Tag Archives: Yunnan

Report: “Mismanagement” stalling building projects across China

Work continues on the Darui Railroad in western Yunnan Image credit :cr8gc

Work continues on the Darui Railroad in western Yunnan. Image credit: cr8gc

Hundreds of highway and railroad projects are facing delays or otherwise running far behind originally envisioned construction timetables. This, according to a report issued by China’s National Audit Office, is a result of local governments improperly managing infrastructure funds — actions thought to have a direct effect on the country’s stalling economy.

In total, the audit of projects nationwide looked into 815 infrastructure programs across the country. More than 20 percent — 193 in total — were found “to be experiencing significant implementation lags due to a lack of funds or poor initial planning.” Together, the behind-schedule ventures represent government investment of 287 billion yuan (US$45.2 billion).

The architects of China’s economy have traditionally relied heavily on state-funded building projects as a means to revitalize the financial system in times of decline. Therefore, those lagging behind schedule due to mismanagement or misuse are seen as harming the economy in two ways, according to the audit. Not only are funds not being spent as quickly as they are authorized, but the benefits to localities through which new infrastructure projects pass must wait idly for any expected economic uplift.

In Yunnan, this is especially true in the province’s west. A railroad from Dali — traveling through Yongping, Baoshan, Mangshi and terminating at Ruili on the Burmese border — was originally expected to be completed in 2014. It will provide some of the most populated regions in western Yunnan direct rail access to Kunming for the first time ever. However, due to cost over-runs and awkward mountainous terrain, the line is now expected to open as late as 2019.

In an effort to speed up construction along the single-track Darui Railroad (大瑞铁路), Beijing injected a further five billion yuan (US$788 million) in annual funding for the endeavor beginning in 2012. The 335 kilometer railway is 75 percent tunnels and bridges, making for difficult surveys and slow progress, especially in places where engineers must dig under theGaoligong Mountains.

The railway was first conceived of in 1938 as a way to connect Kunming with the British colony of Burma. The outbreak of World War II scuttled those plans. However, they have since been resurrected as one part of the massive BCIM trade corridor, which Beijing hopes will one day provide an overland link between Kunming and seaports on the Indian coast some 2,800 kilometers away.

This post was originally published on GoKunming and written by Patrick Scally. It is reprinted here, in its entirety, with permission from the author. 

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Remembering Yunnan’s Role in World War Two

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The streets of Beijing are abuzz with patriotism, filled with goose-stepping soldiers, gleaming new military hardware and bedecked with five-star red flags. It is the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s formal surrender in 1945, an act that brought the cataclysm of the Second World War to its official end.

While the capital celebrates and hundreds of millions watch the Beijing parade on television, Yunnan residents quietly reflect on their province’s stand in what is officially called the ‘Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression’. Although no parades will be held this year in Kunming commemorating those who fought and died, Yunnan’s stature as one of China’s last bastions of hope remains undiminished, if often a bit misunderstood.

The vicissitudes of history — especially in a war fought on as many fronts as World War Two — leave thousands, if not millions, of stories untold. In Yunnan, the general narrative has by now been boiled down to three major fronts, all of which effected one another. They include the development of Kunming as China’s last ditch air base, a months-long engagement in the mountains of western Yunnan and the opening of the Stilwell Road. Although those three events do not comprise the entirety of the war effort carried out South of the Clouds, they go a long way toward creating a general overview.

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The China National Aviation Corporation, The Flying Tigers and The Hump

Few know that the foundation of the province’s current airport network was laid more than 70 years ago by Americans and Chinese working for an often-misunderstood Chinese/American-owned commercial airline known as China National Aviation Corporation, or CNAC. Founded in 1929 by aircraft manufacturer Curtiss-Wright, CNAC ran into difficulties dealing with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and was sold to Pan American Airways in 1933.

CNAC fared better in China under Pan Am management and began to service routes linking the United States, Pan American’s Pacific network, and China’s major urban centers, first flying into Kunming in 1935. Runways were hard to come by in China at the time, and CNAC had a competitive advantage with its river planes, which often made water landings on the Yangtze and other waterways.

