On the ground in the northern province of Oudomxay, most jeeps roaming the deforested valley bear Chinese and Vietnamese number plates. Four of the province’s districts are among the fastest-growing rural economies in the country, according to the researchers in Sweden. (Laos’s obscurantist government publishes little information about anything.) Investment is flowing into agriculture, typically rubber plantations, market gardening and other cash crops, much of it destined for the huge Chinese population to the north. The side-effects include a loss of forests and biodiversity, serious soil erosion and growing numbers of people in this multi-ethnic province being pushed off their land.
Chinese firms have secured rubber concessions in the province covering 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres). The idea is that tens of thousands of Chinese workers will eventually be needed to tap the rubber. In the past decade the government has granted land concessions across the country for up to 100 years, often at knock-down prices, to Chinese, Vietnamese and, to a lesser extent, Thai operators. More land is now in the hands of foreigners than is used to grow rice. The fear of one expert in Laos is the emergence of a landless poor.
Not all Chinese influence is welcomed by the government. Recently a deputy prime minister, Somsavat Lengsavad, announced the closure of a Chinese-run casino near the border that had attracted drugs and prostitutes along with gamblers. Yet Mr Lengsavad, ethnically Chinese himself, has his own patronage network built on granting concessions for Chinese-run special economic zones. And he is the point man for one of Asia’s most ambitious projects: a proposed 262-mile (421-km) passenger and freight railway connecting Kunming, in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan, with Vientiane, the Laotian capital. The $7.2 billion price tag (including interest) is nearly as big as Laos’s entire formal economy. It will take 50,000 workers five years just to lay the tracks. Two-thirds of the route will run through 76 planned tunnels or over bridges.