Red stamps and green tea: fieldwork negotiations and dilemmas in the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands



The socialist spaces within the upland Southeast Asian Massif are home to over 70 million people belonging to geographically dispersed and politically fragmented ethnic minority populations. State authorities have long considered these upland margins as frontier regions where ‘inconsequential peoples’ lag behind national standards. Over time, the Chinese and Vietnamese states have worked to enclose these spaces through a range of ‘development’ programmes and politico-economic strategies. Undertaking qualitative social science research here is underscored by a specific set of challenges (red stamps), dilemmas and negotiations (green tea). In a contemporary context that interweaves economic liberalisation with centralised and authoritarian political structures, I explore how I have negotiated and manoeuvred access to ethnic minority voices. Specifically, I focus on fieldwork endeavours in the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands to answer two core questions. First, in these socialist arenas, how can researchers negotiate access to still-marginalised groups misunderstood by the central state? And second, what are the most pressing ethical questions raised by cross-cultural fieldwork in these spaces and how might these be addressed? While debating these ethical and methodological challenges, I reflect upon the numerous roles of gatekeepers, concerns over the well-being of interviewees and the importance of self-censorship.