Most shop and restaurant owners have packed up and left, as have the Thai transvestite show and the legions of prostitutes. Stricter visa rules for Chinese tourists have added to the squeeze. A Lao policeman, who admits to having nothing to do, puts the town’s dwindling population at 2,000, down from 10,000 at its peak. The enclave’s economy seems to have collapsed just as the builders hit their stride with a new high-rise hotel and a shopping centre bristling with columns in the classical style.
Golden City says it has pumped $130m into the project’s first phase, including funds from outside investors. A company official, Ginger He, puts a brave face on things, arguing that the slump is a chance to rebrand the enclave as a wholesome tourist destination and import-export zone. She blames the bad publicity on shady Chinese concessionaires who ran the card games in the casino—as if the company had expected angels. Golden City has since declared force majeure to revoke its contracts. Investors might wish to sue under Lao law. But Miss He points out that China had ordered Laos to close the casino. “Little brother cannot fight with big brother,” she says
At the best of times, cross-border casinos are risky investments, since China often cracks down on outbound gamblers. Warlords in Myanmar have previously felt the consequences, with gambling dens left to rot in the jungle after borders grew tighter. Business folk in Boten say the action may have moved to casinos elsewhere in Laos and Myanmar. A Macau-based company has recently completed a giant riverside casino in the so-called Golden Triangle, where Laos meets Thailand and Myanmar.
But Golden City was supposed to represent more than just a fast buck. The developers persuaded Laos of the benefits of allowing a Chinese-run enclave. Its residents, they said, would “form a huge community and a modern society”, in the words of their brochure. The zone also took on some of the trappings of the Chinese state, including uniformed security guards, development slogans and even the Chinese currency. This gave the false impression that it enjoyed official backing. Instead, it became an irritant that Beijing had to put in its place.