War was to quickly alter the fate of CNAC. By the end of 1941, CNAC was making evacuation flights as well as carrying out the dangerous supply runs between India and Kunming for which it would late become famous. When the American Volunteer Group — now more commonly referred to as The Flying Tigers (飞虎队) and credited with bringing down as many as 300 Japanese aircraft during its brief tenure — disbanded in July of 1942, many of its pilots joined CNAC rather than return to the US military. This blurred the lines between CNAC and the Flying Tigers, as the ‘original’ Tigers were now seen in CNAC civilian uniforms.

As Japanese forces gained ground in southern China and Burma, Yunnan and Kunming became a critical nexus for material shipments and air support sorties. Kunming remained un-captured throughout the war, not only due to CNAC and The Flying Tigers, but also because thousands of local civilians turned out to build and repair airstrips, work as makeshift mechanics and otherwise support Allied troops.

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The Huitong Bridge and Ledo Road

During World War II the western part of Yunnan was occupied by Japanese forces. They had effectively cut off the Burma Road that once supplied Yunnan and Sichuan, while simultaneously attempting to stop cargo planes flying The Hump transport route. The planned goal was to march on Kunming and then Chongqing.

The Japanese army could only be stopped from further penetration by blowing up the Burma Road bridge at Huitong (惠通桥), where it crossed the Nu River — then known to the world outside China by its Burmese name, the Salween. General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, Allied commander of the China-Burma-India Theater, worked hard to reopen the Burma Road because he saw it as the only way of getting in enough supplies and heavy equipment to fight the war further east into China.

Under his command, American engineering battalions began to cut a road through the north of Burma from the Indian railhead town of Ledo, planning eventually to link up with the original Burma Road at the Chinese border. To recapture the ground through which the supply line needed to travel, Stilwell launched the Salween Campaign. He used the Chinese Expeditionary Army, first established and trained in India, as a vanguard.

This force was made up of Chinese army units cut off from the mainland by Japanese attacks on the Burma Road, as well as other reinforcements flown in on empty Hump return flights to India. These men were known as the X-Force, while the American-trained and supplied Y-Force operated from Yunnan.

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The Y-Force, with the assistance of American supplies, technicians and tactical advisers, forded the Nu River beginning on May 11, 1944. On the first day some 40,000 troops crossed the river with the help of 398 American rubber boats and countless bamboo rafts. In the days that followed, 60,000 more troops and thousands of pack animals carrying supplies crossed the river. The Japanese had not expected an army of this size capable of crossing the rain-swollen river, and were taken by surprise. However, they were able to hold up the enormous force because they retained control of the passes along the Gaoligong Mountains.

The Japanese base at Songshan controlled the Huitong Bridge across the Nu River. The stronghold — referred to as “Gibraltar on the Burma Road” — proved extremely difficult to capture. First, the Chinese tried to storm it en masse but were forced back again and again, each time with heavy losses. Next, the Chinese started to construct trenches up the mountain, but in the end this did not work either. Finally they undermined Japanese command and supply bunkers by digging long tunnels though the mountain. Using tons of US-supplied TNT, the force blew up the mountaintop on August 20, 1944.

Even then there was stiff resistance and the mountain stronghold was only captured on September 7, following more than three months of heavy fighting. The victory was secured at a cost of 7,600 Chinese lives and those of some 3,000 Japanese defenders.

On January 12, 1945 the first convoy left India and followed the recently captured and repaired road. It arrived on February 4 in Kunming, over a twisting thoroughfare by then named the Stilwell Road. The vital supply line combined the original Burma Road — its 900-kilometer Chinese section built by an estimated 200,000 civilians in only eight months — and the US$150 million American-constructed Ledo Road.

The Yunnan front was an incredibly crucial one, for the Allies in general, and China specifically. The once sleepy and forgotten province awoke to the misery and destruction of war and responded more than admirably. Following the war, Yunnan and its people attempted to return to a normality that included a new found pride of place that remains with many to the present day.

This article, written by Patrick Scally, was originally posted here on the GoKunming website on September 3.

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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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Shangri-la Highland, China’s newest micro-brewery

On June 20, 2015, a new face entered, or rather re-entered, the growing craft beer scene in Yunnan. The Shangri-la Highland Craft Brewery, founded and chaired by Songtsen Gyalzur (known as Sonny), officially opened for business. Though hailing from similarly mountainous Switzerland, Sonny, a Tibetan, has deep roots in Shangri-la, from where his parents emigrated.

