China Made Brief #10

Environing Infrastructure: A Project Outline

Alessandro Rippa

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This China Made Brief introduces a new project led by Alessandro Rippa, a former postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder and member of China Made. Since September 2020, Alessandro works with a small team of researchers based at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, LMU Munich. The project—Environing Infrastructure: Communities, Ecologies, and China’s “Green” Development in Contemporary Southeast Asia—is funded by a 5-year “freigeist” fellowship from the Volkswagen Foundation.

More information on the project can be found at

Boten, Laos-China border, 2016.

In the stifling midday heat, few people venture outside. Broad, empty roads and hulking hotel buildings dominate the visual landscape. Not a single human is in sight. There is no sound emanating from a nearby construction site that, in a few weeks, is said to become a brand-new bus station. Scores of posters plastered around town brandish images of the Boten of the future: bustling shopping malls, a verdant golf course, a busy high-speed railway station and hordes of Chinese tourists.

Zhou Xinren, a young man originally from Kunming, the capital of nearby China’s Yunnan province, is convinced that such a vision will materialize. Zhou has spent his last twelve years working in Laos, first as a truck driver and then as a broker for Chinese firms. Now he calls Boten his home. “You see,” Zhou explains, “if you had come ten years ago, you would have seen nothing at all – just nature (ziran). Then we [Chinese] built roads, implemented agriculture, and started trading. This is all our doing,” Zhou says, gesturing to all the concrete, the boulevards, and the promise of development and wealth. Driving a few miles outside of town, one finds more of the promise that Zhou is speaking about. The road itself, part of the so-called Northern Economic Corridor, is the result of co-financing between China, Thailand, and the Asian Development Bank. All around this two-lane highway is an endless horizon of Chinese-owned rubber and banana plantations.

But the contrasts between a grandiose future and an anxious present are striking. In a diminutive shack along this same highway, locally born Thongsing sells drinks and snacks to passing tradesmen and construction workers. His is a rather bleak view of the current state of his country. “Look around,” he says bitterly, “this is not Laos, this is China. First the road and the plantation, now the railway. Many villages are being completely displaced by this new project. Where will people go? Where will they farm?” The project Thongsing is referring to is the new Kunming-Vientiane railway, part of a 3,900km network of railways that will eventually connect China to Singapore through Laos and Thailand.

Not far, a couple of bulldozers are busy flattening out some bushy hills. I ask one of the drivers what will be built here. “A new attraction for tourists,” he says, “a nature park where people can ride elephants, and a shopping center with Lao traditional crafts.”

Tradition to replace tradition.

Nature to replace nature.

The built environment.

At the official Beijing launch of the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, Xi Jinping announced that China would begin leveraging new energy technologies and global resource networks with the aim of promoting low-carbon development around the world. Often labelled as “Green Belt and Road” China’s now pervasive use of the language of sustainable development chafes with the country’s own numerous domestic environmental crises and environmentally calamitous infrastructure projects already being implemented by Chinese firms abroad. Scholarship on the environmental after-effects of Chinese building ambition has thus far looked at the ecological impacts of specific projects. What is missing, particularly given the types of infrastructure projects the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is said to deliver, is critical research on the social and political ecological considerations of Chinese investments abroad, as well as the multiple, conflicting environmental narratives and discourses that surround them.

Environing Infrastructure aims to set out a conceptual path linking empirical studies of infrastructure with research into socio-environmental phenomena and discourse. In order to do so, we take the vantage point of contemporary Chinese global infrastructure to introduce novel ways of understanding planetary environmental narratives, transnational political-economic systems and center-periphery relations, revealing a wider picture that supersedes individual construction projects and particular nation-states.

