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Why Beijing isn’t using the Erawan Shrine bombing to its advantage

A statue of Brahma at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. The Hindu shrine is popular with people of Chinese descent, including Thais.

An image of Brahma at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. The Hindu shrine is popular with Chinese tourists, who were among the victims of the attack.

A connection between Uyghur militants from China’s northwest and the August 17th bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine has been confirmed. Thailand’s police chief made the link explicit during a news conference Tuesday. While the geopolitical consequences of the connection remain to be seen, Beijing could still stand to benefit from the Erawan bombing. However, fears over domestic implications may keep China from using the attack to their advantage.

Two men who have been taken into custody in connection with the case are Yusufu Mieraili and Adem Karadag. Mieraili was arrested in late August with a Chinese passport that listed his birthplace as Xinjiang province – the homeland for the oppressed Muslim-Turkic Uyghur minority. The second suspect was found in an apartment outside Bangkok along with bomb-making materials and dozens of fake Turkish passports.

Thai police issued an arrest warrant for another suspect from Xinjiang, Abudusataer Abudureheman, on Saturday. The 27 year-old Chinese national goes by the name ‘Ishan’ and is the suspected mastermind of the operation. The wanted poster for Ishan first reported that he was of Uyghur ethnicity, though a second version removed the reference and Thai authorities subsequently asked media to “drop the word”.

Observers, both international and Thai made early connections  between the Erawan bombing and the forced repatriation of 109 Chinese Uyghur refugees in July, though it is only now that Thai authorities have acknowledged the Uyghur links to the case. On Tuesday, Thai’s chief of police, Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung blamed the attack on human traffickers who aided Uyghurs refugees, angry that their network had been disrupted by Thai authorities. “Put simply, we destroyed their business.”

Combating domestic terrorism

While the connection between the controversial deportation and the bombing is seemingly bad news for China, there are a number of ways in which the PRC could benefit from this situation. First, the bombing legitimizes China’s domestic anti-terrorism efforts.

The Uyghur struggle for autonomy and Beijing’s efforts to contain it has been anything but peaceful. Systematic state-sponsored economic and physical violence in Xinjiang has been met with repeated attacks on police stations, government buildings, markets and train stations, both in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Beijing has long claimed that many of the terror attacks were coordinated by the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a shadowy separatist organization allegedly linked to al-Qaeda. The very existence of ETIM, let alone its potency, has long been debated among experts and China has struggled to receive widespread recognition for its fight against domestic terrorism. This is largely due to doubts over ETIM and opposition to China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang.

The Erawan attack could change this. Now Beijing can point to the Erawan bombing as credible evidence that Uyghur terrorism is a threat that deserves attention outside of China. By internationalizing the issue, the Chinese government can rationalize its repeated crackdowns on Uyghurs to an international community which has been critical of its past policies. Now, Uyghur terrorism is an international issue that affects everyone – Bangkok was the world’s most visited city in 2014, after all.

Cross-border cooperation

Additionally, with an internationalization of Uyghur terrorism comes more opportunities for cross-border cooperation. Sino-Thai relations, already made closer by new trans-boundary infrastructure projects, will undoubtedly be strengthened by the Erawan attack. In February 2015, a counter-terrorism cooperation pact was signed between Indonesia and China following the repatriation of four Uyghurs accused of planning the Kunming train station attack. A similar agreement is a likely consequence of the Erawan attack.

International cooperation in combating (and sometimes creating) terror networks has been a lowest-common denominator of sorts for inter-state relations in the 21st century and China should take advantage of this. In the past, China has used links between Uyghur militants and terror cells in northwest Pakistan to strengthen relations with the South Asian state. In light of the Erawan blast, Beijing could coordinate its counter-terrorism efforts with Washington. Sino-US relations have noticeably worsened in recent years, and counter-terrorism, aside from global warming, may be the safest area for increased cooperation between the two regional rivals.

Coordination of border control efforts in Southeast Asia, particularly along China’s southern boundary is another area of possible cooperation. Uyghur migration through southwest China into Southeast Asia is a relatively new trend, and the number of migrants has swelled in recent years. Refugees have been known to use existing smuggling routes out of China and through Southeast Asia, exploiting porous borders and corrupt guards on the way. With the specter of international terrorism looming, China and its southern neighbors could increase cooperation along the margins. This would particularly benefit China’s ties with Myanmar and Vietnam, two countries with strained relations to Beijing.