The impetus for Shangri-la Beer began in 2009, when he first traveled to his family’s homeland in Yunnan and visited an orphanage run by his mother. Coming from a real estate background back in Switzerland, Sonny opened a restaurant to give back to the local community. As part of his mission, he worked to employ and train former orphanage residents. With business booming, customers soon began asking him if any beers were made locally in Shangri-la. That is when Sony decided to open a brewery that would use local ingredients.

After some research, Sonny learned that most Chinese beers, such as Dali Beer, are made using larger quantities of rice. Collaborating with a Swiss brew master, he instead developed beers using highland barley grown on farms near the city. They then opened and developed a small brewery, which sold four bottled beers — mostly in small quantities — to local restaurants in the old town.

These beers, which are now produced at a larger facility, include Tibetan Lager, Tibetan Pale Ale, Black Yak — similar to a porter with some hints of coffee — and Supernova, which is a strong flavorful ale with hints of licorice. The beers were, and still are, all brewed using a combination of naked highland barley and imported Belgian malts. Seasonal microbrews are also planned for the future.

Following the initial success of Sonny’s small and unofficial brewery, the local government approached him, suggesting he open a much larger, officially licensed operation with their support. Officials believed this would be a good way to help local farmers sell their barley. Construction on the new brewery facility began in March 2014, with its official opening ceremony taking place in June.

It was, for Shangri-la, quite a spectacular event, attended by notable dignitaries, both local and foreign. Large scale festivities were held, including traditional Tibetan dances. There was, of course, free beer for all. Sonny also introduced the crowd to the brewery itself and explained his philosophy of brewing good beer – at one point comparing a good beer to a beautiful Tibetan woman. The opening itself was paired with two other notable events in Shangri-la over the weekend, the annual horse racing festival, and the celebration of Shangri-la’s establishment as an official city.

To capitalize on the two-day event, Sonny and his company also worked to formally establish a sister-city relationship with the skiing town of Arosa back in Switzerland. As such, the opening celebration for the new brewery included speeches of recognition from both the Swiss ambassador to China and the mayor of Shangri-la. City and federal governments on both sides were very supportive of the Swiss-Sino relationship, and used the brewery as a vehicle to support it. Fortunately, and following much effort, bureaucrats in Beijing also came through to encourage the idea.

Sonny’s Tibetan beers are unique, a fact his brew master attributes to the alpine water used in the beer-making process. For Shangri-la Beer, brewing is not just so much about the hops which have become so popular in American microbrews. Sonny explains that, unlike hops-based beer, his are more focused on malts — for both flavor and for the utilization and development of local Tibetan yeasts and highland barley. The beer also has no additives or stabilizers, as part of an all-organic mission statement.

During our interview, Sonny explained that he feels the beer is truly Tibetan. It is made by native people with local raw materials, resulting in brews typifying the social custom of drinking barley chhaang — a strong Tibetan alcoholic drink often made from barley.

With its new brewery and bottling factory, Shangri-la Beer has moved beyond the scale of a microbrewery, but Sonny maintains the company is committed to maintaining a quality and unique product. He explains that to make a micro-style beer that can be legally bottled is very difficult due to the required production size. Obtaining an official health and bottling license from Beijing took a huge amount of effort. The minimum production capacity required for such a license is 18,000 bottles per hour. Yet even at this quantity, Shangri-la Beer remains something of a mystery to the wider world. In the very near future, however, Sonny’s brew will arrive in Kunming.

This post originally appeared on GoKunming, and appears here with full permission from the author.

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Kokang conflict reveals ethnic strife unlikely to end after cease fire

Many things in Myanmar are changing – the economy, the government, infrastructure. Others, like violent ethnic conflict, seem destined to stay the same. For the past three months, the government of Myanmar has been fighting the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic rebel army based on the country’s border with China. The MNDAA are predominantly made up of ethnic Kokang fighters. The Kokang are ethnically Han Chinese and the live in Kokang region, in Myanmar’s Shan state.

The MNDAA  initiated the conflict by storming Kokang’s largest city, Laukkai, on 9 February 2015. Over the past four months, the government has aimed to reassert control over the region and its agriculture, as well as disarm the MNDAA. The government of Myanmar extended martial law over Kokang region on 15 May 2015.

A rebel soldier of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) places a machine gun bullet belt around the neck of another soldier at a military base in Kokang region, March 10, 2015. Photo courtesy of VOA News.