The project, in this sense, takes cue from the “infrastructure thinking” approach that China Made has been developing, pulling together two broad strands of inquiry. One involves an interest in rethinking the materiality of infrastructure not as an inert or relatively stable basis for dynamic social processes, but rather as unstable assemblages of human and nonhuman agencies. Another explores the oftentimes hidden techno-political “work” of infrastructural forms. Infrastructural thinking thus draws our attention to how social relations are bound up in the physical and technical materialities of our built and non-built environments, and to how those materialities constitute social relations in ways that produce unexpected and unintended political outcomes. Drawing on this, key questions emerge at the interface of infrastructure and the environment. How do different ecological discourses impact infrastructure spaces and, in turn, how the making of new infrastructure affects such discourse? How do dynamics of dispossession and displacement inform particular ecological sensibilities? Without attention to these important questions, anthropological inquiries into infrastructure development and environmental change fall shorts of addressing one of large-scale infrastructure’s major outcome: its world-making capacities. Hence this project’s main question: how do infrastructure and environment make each other, or: how do infrastructure environ the world?

Methodologically, the project relies on ethnographic methods to reveal the often-staggering disjunctions between economic and policy-driven infrastructural imaginaries, and the grounded realities for those people subject to (and often passed by) such infrastructural interventions. Additionally, in order to produce a more holistic understanding of the various discourses embedded in and produced by global Chinese investments, this project takes a critical approach to the textual and representative constituents of infrastructure. To this end, an anthropological approach to infrastructure development is integrated with perspectives informed by the environmental humanities.

Ethnographically, we focus on specific Chinese infrastructure projects across Southeast Asia. Fieldsites include trans-national infrastructure at the China-Myanmar borderlands, where I have been working previously in the context of China Made, the Sihanoukville SEZ in Cambodia, tourism infrastructure in Bali, and Chinese agri-business projects in Thailand. To ensure consistency, foster comparison, and elicit collaborations, we plan a number of “field meetings” across the various fieldsites in the course of the project. We also plan to work with academic and non-academic institutions in the region to develop collaborative research and teaching projects.

Southeast Asia offers a precious vantage point from where such dynamics can be analyzed. The region has been at the forefront of Chinese investments outside China since long before the launch of the BRI and has come to represent a testing ground for the country’s ambitions abroad. Here political leaders, activists, and much of the general public are familiar with Chinese investments and with the debates surrounding them. Furthermore, the relationship between environmental destruction and processes of capitalist modes of accumulation and production has become a major trope in much literature on the region.

This approach to research, as well as its regional foci, are other aspects in which Environing Infrastructure draws on the experience of China Made. Not only for its ethnographic scope, but also for the project’s attentiveness to both the “visible” and “invisible” forms of infrastructure relations at play. If the Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia – as much as in other parts of the world – is striking for its ubiquity in public discourse, such overwhelming presence risks hiding some of the key, on-the-ground dynamics of specific infrastructure projects. What gets lost, in the process, are the less visible “working” of infrastructure projects: questions of labor and maintenance, for instance, but also local ecological concerns surrounding infrastructural interventions. These are what – in the typical infrastructural manner of “inversion” – we aim to bring to the fore.


这份中国制造简报将为大家介绍由Alessandro Rippa领头的新项目。Alessandro Rippa是科罗拉多大学博尔德分校的前博士后研究员和中国制造项目的现成员。自2020年9月起,Alessandro Rippa和在德国慕尼黑大学蕾切尔·卡森环境与社会研究中心的一组研究员合作。大众基金会为该项目- Environing Infrastructure: Communities, Ecologies, and China’s “Green” Development in Contemporary Southeast Asia(环境基础设施:社区、生态与当代东南亚的中国“绿色“发展)- 提供为期5年的“自由精神”奖学金支持。


磨丁市, 老挝-中国边境, 2016在正午令人窒息的酷暑中,几人勇敢地向外面走去。宽阔空荡的道路和伫立的酒店大楼主宰了视野所及的景象。目之所及毫无一人。没有任何声音从附近的建筑工地传来。据说这个工地在几周后即将成为一个全新的公交车站。贴满全城的海报展望着磨丁的未来:热闹非凡的购物中心,绿意悠然的高尔夫球场,繁忙的高速铁路站和一波又一波的中国游客。

