China beckons - inside Laos

China beckons - inside Laos
(From right) Tour guide Chansai Nanthanong and student Soumina Koothakaisorn at the Soochow University office in Vientiane.

LAOS - As dusk falls on sleepy Houay Xai, Ms Somphet, 24, makes her way to the new school at the top of a hill, along with around 60 others ranging from eight to 28 years old.

Like many young Laotians attending the small, newly-opened schools in provinces bordering China, they are there to learn Chinese. In many cases, they are taught by Chinese teachers paid for by the Chinese government.

"If I can speak Chinese, I can get a good marketing job with a Chinese company," says Ms Somphet, who goes by one name. From the classroom above the Mekong River, she can see the lights of Thailand across the dark water.

At the same school is Ms Somneuk, 28, who is studying Chinese though she already has a job at a local bank. But speaking Chinese will help; many of the bank's customers are Chinese.

In recent years, China has become the biggest foreign investor in Laos, and growing numbers of Chinese have moved in, drawn by natural resources, from minerals to hydro power. The Chinese have long leases on gold and copper mines, as well as rubber, cassava, sugar cane, eucalyptus and banana plantations.

The Chinese influx has raised hopes of an economic boom for a country with a population of less than seven million, which decades of war left chronically underdeveloped. But it is also controversial as Chinese investors extract natural resources and introduce sweeping changes to landscapes and livelihoods.

In just a few short years, the Chinese stamp is visible everywhere. Houay Xai, a town in the province of Bokeo, has a Chinese-Lao hospital open to all, but staffed mainly by Chinese.

Nearby is a market run by Chinese people. Nobody knows quite how many Chinese now live in Laos, but the figure is thought by some to be in the hundreds of thousands.

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