Departmental Seminar: The road to Mandalay: A city’s selective integration in the global economy in the age of ‘The rise of China’
Mandalay is a name that evokes memories of times long gone, as well as of colonial rule, commercial encounters, and cultural cross-fertilization. The city is also the country’s main spiritual center and in recent years it has experienced both inter-ethnic riots and the rise of religious nationalism.
The paper tells the story of the city of Mandalay’s selective integration in the global economy. It is divided into two parts. The first contextualizes the notion of ‘the rise of China’ at the porous frontier that unites the People’s Republic of China with the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Close ties date back to the nineteenth century, continued during British colonial rule, and only experienced a hiatus in the later part of the twentieth century. At the same time, the post-8888 and post-Tiananmen sanctions that isolated both countries kick-started their renewed cooperation. The paper examines the content, drivers, and impact of this relationship, at times close, at times fraught. The second part of the paper narrates the impact of China’s rising influence in upper Myanmar through the eyes of two communities, one living in the slum areas on the embankment of the Irrawaddy river, and the other working in Zegyo market.
In the paper I reflect on Sino-Myanmar relations ‘from below’ using Mandalay as the vantage point and advance two propositions: one, Sassen’s notion of ‘expulsion’ appears well suited to shed light on the losing end of China’s economic rise and the difficulty of Myanmar to compete and cope. Two, I also explore resilience and adaptation through the eyes of the traders in the biggest wholesale market of upper Myanmar. Taken together this suggests that while China’s economic dominance is evident, arguments of outright colonization should be nuanced and allow for a greater degree of agency by local actors. China structures social, cultural, political and economic life. Yet, ordinary Myanmar people also find ways to cope. To show this I draw on fieldwork conducted in Mandalay, Myanmar, since 2013, and especially interviews conducted in April 2015 in slum areas along the Irrawaddy river, with traders in the Zegyo wholesale market and with officials in the city council and city planning offices.