The violence in Kokang has accompanied ongoing ceasefire talks between the government and 16 other ethnic armies, who agreed on a ceasefire draft on 31 March 2015. Previous agreements fell through because the language of the agreements weakened ethnic groups’ legal protection and the government had refused the other ethnic armies’ demands that the MNDAA be included in ceasefire talks, which began in 2013. Government forces continued operations in Kokang even after the MNDAA declared its own ceasefire on 11 June 2015, and on 24 June 2015 offered to begin discussing peace only if the MNDAA surrendered and gave up their weapons. This attitude suggests the government of Myanmar prioritizes undermining the MNDAA over negotiating peace. Moreover, history shows that a ceasefire or even a surrender may not end the violence.

CURRENT CONFLICT DISPLACES THOUSANDS

The MNDAA — along with two other ethnic armies, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army, all of which are based in Shan state — positioned their forces in towns and outposts throughout Kokang months before they finally launched attacks on 9 February. MNDAA forces began their attack by shelling the targeted cities and outposts. The Myanmar Army (also known as the Tatmadaw) responded by moving its forces into the besieged cities, and used artillery and airstrikes to support their advance, outgunning the rebels. Nevertheless, Tatmadaw officials admitted MNDAA troops were better armed and seemed better organized on the battlefield than previous skirmishes.

More than 100,000 Kokang civilians fled to Yunnan province within the first few weeks of fighting. Tens of thousands of refugees settled in refugee camps along or across the border, but in early March, China began to evict refugees from camps near the border, either relocating them to other camps or forcing them to return to Myanmar.

The combat itself has also spilled over the border into Yunnan province. The Tatmadaw used artillery and airstrikes on MNDAA positions in which, Tatmadaw claimed, heavy forestation made acquiring accurate targets difficult. As a result their air force bombed Chinese territory twice. On 8 March, one bomb went off course and exploded in a field in Lincang, Yunnan, destroying property and causing a forest fire, but not directly killing or injuring anyone.

Medics rush the wounded away from a 2014 ambush. Photo by Silver Yang, used courtesy of VOA News.

On 13 March, the Tatmadaw was not so lucky in avoiding collateral damage, bombing a sugarcane farm and killing four and injuring nine Chinese citizens. Beijing swiftly rebuked Myanmar for the deaths of innocent Chinese citizens, and demanded an investigation into the bombing operation. Myanmar apologized for the incident and promised it would never again allow for Chinese nationals to be killed. Beijing agreed to not intervene in Myanmar’s fighting with the MNDAA, but has stepped up its security along the border between Kokang and Yunnan with ground patrols and fighter jet sorties.

Both the MNDAA and the Tatmadaw warn civilians that the opposing side will abuse any civilians they come across, and the accusations are not unfounded. Neither army, however does much to prevent or punish soldiers who harass, rob, shoot, or rape civilians. There is also a long history of the Tatmadaw committing war crimes, and both the Tatmadaw and ethnic armies are accused of using child soldiers. On 17 February the MNDAA ambushed a Tatmadaw convoy of soldiers, Red Cross personnel, and at least two journalists, wounding two. The MNDAA denied the attack, but has continued to target humanitarian aid operations and even fleeing civilians. The attack mirrored an ambush in 10 December 2014 that resulted in seven dead and 20 wounded, for which MNDAA also denied responsibility.

EARLIER CONFLICT SET THE STAGE

The MNDAA launched its attack in 2015 to regain control of the Kokang region, which the Tatmadaw has occupied since a short but politically significant series of battles in 2009. While the most recent skirmish before 2015 was the ambush in 2014, the 2009 offensive lay more of the foundation for this year’s conflict. Tensions that led to the 2009 conflict began when the Myanmar government urged ethnic armies — which it refers to as “ceasefire groups” when negotiating — to assimilate into the Tatmadaw as border patrol divisions. Most ethnic armies vehemently opposed this because it would have completely undermined ethnic groups’ autonomy. Aside from losing political control of its soldiers, the MNDAA also did not want to allow the Myanmar government to expand its ownership of agricultural land in Kokang.

The 2009 conflict began to escalate on 8 August of that year, when Burmese forces raided a factory in Kokang suspected to be a drug lab and surrounded the residence of Peng Jiasheng, the leader of the MNDAA.

Image from a Kokang resident, courtesy of Radio Free Asia.

