr. Giang A.Q., the five brothers also became big buffalo traders because of their relationship with the three uncles across the border. In addition to ethnic relatives, friends also play an important role in trading activities at Can Cau market. Mr. Giang A.L., who is 42 years old, has been a buffalo trader for many years. When asked to make a list of his partners and relationships at work, Mr. Giang A. L. said that he knew 20 Hmong buffalo traders at Can Cau commune, 30 Hmong in Lao Cai province, seven Hmong friends in China, and 20 friends who belong to the Kinh and other ethnic groups. The case of Mr. Giang A.L. shows that, within friendships, the same ethnicity plays the most important role. According to Mr. Giang A.L.’s explanation, buffalo trade needs capital, geographic proximity, trust, and the same language - all of which make the conditions for trade more favorable and ensure safety. Mr. Giang A.L. said that trading with people of other ethnic groups often leads to difficulties and problems in bargaining and selecting items. Ethnic friends on the other side of the border are also increasingly important to buffalo traders like Mr. Giang A.L. The Chinese Hmong friends he knew were introduced by relatives through exchanges at a pub in the local market. At the current Can Cau market, many Hmong participate in exchanges and visit pubs. Like kinship relations, friendships surrounding the business activities of ethnic minorities are also maintained and strengthened through inviting each other to attend festivals, weddings, funerals, and other similar events. Although there is a large number of Kinh and some other ethnic minorities involved in the buffalo trade at Can Cau market, the Hmong in the area, especially the Hmong in Can Cau, play an important role in commodity trading at the market. Most ethnic groups and traders in other localities often must sell buffaloes to the Hmong in Can Cau, instead of selling them directly to Chinese traders. Buying buffaloes from the Hmong people in Can Cau to sell in China does not incur capital losses, and usually brings in a lot of profit, as the price they say is the same as the value of the buffalo. Meanwhile, Kinh people are not as honest as the Hmong because they ask for a higher price and sometimes sell unhealthy buffaloes. If you want to do a sustainable business, you should combine business with the Hmong in Can Cau (Mr. Giang Seo L., 41 years old, Chinese Hmong, interview at Can Cau market in December 2017). Some Kinh traders tried to transact directly with Chinese Hmong traders but were less successful and effective than when selling to the Hmong in Can Cau. The linguistic, cultural, and belief similarities based on ethnic relations have been shown to be an advantage of the Hmong, helping them become intermediaries in buffalo transactions between the Kinh and other ethnic groups in the area, including Chinese Hmong. Conclusion For a long time, ethnic minorities in the Vietnamese-Chinese border area have had cross-border relations with the same and different ethnic groups, taking place in almost all economic activities, social relations, cultural, and religious activities. However, in the past, these relationships depended on direct contact and exchange, limited by geographic and traffic difficulties. The impacts of the border war in 1979 and a decade of closed borders between China and Vietnam interrupted and damaged the relationships. Since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1990, along with the strong development of electronic communication systems and social networks, these relations have been increasingly expanded and enhanced. Border gate areas and markets serve as places that not only allow the exchange of commodities between the two countries but also promote the transnational ethnic relations of ethnic groups on both sides of the border. This study has shown that cross-border economic relations in these markets are mainly formed based on new social relations, such as partnerships and marriages. When it comes to trading relations, Chinese traders often go to these border markets, where cross-border ethnic and kinship relations have been formed or re-established. Based on the recommendations of relatives and friends on either side of the border and during the market trade, many cross-border marriages have taken place, further promoting social relations and the exchange of goods between ethnic groups in the two countries. From minor blood-related relationships and long-standing acquaintanceships with ethnic groups on the other side of the border, in recent years, the relationships between ethnic minorities around the Vietnamese-Chinese border have been strengthened, thus expanding economic, social, cross-border marital relations, as well as transnational relationships. Some ethnic groups like the Hmong know how to take advantage of their socio-cultural advantages in maintaining ethnic and kinship relations across the border to become intermediaries in transactions and take an important role in the border markets. In this case, cross-border ethnic relations provide an opportunity for the integration and development of ethnic minorities on both sides of the border.

About the authors

Thi Thanh Binh Nguyen

Institute of Anthropology VASS

Ph.D. (Antropology), Deputy Director

Thi Tam Ta

Institute of Anthropology VASS

Ph.D. (Antropology), Researcher


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