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Friday, 20 January 2017 17:11
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Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations and sustainable development in the Northwest of Vietnam

(LLCT) - The current changes in Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations are presenting both opportunities and challenges and are having both negative and positive effects on sustainable development in the Northwest in the future.

1. Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations: Cultural foundation and historical heritage

A factor which has had a profound impact on the development of the Northwest of Vietnam in particular and Vietnam in general is Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations on the basis of a long, complicated history. These established relations are attributed to the special geocultural and geopolitical conditions of the Northwest. When considering cultural characteristics from regional or historico-ethnological perspectives, many authors identify the Northwest as the region comprising of Lai Chau, Dien Bien, Son La, Hoa Binh provinces and the western areas of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An provinces, and possibly Lao Cai and Yen Bai provinces. However, in this article, we refer to the Northwest in a broader sense based on a geopolitical perspective. Accordingly, the Northwest of Vietnam consists of 12 provinces in the Northern midland and mountainous region and the western areas of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An provinces(1). Nevertheless, thousands of years ago, before the modern national borders as we now know of existed, the Northwest belonged to a greater cultural region stretching from the South of the Yangtze River (China) and the Northern portion of Southeast Asia.

This was a cultural and ethnological space that existed for a long period of time before national borders were drawn. Historically, this region used to be home to a number of ethnic groups in modern-day Northwestern Vietnam and Southern China. Therefore, it can be called a Southeast Asian, “non-Han” cultural space before the Han’s southward expansion occurred.

This immense cultural space was the basis for natural, dramatic, cross-border cultural exchanges between ethnic groups in the region, past and present. As early as in the 7th century, the Northwestern Vietnam began to receive immigrants including Thai and Nung people from Southern China and vice versa. In addition to cultural and linguistic exchanges through immigration, trade flows began to take shape on a large area across the Vietnamese - Chinese border. Even when Vietnam was formed as a nation, these flows continued to be strong through border gates and non-state periodical markets. Trade first occurred on the Red River, which flows from Yunnan to Hanoi and to the East Sea. Later, it happened with the Dien Viet railways under the French rule (1884 - 1945).

In addition to natural exchanges, Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations were influenced by the multidimensional, historically complicated relationship between Vietnam and China as well as the relationship between Northwestern ethnic groups and state policies on the two sides of the border. For a long period of time, the Northwestern region was under the pressure from the Han’s southward expansion. The pressure form Han feudalists’ exploitation and oppression was the reason why ethnic minority groups in Southern China including H’Mong, Dao, Giay, Bo Y, and those groups belonging to the Tibeto - Burman language family, migrated to the south and settled down in the Northwest.

However, it should be emphasized that the above-mentioned ethnic groups’ migration to the Northwestern region of Vietnam was not only because of the pressure from the Han people but also because of the attraction of the states of the Kinh people in lowland areas of Vietnam, especially in the 10th century when Vietnam became an independent nation and the Northern land border took shape, generally stretching from Lai Chau to Quang Ninh of the present time. In an effort to rebuild the nation and protect its independence, Vietnamese feudalist states would always try and take advantage of the support from Northwestern ethnic groups through their policy of binding minority group chiefs and winning over them and placating ordinary people. Under Vietnamese feudalist dynasties, minority group chiefs in the Northwest were entrusted to ruling provinces and were offered important positions and authority, and especially highly valued in wars against foreign invasion. It was this “soft” approach that helped Vietnamese dynasties to tighten their relations between ethnic minority people in the Northwest and Kinh majority people and make the first become part of the Vietnamese population with a profound awareness of protecting the country’s Northern border.

2. Three major changes in Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations

Over the last two decades, given developments in the bilateral relations between Vietnam and China, Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations have undergone profound changes.

The first change occurred on the basis of the normalization of the political and diplomatic relations between Vietnam and China in the early 1990s. Accordingly, both countries adopted more liberal policies allowing people’s cross-border movement and encouraging cultural and tourism exchanges between the two peoples and especially those living on the border. As a result, ethnic minority people in the Northwest had the opportunity to visit their relatives in China, thereby staying closely connected with their fellows in Southern China and strengthening their sentimental attachment with them. Cross-border cultural exchanges in the Northwest thrived and took various forms, from hamlet twinships to festival participation and to language learning. The opening of the border also contributed to an increase to cross-border marriages in the Northwest, mostly between Vietnamese women (both Kinh and minority people) and Chinese men.

The second major change took place in the economic domain. While normalizing their bilateral political and diplomatic relations, the two countries encouraged people living on the two sides of the border to exchange goods and participate in cross-border trade. As a result, cross-border trade prospered. At large border gates in the Northwest such as Huu Nghi (Lang Son province) or Lao Cai, between 2,000 and 5,000 people crossed the border from Vietnam to China to do business on a daily basis, and the number of people coming in from China to Vietnam was similar.