Thousands of Kokang residents fled the area as soon as MNDAA seized Laukkai, the capital city of the Kokang region, on 20 August. After the MNDAA advised residents to “prepare” as Tatmadaw forces closed in on the city, more refugees followed, to the point of Laukkai being virtually abandoned. The next few days saw an apparent schism within the MNDAA over whether to support the 2008 Myanmar constitution and assimilate into the Tatmadaw. The splinter group allowed Burmese forces to enter Laukkai unopposed, and then assisted them in fighting from then on.

The schism reveals that limited negotiations, as opposed to ending violence in lasting way, are the priority for some rebels. Each conflict is a way to potentially get better treatment or concessions, and this gambit has a long history. Kokang fighters and their fellow Burmese Communist Party (BCP) rebels — who later became part of MNDAA — were among the first to agree to the last major ceasefire between the Myanmar government and many ethnic armies in 1989. The 1989 ceasefire guaranteed ethnic groups could keep their weapons and land, as well as continue their illegal drug, weapons, and human trafficking operations.

Now, the violence has likely destroyed any progress the 1989 ceasefire created. The MNDAA has attempted to participate in the newest ceasefire negotiations by joining two inter-faction organizations, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT), but the Myanmar government refuses to allow the MNDAA to sit at the negotiation table.

Even the recent agreements did not address many controversial issues, and was mostly an overture for future meetings. Moreover, a new national constitution drafted in 2008 caused severe discord between Myanmar and most ethnic groups because of the language concerning the degree of autonomy ethnic minorities will be afforded, and it has yet to be officially accepted by the MNDAA and other groups. If the Myanmar government refuses to allow ethnic armies military autonomy and affords them more freedom over land ownership while extending them development aid, there is a chance negotiations can move forward, but if it demands rebel groups accept the 2008 constitution, nothing will change.

BLOOD IS THICKER THAN BORDERS

The Kokang region has a long history of bridging the cultural gap between China and Myanmar. During the fall of Ming Dynasty, Ming loyalists fled to Yunnan and Kokang, which was almost beyond the reach of the ascendant Qing Dynasty during the 1600s. After the Communists took power in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang forces fled to Kokang to regroup and prepare to reclaim China from the Communists, which never happened. Before the current conflict, many Chinese conducted legal business in Kokang.

The fact that the Kokang are ethnic Han Chinese gives the MNDAA more opportunities to curry favor with Chinese nationals living nearby. Some Kokang refugees are even able to live with their Yunnanese relatives. The MNDAA leader, Peng Jiashaneg,  is attempting to rally support from Beijing or at least nationalist Chinese by exploiting Chinese insecurities about Myanmar opening up to the rest of the international community. Peng claimed Myanmar’s violence against the Kokang and other ethnic groups are actions encouraged by the United States.

Peng may be ineffective at changing the course of official Burmese-Chinese relations, but his rhetoric is enough to maintain sympathy from Chinese citizens who voluntarily smuggle in money or supplies, and to attract mercenaries with promises of earning about 30,000 RMB a month, which is roughly five times the income of the average farmer in Yunnan and other nearby provinces. MNDAA denies the use of hiring Chinese nationals as mercenaries, but there is evidence of the practice. Myanmar also accuses the Yunnan government of assisting MNDAA forces with funds and supplies, but Beijing denies providing any official military support to the MNDAA. That doesn’t mean that all officials follow Beijing’s orders. One Chinese official named Huang Xing, former senior strategist for the People’s Liberation Army, faces charges of leaking state secrets and diverting funds to MNDAA in Myanmar since 2009.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military. Image used under Wikimedia Commons.

A Nanchang A-5C Fantan jet fighter commonly used by the Burmese military. Image used under Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the outpouring of moral and financial support from individual Chinese citizens, Beijing does not consider the continued fighting to be a strategic benefit to China, nor the plight of the Kokang people to be worth expending resources on. On the contrary, instability in Myanmar presents an economic, and now human, cost to China and complicates Burmese-Chinese relations. Myanmar is meant to be a trade partner and a link between other countries along China’s proposed Silk Roads. Because China prefers to do business with governments, the ethnic groups cannot offer China anything that the Myanmar government isn’t already providing. But as much as China blames the rebels, not the government, for causing the strife, China is getting more frustrated with Myanmar’s apparent inability or unwillingness to end its conflicts and reach harmonious political resolutions.

