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Cross‐border market building for narcotics control: A Polanyian analysis of the China–Myanmar border region

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Kean Fan Lim



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of an article that has been published in its final definitive form by Wiley, 2021.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


For decades, narcotics control has been unable to overhaul the durable and arguably self‐regulating socio‐economic networks driving heroin production and distribution in northern Myanmar, the second biggest drug production area in the world. To overcome this territorial barrier, the Chinese state introduced in 2000 an opium substitution programme that involved bringing Chinese agribusiness firms together with ex‐poppy farmers and local elites in northern Myanmar to form a formal cross‐border market. The programme raises a unique empirical puzzle: how could formal market building play a socially progressive role when it is superimposed in a border region underpinned by a well‐established informal, if also mostly illegal, market structure? This paper addresses this question through a reflexive Polanyian analytical framework that examines the “market” through its connections with non‐economic factors over time. It makes a distinct conceptual contribution by incorporating the border as a tangible anchor from which to assess how the processes of redistribution, reciprocity, and market exchange constitute the opium substitution programme as a social “countermovement.” Findings indicate Yunnanese firms negotiate border politics to engage in exchange with ex‐poppy farmers, establish reciprocal relations with local military elites, and implement the redistributive strategies of the Chinese state. Despite some success, this formal market‐building process continues to experience barriers generated by the pre‐existing informal market structure across the border region. Whether market building could further impact on economic restructuring in this border region and fully remove opium production from the border economy therefore remains an open question.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Lim KF, Su X

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Year: 2021

Volume: 46

Issue: 4

Pages: 834-849

Print publication date: 01/12/2021

Online publication date: 19/03/2021

Acceptance date: 05/03/2021

Date deposited: 28/05/2021

ISSN (print): 0020-2754

ISSN (electronic): 1475-5661

Publisher: Wiley


DOI: 10.1111/tran.12447


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Funder referenceFunder name
National Natural Science Foundation of China