Historically, Southeast Asian governments have acquiesced to China’s demands for detained Uyghur refugees to be repatriated and many observers presumed that the trend would continue along with China’s rise in regional influence. However, there is wide speculation that the attack at the Erawan Shrine, a site popular with ethnic Chinese, both Thai and tourist alike, was executed in retaliation for Thailand’s deportation of Uyghur refugees. The repatriation of 109 Uyghurs from Thailand in July led to condemnation from human rights groups and protests at China’s consulate in Istanbul, where nationalist Turks see Uyghurs as their pan-Turkic brethren. After Erawan and Turkey’s summer protests, Southeast Asian governments will likely reconsider any future deportations for fear of similar retribution.

Internal Worries

Internal worries over the consequences and implications of the Erawan blast may explain Beijing’s continued silence over the incident. While news of the attack did feature prominently in Chinese media in the days following the blast, there has been scarce coverage of the subsequent investigation, let alone the identity of the alleged attackers. Moreover, Beijing has actively denied Uyghur links to the Erawan attack, calling such speculation “hugely irresponsible” in the days following the explosion. Following the Tuesday statement from Gen. Somyot, there has been no mention of the Uyghur link to Erawan in the Chinese press.

China’s fears are not without merit. First, that the attackers hail from Xinjiang could be a point of embarrassment for the Chinese government. The crisis in northwest China has grown worse by the year – 2014 saw the expansion of Uyghur violence out of Xinjiang to the rest of China – and 2015 has now brought an international attack linked to the Uyghur separatist movement.

In the past, Beijing has refrained from mentioning the ethnicity of suspects in domestic attacks for fear of stoking ethnic tensions. Similar concerns are likely influencing China’s actions post-Erawan. Implicit in China focusing at all on the attack’s connection to Xinjiang is an acknowledgement of failure in solving the country’s ethnic problems and an admission of partial culpability. The government is already having enough trouble convincing its citizenry that it is capable of guiding the country through an economic slowdown – adding more doubts over ethnic and security issues is the last thing Beijing wants.

A Coordinated Response?

The lack of coverage of the investigation in China has been mirrored by Thai authorities’ previous reluctance to link the explosion to Uyghur separatism, and its continued avoidance labeling the attack as terrorism. This, like China’s strategy, is likely targeted at the Chinese public. The number of Chinese visitors to Thailand has exploded in recent years and the money they bring has been a welcome addition to the country’s economy as other sectors have faltered since a military junta took power in 2014. News of a bomb in downtown Bangkok was always going to affect tourism numbers, but connections to Uyghur terrorism will undoubtedly cause many prospective Chinese visitors to think twice before booking flights to the kingdom.

What’s more, Thailand’s handling of the case has raised questions of Chinese involvement in the case. The delayed official announcement of the Uyghur and the offiical waffling over the ethnicity of the suspects signaled to some that China had an affect on the investigation. Further, Thai officials asked media to avoid analysis that might affect “international relationships,” interpreted by many to mean China. A coordinated response by Bangkok and Beijing would make sense. In addition to being the source of millions of tourists each year,  China is Thailand’s largest trade partner and the closest ally of its military government.

Now that Bangkok has shown its hand, Beijing’s response will be critical to watch. Political savvy on the part of China’s foreign ministry could turn an international tragedy into an opportunity for more positive ties with Southeast Asia. However, the domestic implications of publicizing the link between Xinjiang and Erawan shrine will likely keep Beijing silent for now.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Human trafficking, Kunming Train Station Attack, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand

No Recourse: Upper Mekong Dam Spells End for Tibetan Village

Cizhong village in the background along the west bank of the Upper Mekong in Yunnan.

Cizhong village in the background along the west bank of the Upper Mekong in Yunnan.

Cizhong, a remote Tibetan village in China’s Yunnan province, has no recourse against the onslaught of impacts from the construction of the Wunonglong dam on the Upper Mekong River.

This year has seen no pause in activity from civil society organizations and community level stakeholders in the Lower Mekong targeting criticism at the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in Laos, both high-profile projects on the main stem of the Mekong River. Moreover, evidence shows how efforts of these groups are actually delaying the construction of these projects and raising the costs associated with their completion. Dual influences of economic uncertainty in China and Southeast Asia and the unavoidable effects of climate change in addition to grassroots efforts are challenging the popular notion of a “domino effect” of inevitable hydropower development on the Mekong.

Yet while the domino effect on the Lower Mekong may be under question, it has prevailed in China’s stretch of the Mekong , silencing activism and subjecting affected communities and local ecologies to the vagaries of unchecked development. The 990MW Wunonglong dam, scheduled for completion in 2019, and the impacts of its reservoir on thousands of households serves as a case in point.