Both the current conflict and the 2009 conflict took place mere months before general elections. The Myanmar government and the MNDAA both have reasons to fight so soon before the elections. If the Tatmadaw successfully quells the ongoing rebellion, it will reflect positively on the government in its path toward establishing a unified Myanmar that is under the control of one effective military. Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party won the 2010 election, which most of the international community considered fraudulent, but the Myanmar government still considers maintaining an image of strength to be a top priority. If the MNDAA at least continues to put up a fight during and after the elections, it will earn more political sway and bargaining power in regards to ensuring that the implementation of ceasefires provide equitable rights to ethnic minorities. It is possible the MNDAA would sue for peace some time around voting day in hopes of getting MNDAA members into government positions and achieving representation for Kokang at the ceasefire negotiations. The MNDAA and most other ethnic armies, including the 16 groups included in the recent ceasefire agreement, all want Myanmar to be a politically unified state but want to exercise autonomy.

KING OF THE HILLS

Beyond political capital and bargaining chips, all factions desire the tangible source of power in Myanmar: land. Control of land and the production of opium, rubber, bananas, and timber is central to the power dynamic between the Myanmar government and ethnic groups. Kokang was declared opium-free after a ban was enacted in 2003, but the region continues to produce large amounts of opium because it is more lucrative and easier to transport than most other crops. Ethnic armies make most of their money from opium and methamphetamine production, prostitution and human trafficking, gun smuggling, illegal logging, gambling, and extorting locals.

Volunteers destroy a poppy field near Loi Chyaram, Myanmar. Photo courtesy of VOA News.

After the Tatmadaw took control of Kokang, many military elites took ownership of vast plots of land and converted most of the fields to mass production of rubber. Myanmar supplies China with rubber, which is in high demand in China, as well as timber, which is in such great demand that an epidemic of illegal logging is spreading throughout Southeast Asian countries. The rubber Myanmar produces is of lower quality and efficiency than other rubber-producing countries, however, because their cultivation practices are less advanced. Moreover, the price of rubber crashed around the world because of the overproduction that followed so many countries prioritizing rubber cultivation

Myanmar’s rubber industry reveals how smoothly the revolving door swings for Tatmadaw officials who become government policy-makers or private land barons. In 2009, upon the Burmese army securing Kokang, the government confiscated many peasants’ land and gave insufficient compensation or none at all. This was a reversal of MNDAA’s gains in the 1989 ceasefire. Land was either given to companies to develop infrastructure or grow rubber, or owned by individual military elites. Myanmar is able to confiscate so much land because most peasants do not have formal titles to their land. The only documentation they might have are land tax receipts; but the slash-and-burn agriculture that most ethnic minority people in the hill regions practice is not considered a legitimate use of land, and so their receipts are not accepted by the Myanmar government when officials move in.

The glut of rubber production doesn’t seem to be dissipating in the near future; therefore, if Myanmar continues to dump a large portion of its money into mass-production of poor quality rubber, the country’s economy will suffer. However, one should not consider the MNDAA to be nobler stewards of the land. They continue to prioritize lucrative yet illegal business, particularly producing and trafficking opium and methamphetamine, which contributes to the region’s drug abuse epidemic and puts farmers at risk of losing everything if Tatmadaw troops come through and destroy or confiscate their illicit agriculture.

PREDICTIONS

It is unlikely that the MNDAA will be able to wrest full control of Kokang away from the Burmese government purely through military force, but it could use political means to secure its autonomy. If the MNDAA continues to fend off Tatmadaw troops until it can win more political sympathy near election time, it stands a chance of cementing its interests in the discourse of Myanmar and the international community. Pressure from China will most likely make Myanmar nervous about further escalating the conflict, although they have been slow to retreat from the border with Yunnan. If another bomb accidentally kills Chinese citizens or if violence reaches refugee camps, China would increase its border security even more and strengthen its rhetoric against Myanmar, but it would not intervene on behalf of MNDAA. Beijing’s cares more for increasing cross-border trade and thus China’s  interest in the conflict is only in its swift resolution . Individual Chinese citizens, especially in Yunnan, will continue to watch the conflict carefully. While Chinese citizens have no input in Beijing’s actions or priorities, Myanmar has an interest in not allowing the refugee crisis to worsen, lest it anger the Yunnanese provincial government and citizenry.