The two countries also implemented a good number of development programs and projects in Southern China and Northwestern Vietnam. On China’s part, they adopted a policy called “prosperous border, wealthy people”, where they made large investments in infrastructure in Southern China and created a huge number of job opportunities accessible to ethnic people in both Southern China and Northwestern Vietnam. As far as job creation was concerned, China’s “prosperous border, wealthy people” policy created attraction to people living in the Northwest - quite a turnaround compared to policies during feudalistic periods. As a result, since 2011, about 200,000 people, mostly ethnic minority ones, have left the Northwest for work in Southern China. They mainly do seasonal or manual work such as transportation, farming, coal mining, and construction. Apart from the attraction from China, another reason is that the development of traffic infrastructure and construction of industrial and hydropower facilities in Vietnam has caused the area of arable land to shrink and many people in the Northwest to be dislocated to offer sites for these infrastructure and construction projects. Because they lack farm land, these people’s lives have been faced with numerous difficulties, and they, therefore, have had to seek job opportunities across the border.

The third major change lies in the fact that Vietnam’s regional and international integration has exerted a profound impact on cross-border ethnic relations in the Northwest, particularly when it comes to religion and ideology. Combined with domestic issues such as migration among Kinh people and seizure of ethnic minority people’s land for development projects in the Northwest, the impact of globalization has promoted transnational ethnic relations among some ethnic groups and has given rise to extreme nationalism related to native people’s demands for rights, self-autonomy and even separation. Another complicated issue is the development of Protestantism in the Northwest. According to researchers, Northwestern H’Mong people’s conversion to Protestantism is closely related to “cross-border ethnic relations”, specifically concomitant events among Miao communities in China. Since 1998, dozens of Chinese nationals have illegally crossed the border from Yunnan to Vietnam to propagate Protestantism among H’Mong, Dao, La Hu and Cao Lan communities in Lai Chau, Lao Cai and Ha Giang provinces. These Chinese people organized missionary gatherings in border areas and took more than 20 people of H’Mong and La Hu origins with them to China to learn about Protestantism and receive religious publications which they would use for their missionary work in Vietnam. Most of these Chinese people were related to, and were supported by, Protestant organizations, orders and missionaries in the region and the world including the H’Mong language channel of the Manila radio (the Philippines), the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) radio, and the Voice of America (VOA) radio.

3. Sustainable development in the Northwest: Opportunities and challenges from the perspective of Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations 

The above-mentioned changes in Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations have obviously had a strong impact on the goal of achieving sustainable development in the Northwest. On the “sustainable development” concept, there are different interpretations. However, most people agree that a development model regarded as “sustainable” needs to possess two characteristics. First, the process of development should not serve short-term goals at the cost of long-term benefits. Secondly and more importantly, development must be a harmonious process which does not create controversy or potential conflict. The current changes in Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations are presenting both opportunities and challenges and are having both negative and positive effects on sustainable development in the Northwest in the future.

Positive effects include the following:

Firstly, the two countries’ policies opening their borders and easing travel permission as well as cultural, tourism and trade exchanges have helped to resume cross-border ethnic relations which used to exist for thousands of years in a large cultural space consisting of Northern Vietnam and Southern China. These exchanges originated from ethnic groups’ need for socio-economic development. The resumption of these exchanges, therefore, helped to reconcile disagreements which could have possibly occurred when ethnic groups’ need for exchanges were disrupted or impeded due to problems related to the two countries’ bilateral relations. In addition, these natural exchanges have had a long history and have showed their vitality even under the impact of modern national borders.

In addition to the resumption of the historical cross-border ethnic relations, liberal policies concerning economics, travel and infrastructure development on the two sides of the border have been conducive to new relations. As mentioned above, the modern-day Northwest is not only home to cross-border relations between homogeneous ethnic groups or between different ethnic minority groups but also home to relations and especially tourism and trade exchanges between the two countries’ ethnic groups and people in general. Besides those traveling through border gates for trade and business, according to statistics, the number of Chinese visitors to Vietnam to attend festivals and cultural activities in Vietnam in general and the Northwest in particular is on the rise, perhaps at thousands of people each day during the tourism season. An important result of these exchanges is increased mutual understanding between people on the two sides of the border, enhanced solidarity and mutual assistance through economic ties, and tightened and enriched sentimental attachment between ethnic groups in the Northwest and people on the other side of the border, which has existed for a long time already. This has helped to minimize conflicts between people on the two sides of the border, which may be caused by lack of mutual understanding or differences in interests. This has also helped to make development in the Northwest stable and sustainable.

Emerging challenges include the following:

Besides their positive effects, Vietnamese - Chinese cross-border ethnic relations are faced with dangers of instability and have had a negative impact on the goal of sustainable development in the Northwest.