Construction began at the Wunonglong dam site in 2010.

Construction began at the Wunonglong dam site in 2010.

I first heard of the impacts of the Wunonglong dam on the day I walked into Cizhong, a village 40km upstream of the construction site. Cizhong sits on a small plateau 100 meters above the Mekong at the southern end of Deqin county in one of the most remote areas of Yunnan province. I crossed into Cizhong on a bridge that will be inundated by the dam’s reservoir in a few years.  Looming fifty meters above, a half constructed bridge built by the dam developer Huaneng Hydrolancang will upon completion bisect a patch of carefully maintained rice paddies located between the river and the village.

Cizhong is majority Tibetan, and for years both Chinese and foreign tourists have flocked to the village for two reasons.  First, eighty percent of the village’s 115 households are members of the local Catholic church established in the late 19th century by French missionaries. Several times a week, villagers file into the stone Cizhong cathedral, a nationally protected structure, to take part in mass led by Li Fei, a priest from Inner Mongolia.  The prayers sung in unison before mass are to the tune of commonly known Tibetan Buddhist chants.  European tourists typically line the back pews to catch a glimpse of this uncommon marriage of cultures.

Cizhong’s Catholic Church, a nationally protected structure built in the early 20th century.

Cizhong’s Catholic Church, a nationally protected structure built in the early 20th century.

Second, Cizhong is home to a growing cottage wine industry, also introduced by the French missionaries prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  The wine boom started in the late 1990s with the resurrection of a Rose Honey grape variety found growing on the cathedral grounds and no longer cultivated in France.  About ten years ago, the local Deqin county government introduced agricultural assistance programs that brought in other kinds of grape varieties as well as technical aid to supply a larger wine making industry in the Shangri-la region.  Currently, most villagers sell their grapes to middlemen each harvest, but some choose to make their own wine to retail at Cizhong’s local wineries and guesthouses.

New neighbors

However, the things that make Cizhong special may not be around for long. The Wunonglong dam threatens not just Cizhong’s local economy that has delivered modest levels of prosperity to the village over the past thirty years, but also the religious harmony between local Tibetan Catholics and Buddhists.

In two years Yanmen, an upstream community with more than two hundred households, will be entirely relocated to Cizhong.  Yanmen sits low along the banks of the Mekong and will be completely flooded by Wunonglong’s reservoir and the only place to transplant Yanmen’s residents is on top of Cizhong’s rice paddies.  Upon hearing the news of Yanmen’s takeover of their rice paddies, Cizhong’s villagers reacted emotionally as the paddies create a critical community space for social interaction. “The village elders cried when they heard the rice paddies would be destroyed.  The paddies were carved with their bare hands in the 1960’s and now the government wants to take them away?” says a local villager. Another villager claimed one rice harvest can feed the village for two years. Without a rice crop, villagers will have to generate income to overcome a critical food security issue.

Part of Yanmen village located below the inundation zone of Wunonglong's reservoir.

Part of Yanmen village located below the inundation zone of Wunonglong’s reservoir.

The day I walked through Cizhong was the last day for the giant walnut trees that lined Cizhong’s only road. To widen the road making way for Yanmen’s relocation, the remains of the trees, which each can produce up to 10000 RMB (1500 USD) of walnuts per year for sale at local markets, were stacked into wrecked piles of limbs and logs. Villagers received 300-10000 RMB in compensation per tree, at most enough to cover one year’s harvest.

The wine industry, as well as walnuts, has suffered as a result of the relocation. “They cut down an entire row of my grapes,” says a villager who also lost walnut trees to the road’s expansion.  “We were only compensated 40 RMB for a healthy vine and 30 RMB for saplings.  One vine produces 40 RMB of grapes per year, and I have no new land to plant on.  They took 100 of my vines.”

Road widening brings down scores of Cizhong’s walnut trees.

Road widening brings down scores of Cizhong’s walnut trees.

No equity, nowhere to turn

Land compensation is an issue of major contention in Cizhong.  More than half of Cizhong’s agriculturally productive land is being claimed for redistribution to the incoming residents of Yanmen and originally villagers were offered 30,000 RMB per mu of land (1 acre equals 6 mu) lost to Yanmen’s relocation.  Currently the local government is offering 100,000 RMB per mu, but Cizhong’s villagers continue to hold out.

