14 Dec 2015

Cross-border trade and “the market” between Xinjiang (China) and Pakistan

Paper for the workshop “Cross-Border Exchanges and the Shadow Economy”, 14–15 December, International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden, the Netherlands.

Alessandro Rippa


A significant part of the China-Pakistan cross-border trade falls within the category of shadow economy. Most Pakistani traders in Xinjiang cannot afford to ship entire containers through the Khunjerab Pass, and rather carry the goods purchased in China with them on the daily buses to Sost, Pakistan, thus avoiding custom taxes. For a few of them this has become a profession - the so-called courier, or shuttle-traders - and their activities have so far been tolerated by Chinese and Pakistani authorities.

Yet this form of border economy, though falling outside of the regulatory regime, is far from being informal. Rather, it is based on a network of contacts on the two sides of the border and on a set of relations which need to be constantly tended and reaffirmed. The extend of the network goes from the bazaars in Kashgar and Gilgit, to the border posts in Sost and Tashkurgan, the two border towns along the Karakoram Highway (KKH). Those activities, moreover, are made possible by the particular institutional setting of the area, and specifically to the so-called "border pass", a document that allows Gilgit-Baltistani to travel freely to Xinjiang through the Khunjerab Pass.

Based on long-term fieldwork in both Xinjiang and Pakistan, this paper shows the complexity of those transactions, their trans-national nature and the performativity that characterizes them. It also highlights the role of online technologies and social networks in the cultivation of those relations, and the ability of traders to navigate through often-changing norms and the flows that characterize the market.

Eventually, the paper suggests a new definition for "the market" as it emerges from the experience of cross-border traders in Xinjiang. For them, I argue, the market is neither simply based on trust, social relations and the continuous flow of information (the so-called "bazaar economy"); nor it corresponds to the global, culture-free market economy. For them, I argue, those two models do not exist in separation, but rather both contribute to the construction of an idea of "market" that is inevitably trans-local and trans-national, but that is also rooted into a set of relations to be continuously performed on the two sides of the border.

Highland Asia Research Group
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oettingenstr. 67
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