The first challenge is related to order, security and defense. While more liberal policies regarding travel, relatives’ visits and cross-border marriages have brought about a good number of benefits for the two peoples, they have presented challenges to management bodies. One of the thorniest issues is cross-border marriages between Vietnamese women and Chinese men. Most of these marriages are based on economic benefits, which means the goal of improving the bride’s and her family’s economy is the most important one. What is more, most of these marriages are not originated from love or do not proceed from direct contact between the partners but mostly through families, friends, and even professional match-makers. Therefore, a good number of Vietnamese young women, after getting married, cannot adjust to their husbands’ lives, leading to high divorce rates and bridal runaways. Because most cross-border marriages are illegal and are not registered with local authorities, management bodies have found it hard to get in touch with people in need and give them support. This is a reason why cross-border marriages have been used as pretext for human trafficking where most victims are young Vietnamese women. This phenomenon, coupled with bridal runaways, has not only caused economic and spiritual damage to both families but has also threatened to hurt bonds between ethnic groups on the two sides of the border and further complicate the two countries’ bilateral relations.

Another issue which may be detrimental to security and order in the Northwest is the fact that Vietnamese people cross the border to look for jobs in China. Most of them do this illegally and without permission from management bodies. As a consequence, they are not protected by the State and socio-political organizations of Vietnam and are abused by their employers in different forms. They may be forced to work for more than 12 hours a day or subject to limited travel. Their salaries or identity cards may be kept by their employers. They may be robbed of their wages or beaten. Many of them had accidents and died in China but there was no support whatsoever from Chinese employers. Because they do not have legal papers, many Vietnamese citizens are arrested, detained and fined by Chinese authorities before being sent back to Vietnam. Even worse, some bad elements have taken advantage of these Vietnamese employees and have forced them to work in Chinese farms, mines and plantations. This has not only hurt cross-border ethnic relations and bilateral relations between the countries but has also badly affected border security.

The second challenge is an economics-related one. While some people have used Vietnam’s trade promotion policies to smuggle, the biggest challenge has come from China’s “prosperous border, wealthy people” policy and its attraction to workers in the Northwest. On the one hand, as a good number of people in this region have left for China to look for jobs, the effectiveness of Vietnam’s development policies will be reduced and there will be shortages of manpower in the long run. More importantly, as is mentioned earlier, although job opportunities in China are many, most of the jobs are short-term, seasonal and unstable. For people in the Northwest, the pursuit of these short-term jobs does not only pose health and life risks but also cause them to forget to pursue long-term, stable livelihood in their own country.

The third and more serious challenge is national unity and relations between Northwestern ethnic groups and the nation as a whole. In this regard, the biggest danger comes from the fact that cross-border ethnic relations are associated with factors such as separatism, self-autonomy or religion. Under the impact of these factors, cross-border ethnic relations may lead to a situation where ethnic pride overwhelm national pride and where the awareness of the homeland among some ethnic minority communities decreases, which may do harm to the unity of Vietnam.



(1) This is the official understanding of the Northwest, which is used in the State-level Scientific and Technological Program for Sustainable Development of the Northwest, also known as the Northwest Project, codedKHCN-TB/13-18 and run by the Northwest Steering Committee.


1. Phan Huu Dat, Lam BaNam: Vietnamese Feudalist Regimes’ Ethnic Policies (the 10th -19th Centuries), National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2001.

2. Nguyen Van Can: China’s “Prosperous Border, Wealthy PeoplePolicy, Encyclopedia Publishing House, Hanoi, 2009.

3. Nguyen Khac Duc:  On Some Features of Protestantism in Ethnic Minority Regions in Northern Vietnam, the Religious Studies Journal, Issue No.8 (122), 2013, pp.53-58.

4. Nguyen Truong Giang: “Cultural Exchanges between H’MongandDaoPeople inSa PaDistrict, Lao Cai (Vietnam) and Yunnan(China) through Livelihood Activities”,International conference on ethnic cultural exchanges and development of sustainable tourism in the Red River Delta, November 2012.

5. Tran Hong Hanh: Information, Tradition and Cultural Transformation Among Ethnic People in Border Areas, the Ethnology Journal, Issue No. 5, 2012, pp.14-24.

6. Nguyen ChiHuyen, Hoang Hoa ToanandLuong Van Bao: The Origin of Ethnic Groups in Border Areas in Northern Vietnam, National Culture Publishing House, Hanoi, 2000.

7. Nguyen Van Khanh, Lam BaNam: Entering the WTO and the Preservation and Promotion of National Traditional Culture. Published in “Vietnam Enters the WTO and National Protection”, People’s Army Publishing House, Hanoi, 2007.

8. Phan Huy Le: History of the Feudal Regime of Vietnam(part 2), Education Publishing House, Hanoi,1959.

9. Lianling Su: Cross-border Marriage Migration of Vietnamese Women to China, Master Thesis, Kansas State University, 2013.

10. Lam BaNam: The Vietnamese - Chinese Border Region: A Geocultural and Ethnological Exchange, International conference of Sustainable development in Red River Delta region, Lao Cai, 2011. 

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Lam Ba Nam

University of Social Sciences and Humanities,

Vietnam National University, Hanoi

Dr. Dau Tuan Nam

Academy of Politics Zone 1

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