“The villagers who moved to the city long ago and no longer live here agreed to 100,000 RMB per mu.  It’s easy for them because they have other jobs and other income, but to us, the taking of our land is taking away our only source of income,” says a villager surnamed Wang. Some villagers will lose all of their productive land. Stall tactics make sense since the local government will take 30% of the compensation and only dole out the agreed upon compensation in monthly installments over 15 years.  At the current offer, with only 3000 RMB per mu in compensation per month, even the most business savvy individuals will not be able to survive.  “We will wait,” says Wang with unsteady confidence.

Yanmen’s residents will rebuild on Cizhong’s carefully cultivated rice paddies

Yanmen’s residents will rebuild on Cizhong’s carefully cultivated rice paddies

I inquired about legal recourse.  “The local mayor only listens to money.  He’s not on our side,” continues Wang.  “I tried to file a petition in Deqin, the county seat, but the official there said the only way he’d review our petition was if the entire village showed up. That’s impossible. We don’t know who to turn to.”

Two hundred meters from the village on the opposite bank of the Mekong, new road construction and a tunneling project carries on day and night. Like the old bridge, the current road to Cizhong will be flooded by the dam’s reservoir. Noise from stone crushing machinery and cement processers pervades the valley.  Last year a landslide created by the road project forced the river to change course and washed away three mu of Wang’s riverside agricultural land. To date he has received no compensation.  Wang claims landslides opposite the village have resulted in the deaths of more than fifty construction workers. He points to cracks in the plaster walls of his traditional home built of wood and earth.  “My house shakes all day long from the construction.”

Highway construction opposite Cizhong has led to landslides and more than 50 deaths.

Highway construction opposite Cizhong has led to landslides and more than 50 deaths.

“Ten years ago we had everything we needed and now life is only getting worse,” continues Wang. Electricity generated by the Wunonglong dam will not be distributed to Cizhong.  In a prelude to Cizhong’s current worries, a small-scale hydropower project adjacent to the village was constructed a few years ago. It sends no power to the village, and to make matters worse, the small scale project cut off access to a local stream and to pasture lands beyond it.  “We let our cows out to pasture in the hills but they came back with bloodied legs because they couldn’t cross the land affected by the small hydropower project. Now there’s nowhere for our cows to graze.” When the small scale project was commissioned, developers promised locals 500 units of free electricity – those promises were never fulfilled.  Not a single Cizhong villager was employed in the construction of the small scale power station, and the price of electricity has been on a steady rise in the village.

Squeezed by national development needs

When Chinese dam developers conduct feasibility studies and first meet with locals affected by projects, they fervently sing praises of hydropower, boasting of how the dam will deliver local communities out of poverty and provide new income sources.  Reality tells a different story as infrastructure development projects in southwest China nearly always fail to provide net benefits to those who live closest to them.  In the case of China’s hydropower development on the Mekong, most power is sent to cities on or near China’s eastern coast. And as China doubles down on its commitments to reducing carbon output, the investment in hydropower projects, particularly in the under-developed southwest is amplified.

In Cizhong as in many other parts of upland southwest China, the Chinese government’s “core interests” of energy dependence and carbon reduction combine forces to turn land held by indigenous ethnic peoples  into a marketable commodity. Individual livelihoods, the social cohesion provided by generational practices and reliance on the land, and local traditions are consistently marginalized.

A few years ago at a village meeting, a former Cizhong mayor berated the villagers shouting “This land, this water, these mountains, they are not yours!  Stop acting like these are yours!  This is the state’s land, and these are the state’s resources.”

From a legal perspective, the Chinese state owns the land and everything above and below it, but villagers who are responsible for the productive economic activities that happen on that land are legally guaranteed compensation at fair market value for land grabbed by developers or involved in relocation efforts. Yet on China’s periphery, even the commoditization process fails. The marginalized nature of Cizhong and distance from the state’s judicial apparatus prevents fair compensation. Further, the law lacks consideration for values attached to various ways upland ethnic peoples use the land.

The Chinese state apparatus sees compensation to and relocation of rural peoples affected by development through standards applied to lowland agriculture, where patches of land are treated as commodities producing an accountable thus taxable yield on an annual basis. In upland China as in parts of Southeast Asia, land use patterns are less standardized and less predictable. Villagers there use mountain slopes as common pasture land for grazing animals, the forests as areas for collecting consumable and marketable products such as the matsutake mushroom and caterpillar fungus, or as in Cizhong’s case, walnuts produced by trees lining its roads and fields. The value of community-building functions created by these shared land use practices often is greater than the cumulative economic value derived from the land.

Sunday mass in Cizhong's Catholic church.

Sunday mass in Cizhong’s Catholic church.

