Yunnan in a development dilemmaThe Chinese province risks exposing its ethnic cultures and cultural ecology too much, and eroding the basic principles of sustainability.
China’s western region, covering two-thirds of its territory and nearly 23 percent of the national population, comprises nine provinces and autonomous regions—Gansu, Guizhou, Ningxia, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Yunnan and Chongqing Municipality. After eastern China’s 14,000-km coastline brought fortunes to the country during the period 1980-2000, western China with a 3,500-km land frontier was considered to become the second golden area of reopening. During these two decades, China witnessed glaring regional disparity, and the western region emerged very vulnerable. Its seven coastal divisions handled 75 percent of national exports, more than 90 percent of all processing exports and 67 percent of imports. In 1998, Tibet and Gansu had the lowest per capita rural consumption of 710 yuan and 939 yuan respectively.
China received foreign direct investment inflows of $250.02 billion from 1985-98 in which the share of the eastern region was over 86 percent against the western region’s 3.4 percent. Beijing’s biggest concern was that this blatant development laggardness in these politically and strategically volatile provinces could trigger huge political dissent and social upheavals. Therefore, a provision of autonomy and flexibility in their cross-border interactions were considered a central point. It was at this critical juncture that Yunnan, a core province on the traditional Tea Horse Road, was projected as the torchbearer of this opening of the western region to neighbouring countries.
China launched the Kunming Initiative in 1999. The core rationale was to gravitate the ‘backward zones of eastern South Asia and its periphery’ including Bangladesh, the north-eastern region of India, Bhutan and Nepal to the sub-regional idea of Kolkata to Kunming (K2K). This was both to subsume India’s Look East policy introduced in 1992 and facilitate China’s entry into the Indian Ocean from its unexplored western flank.
In Premier Zhu Rongji’s report on National Economic and Social Development during the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-05), developing the western region for regionally balanced economic development and also deepening reform were major deviations. It launched the 'develop-the-west' campaign in 2000 with five major components—infrastructure construction, environmental protection, adjustment of the industrial structure, promotion of science, technology and education, and economic reforms. These measures brought significant development in the whole of western region. These provinces started interacting intimately with the neighbouring countries, particularly Southeast Asian countries.
Yunnan’s development status, along with Tibet and Sichuan, has undergone massive transformation. They have moved from the basics to more sophisticated interventions and to more pivotal roles within China. Just two decades ago, Yunnan—a mountainous landlocked province with Myanmar in the west and Laos and Vietnam in the south—was considered to be a slow growing poverty-stricken province majorly dependent on cattle rearing and tobacco farming. It had huge infrastructural gaps and poor connectivity with major Chinese cities and development centres. Its overwhelming ethnic population of 24 minorities kept it as a sensitive zone for any major development intervention.
Today, it is one of the most vibrant provinces and an over-bridge to Southeast Asia. During the period 1990 to 2018, the gross regional domestic product increased from $9.41 billion to $269.7 billion. Its per capita income recorded an almost 22-fold jump. Initiatives under the west-east (Shanghai-Yunnan) cooperation made huge investments, and helped alleviate poverty among various ethnic minorities. In 2011, the 'three prefectures helping three counties' model was adopted with a focus on aspects of production, living, education and medicine.
Yunnan’s total foreign trade increased from $548 million in 1990 to a hefty $29.90 billion in 2018. Border trade, mostly with Myanmar through the Muse-Ruili point, jumped from a mere $74 million in 1990 to $3.3 billion in 2018. Its trading partners are spread over countries in Asia, Europe, North America, Latin America and Africa. The openness was clearly reflected in the number of foreign direct investment projects that increased from 11 to 182 resulting in an investment flow of $8.28 billion in 2018 alone. More than 5.49 million foreign and 681 million domestic tourists visited Yunnan in 2018 as against 0.66 million and 38 million in 2000. Foreign exchange earnings from tourism increased from $339 million in 2000 to $4.41 billion. Domestic tourists left behind earnings of $131.21 billion.
Yunnan is already a crucial part of the Greater Mekong Subregion. Besides oil and gas pipelines originating from Myanmar and electricity transmission lines linking neighbouring countries, landlocked Yunnan has four cross-border highways connecting Kunming with Bangkok, Hanoi, Yangon, Vientiane. It has been deftly connected with other parts of China. As a major beginning in its railway connectivity with Southeast Asian countries, the ongoing $7 billion Kunming-Vientiane (Laos) 415-km railway project under the Belt and Road Initiative is likely to be completed in 2021. Besides two dozen land, air and water ports, the three cross-border waterways from Lancang to the Mekong, Red River and Irrawaddy are likely to be connected with the oceans and ports therein.
Damage to cultural ecology
With all these, Yunnan has encountered a serious development dilemma of exposing its unique ethnic cultures and fragile cultural ecology too much, and steadily eroding the basic principles of sustainability. Its dependence on Southeast Asia has grown so much that any dislocation by issues related to the South China Sea and other strategic and nationalism-based resistance could derail its entire development process. The ongoing India-China imbroglio has indefinitely grounded its sub-regional ventures, like the K2K, and entry into the Indian Ocean. How much of these development gains have inbuilt inclusiveness, and what is the extent of its percolating down to strikingly varied ethnic communities including Achang, Bai, Bulang, Buyi, Dai, Dulong, De’ang, Hani, Hui, Jingpo, Jino, Lahu, Lisu, Miao, Mongolian, Naxi, Nu, Pumi, Shui, Tibetan, Wa, Yao, Yi and Zhuang is yet to be scientifically studied. So far, propaganda has ruled the roost.
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