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Belt and Road

Thriving on China's Belt and Road, Laos border town ditches kip for yuan

But rail cargo still weak due to zero-COVID while debt to Beijing looms large

Food stalls are seen behind a hotel in a special economic zone in the northern Laotian town of Boten, on the border with China. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

BOTEN, Laos -- If you want to eat in the northern Lao town of Boten on the border with China, you better have some yuan on you.

Boten is one of the cities that have been so changed by China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that the yuan is now its main currency of trade. Even utility companies expect payments in yuan, rendering the Lao kip almost obsolete in this town.

But the currency isn't the only Chinese characteristic of the town -- it is also increasingly populated by many from across the border hoping to benefit from the massive development projects under the BRI, China's global infrastructure investment drive and the centerpiece of President Xi Jinping's foreign policy.

Indeed, Boten has had a face-lift since Chinese money started flowing in. It now has a cluster of skyscrapers taller than 100 meters each, the kind of buildings barely seen even in the country's capital, Vientiane.

Jua, a 24-year-old truck driver, feels he has been "kept alive" by China. He is paid in yuan every month by a Chinese cargo owner. He expects his work to increase once Beijing terminates its zero-COVID policy. With domestic industry still underdeveloped, his financial well-being, like many others', depends greatly on Chinese businesses.


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