“We are worried about village harmony,” Wang continues, discussing how the daily routines of Cizhong’s Catholics are still deeply entwined with Tibetan Buddhist culture.  “It’s common to see Buddhist monks present to give blessings at Catholic weddings and Christmas and Easter. We’ve achieved this harmony through decades of exchange with our Buddhist neighbors.”  However, all of Yanmen’s residents are believers in Tibetan Buddhism and unfamiliar with Catholic culture. Wang is worried that despite common ethnic heritage, the influx of Buddhists will upset community harmony and social interaction.  He labels Yanmen’s residents as overly superstitious and tells stories of how they are caught up in a spiteful sectoral feud between a local protector deity and the Dalai Lama that divides families in this part of the Tibetan world.

As if matters could not get any worse, when Yanmen village moves in, Cizhong will lose its name. Yanmen is one rung higher in China’s administrative ranking of localities, providing further risk to the interdependent cottage tourism and wine industries that have bet their futures on Cizhong’s name and unique history. The name change coupled with the inundation of Tibetan Buddhist villagers from Yanmen will dilute the uniqueness of Cizhong’s past and have a particular impact on Cizhong’s tourism industry.  With less land available for agricultural production per household, villager’s annual grape yields will decrease having an impact on income.  Villagers might choose to switch to higher value crops, but options for diversification are few in the canyonlands of the Upper Mekong. Alternatively villagers will be pressured to intensify the use of fertilizers to increase grape yields, pushing limits on sustainability and subjecting the local ecology to the effects of dangerous chemicals.

Spring grapes in Cizhong

Spring grapes in Cizhong

With no avenue for legal recourse and no one coming to aid the villagers, Cizhong’s days are numbered. The demoralizing effects of the Wunonglong dam are obvious and with nowhere to turn to for assistance or relief, Cizhong’s villagers can only passively wait to absorb the next shockwave. Censorship and the tightening of restrictions on NGOs under Xi Jinping’s government discourages civil society groups from intervening in cases like Cizhong’s making this unfortunate village just one of many caught up in the inevitable leviathan of energy infrastructure development in southwest China.

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Filed under Agriculture, China, Current Events, Energy, Food, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management

Dali Old Town to charge entry fee

Dali Old Town; Image: Yereth Jansen

Dali Old Town; Image: Yereth Jansen

Dali, ancient seat of the Nanzhao Kingdom (南诏) and famed across China for its triumvirate of 1,200 year-old pagodas, will soon have an entry fee for tour groups. Beginning September 1, travel agents booking group trips to the city will be charged a one-time “maintenance fee”.

The 30 yuan per person charge will be added to the price of all group packages that include tours of Dali Old Town (大理古城). In addition to the fee, all companies operating within a 2.5 square kilometer “key protected area” of the old town will be charged a “preservation tax” equal to one percent of each businesses’ gross annual income. The entry surcharge for tour groups does not apply to those traveling independently or to locals living in the old town.

Money raised through the fee will be put towards historical preservation efforts and upgraded safety measures. Over the past four years, the Dali municipal government has reportedly spent 160 million yuan (US$25.8 million) on renovation and upkeep of older traditional buildings. However, more money was deemed necessary and instead of dipping into city coffers, officials decided to pass the cost on to visiting tourists. According to Dali’s Deputy Party Secretary, Yang Junbiao (杨军标):

Relying only on fiscal spending was insufficient as a means to maintaining Old Town. Requesting maintenance fees and asking for support from society at large will help fix the problem of [our] monetary deficiency and widen the availability of maintenance money. This is a useful way to protect and elevate Dali Old Town.

A similar fee was first discussed in 2009 but eventually put on hold until 2014. At the time, tour operators and local merchants strongly opposed establishing a surcharge and were also concerned with perceived transparency and oversight problems concerning how the money would be spent.

It appears some of these fears have now been alleviated, as the local government outlined its planned expenditures. Each year, Yang said in his announcement, two million yuan (US$322,000) will be put toward protecting and renovating historic buildings, with special focus on Bai minority residential structures. Also, a one-time outlay of 30 million yuan (US$4.8 million) has been earmarked for unspecified upgrades to the town’s fire protection infrastructure.

This last concern is being given high priority in old towns around the province following a January 2014 fire that destroyed much of Shangri-la in northwest Yunnan. The blaze raged for 14 hours and razed hundreds of traditional homes and businesses, highlighting the need for more serious fire precautions in similar historic towns composed almost entirely of interconnected wooden buildings.

This article was originally posted here on GoKunming by Patrick Scally.

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