来自邻国中国云南省会昆明的年轻小伙,Zhou Xinren, 确信这样的愿景一定会成为现实。Zhou在老挝已经工作了12年,从起初的卡车司机到中国公司的中间商。现在他把磨丁当做家。面向着周围所有水泥做成的一切,宏伟大道和发展与财富的承诺,Zhou解释道,“你看,如果你10年前来,你什么也看不见,只有自然。然后我们中国人修路,开展农业,做贸易。这些都是我们的功劳。”开出小镇几英里后,你可以找到Zhou谈论的财富与发展。这条路是所谓的北方经济走廊的一部分,是中国、泰国和亚洲发展银行共同投资的结果。在这条双车道的高速路周围全是中国投资的橡胶与香蕉种植地。

但是宏伟的未来与焦虑的当下之间的对比令人诧异。在同样的高速路边,土生土长的Tongsing在狭窄的小摊铺上向过往的商人与建筑工人售卖饮料与小吃。Tongsing对老挝现状的看法相对悲观。“看看你周围,”他痛苦的说,“这里不是老挝,这里是中国。最开始是公路,然后是种植园,现在是铁路。很多村民因为这个新项目流离失所。他们会去哪里?会在哪里种地?” Tongsing所指的新项目是昆明-万象铁路(昆万铁路)。昆万铁路是长达3900千米的铁路网络的其中一部分,该铁路网络最终将通过老挝和泰国将中国与新加坡连接起来。






Environing Infrastructure (环境基础设施)致力于建立一条概念路径,将实证研究与对社会环境现象与话语的研究联系起来。为此,我们将当代中国全球基础设施作为有利切入点来介绍一种理解行星环境叙事、跨国政治经济体系与中心-外围关系的新方式,以此展现一个高于个体建筑项目与特定国家利益的局面。

从这个意义上说,该项目借鉴学习了China Made (中国制造)项目一直致力发展的“基础设施性思维”方法。该方法将两大研究问题汇聚一起。一方面是将基础设施作为一个由人体与非人体能动性组成的不稳定集合而不是一个对社会动态过程呆滞或者相对稳定的基础来重新思考基础设施实质性的兴趣。另一方面是探索基础设施时常不为人知的技术政治效应。因此,基础设施思维使我们关注社会关系如何在认为建造环境和非认为建造环境的物理和技术物质中被束缚,以及这些物质性如何以产生预料之外和非本意的政治结果的方式构建社会关系。以此为基础,在基础设施与环境的交叉面萌生了关键问题。不同的生态话语权是如何影响基础设施空间的?相反,新基础设施的建造又会如何影响这些语境?与基础设施相关的流离失所与财产剥夺动态又如何告知我们特殊的生态敏感性?缺少对这些重要问题的关注,人类学对基础设施发展与环境变化的研究将会忽视大型基础设主要结果之一:其改变世界的能力。因此,该项目的主要问题是:基础设施与环境如何相互塑造?又或者,基础设施如何包围世界?


我们的民族志主要聚焦位于东南亚的中国基础设施项目。田野地点包括我时任China Made(中国制造)博士后时所工作过的中国-缅甸边境的跨国基础设施,柬埔寨的西哈努克港经济特区,巴厘岛的旅游设施,以及位于泰国的中国农业综合企业项目。为了确保一致性,促进对比和寻求合作,我们计划在项目期间于不同田野地举办一系列“田野聚会。”同时,我们也打算在本地与学术和非学术机构开展合作研究与教学项目。


Environing Infrastructure (环境基础设施)借鉴China Made(中国制造)的过往经验来制定其研究方式与区域聚焦法。这不仅仅是因为民族志研究所涵盖的范围,也是因为该项目对“有形可见”与“无形隐身”的基础设施关系的关注。和在全世界其他地区一样,如果一带一路在东南亚公共视野中惊人地无处不在,那么这样的压倒性存在将会有掩盖某些基础设施关键实地动态情况的危险。在这个过程中被忽略的将是基础设施产生的更不起眼的作用效果:例如有关劳工和设施维护的问题,还有对基础设施干涉当地生态的考量。这些不被重视的方向正是我们希望以典型的基础设施反转模式来进行强调的。


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