University of Wisconsin–Madison

Kelly Wanjing Chen

Graduate student (Ph.D.)


2012-2014  M.Sc in Human Geography, Beijing Normal University; 2013 Exchange Student in Human Geography, University of Oklahoma; 2008-2013 B.A. in English, Beijing Normal University; 2007-2011 B.Sc in Geography Information System and Remote Sensing, Beijing Normal University.

Research Areas

Political Economy of China, Urbanization in Southeast Asia, Transnationalism, Informal Economy,  Ethnographic Methods.

Current Research

My current research focuses on the globalizing processes of contemporary Chinese political economy. Chinese state has recently renewed its global outreach agenda through the much debated Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The initiative, promising $ 1 trillion state-backed credit to finance infrastructure projects across 60 countries, has mobilized much more capital in reality. Speculating upon and justifying through the narrative of BRI, an unprecendented amount of capital has flowed out of mainland China, leaving behind the stagnant domestic economy for new sites of accumulation. Consequently, the various streams of Chinese capital mobilized by BRI make strong cumulative presence in investment frontiers like Laos, where game-changing BRI infrustructure projects are unfolding. Since the proposal of trans-Laos railway-- an indespensable section in BRI's pan-Asia railway network, Laos, one of the least developed country according to World Bank evaluation, with a territorial size of Yunnan and a population of mere 7 million, has experienced hightened capital injection from China. By 2017, traceble data ranks Laos the 16th amongst China's outward investment receipient countries. The transnational capital flow from China to Laos, and other frontier economies alike, are dependent upon sophisticated systems of brokerage, in which many wealths change hands. The opaque nature of such patronage networks opens up space for pervasive hustling, through which circuits of capital are fixed into certain material and spatial forms by deal makers whose primary purpose is self-enriching. In the context of Laos, elite hustling since the arrival of BRI-related Chinese capital has resulted in a construction frenzy at its capital city Vientiane. By directing capital to finance a series of integrated urban development projects that are economic irrational, an array of middle and upper middle class brokers are able to seize de facto control of land and property under Lao state's land and property regulatory regime. The elite informality that governs the recent urbanization of Vientiane is informative to the making of similar urban processes across the region. By unpacking the informal economy of brokerage that thrived along the rise of Chinese investment in Laos through recent dynamics in Vientiane, my project also demonstrates the agency of non-state actors in the transnational governance of BRI, and destablizes a singular 'Chineseness' projection of this initiative that is actually situated within and constantly reshaped by the broader context of global capitalism.     


Courses Taught

Geography 101  Introduction to Human Geography; Geography 340  World Regions in Global Context


Association of American Geographers (AAG); Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS); Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS)

Recent Publications

Peer-reviewed Journal Article: 

Kelly Wanjing Chen, Jung Won Sonn. 2017. Contingent Proletarianization of Creative Labor: Deskilling in the Xianyou Classical Furniture Cluster. Geoforum, online:

Jung Won Sonn, Kelly Wanjing Chen, He Wang, Xiao Liu. 2017. A Top-down Creation of a Cultural Cluster for Urban Regeneration: The Case of OCT Loft, Shenzhen. Land Use Policy. 69: 307-316.

Huasheng Zhu, Kelly Wanjing Chen, Juncheng Dai. 2016. Beyong Apprenticeship: Knowledge Brokers and Sustainability of Apprentice-Based Clusters. Sustainability. 8(12): 1279-1296. 

Book Review: 

Kelly Wanjing Chen. 2017. Africa's Information Revelution: Technical Regimes of Production Networks in South Africa and Tanzania. Journal of Economic Geography. 17(1):265-266. 

Awards and Honors

2018  SRGC Student Research Travel Grant; 2018  IAP Graduate and Professional Student Study Abroad Scholarship; 2014-2017  Mellon Foundation Area and International Studies Fellowship; 2015,2016,2018  Trewartha Conference Travel Award; 2016  Center of Southeast Asian Studies Pre-Dissetation Field Research Award; 2016  Scott Kloeck-Jenson International Internship Award; 2014  Beijing Normal University Tangren Scholarship for Academic Achievement.

Contact Information

Mailing Address:

550 Science Hall 550 North Park Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53705

Phone: (608) 422-9786