As the elections approach, Suu Kyi’s democratic rhetoric may help apply pressure to the Thein Sein administration to negotiate with rebels. While Suu Kyi herself does not champion all ethnic minority movements in Myanmar — she has been surprisingly tight-lipped about the Rohingya crisis for some time — having anyone challenge the ruling party could give MNDAA a better chance in gaining from the election process.

Any resolution to the conflict will involve the Myanmar government accepting ethnic groups’ demands to revise the 2008 constitution, but negotiations will most likely not affect the economic regime of Myanmar’s periphery. Moreover, the previous several decades have been a roller coaster of conflict and ceasefire in which the Burmese army seizes ethnic minority communities’ land and then returns it after bloody fighting and meager compromises. Such cyclical violence makes every ceasefire less valuable in contributing to substantial social and economic growth. Additionally, it is very unlikely that the MNDAA will accept the government’s offer to surrender as the only way to negotiating peace, as this would gravely reduce people’s ability to resist the Tatmadaw’s bullying in Kokang. The only solution to long-term problems like drug production and illegal logging is to include ethnic minorities in the post-conflict economic development of the country. If the international community wants to participate in Myanmar’s societal recovery, it should demand more equitable agreements between the Myanmar government and ethnic minorities and more humane treatment of civilians, or else the cycle of unequal ceasefires, violence, and land confiscation will continue to disastrous effect.

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China’s national meat scandal hits Yunnan

 

This week news broke that dozens, if not hundreds, of police seizures had been carried out across the country in an ever-broadening meat scandal. The crackdown covers at least 14 Chinese provinces including Yunnan, where much of the spoiled food apparently entered the mainland.

Coinciding with reports released across the country, the Yunnan Public Security Bureau announced it had seized 750 tons of rotten or otherwise dangerous pork, chicken, beef and donkey meat in three separate cases. The investigations were originally opened last year but a spate of arrests began on April 13, 2015, and has led to the jailing of 25 people as well as the confiscation of tainted food valued at 80 million yuan (US$13 million).

The national scandal has involved horrific stories of meat frozen for up to forty years. Investigators believe Shenzhen was a major port of entry for three billion yuan (US$482 million) in spoiled goods (requires proxy). However sizable amounts are also thought to have entered China through Vietnamese border crossings in Yunnan and Guangxi. Once in China, meat was often thawed, repackaged, relabeled and then frozen once again before being distributed across the country.

Yunnan police detained suspects in the cities of Songming, Yiliang, Jinghong, Jinning, andChenggong. Some were taken into custody for trafficking, while others arrested for illegally transporting banned substances. Vietnamese companies operating under the Chinese names Tianhe (越南天河公司) and Huafeng (越南华峰公司) have been implicated in smuggling meat across the border, although no legal action against the companies themselves has been made public.

The case in Songming began when 200 middle school students were sent to emergency rooms with food poisoning. A subsequent criminal investigation into the school cafeteria eventually uncovered a cache of rotten meat, some of which tested positive for E coli. All of the students were eventually released from the hospital.

As with most Chinese provinces, Yunnan is no stranger to terrifying headlines concerning tainted or dangerous food. Before ancient meat products came to be a concern, gutter oil — referred to colloquially as digouyou (地沟油) — was a major worry, culminating in the 2013 police seizure of 32,000 tons of ‘store-ready cooking oil’ manufactured largely out of industrial and commercial waste.

The current province-wide investigation into illegal food and drug smuggling is code-named ‘Operation Sharp Sword’ (利剑行动). In addition to uncovering trafficking rings dealing in contaminated meat, detectives are also concerned with finding factories producing fake over-the-counter drugs. To report suspicious behavior, people are encouraged to call the Yunnan Public Security Bureau hotline at 63052548. Operation Sharp Sword will continue until April 2016.

This article, written by Patrick Scally was first published here on GoKunming.com.

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Report: Thousands of Burmese refugees fleeing into China

Renewed fighting between the Burmese military and a guerrilla army in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State erupted once again this week. The violence has caused civilian refugees — by some estimates more than 10,000 people — to flee across the border into rural areas in China’s Yunnan province.

Hostilities broke out on Monday in Kokang, a self-administered zone with a population estimated at 150,000. An article posted on Burmese news website The Irrawaddy reports fighting was most intense near the town of Laukkai, located on the Salween River — known in Chinese as theNujiang. Refugees were headed to the opposite side of the river to the village Nansan (南傘) in Lincang Prefecture.

The location of Myanmar’s Kokang region shown in green. Shan State in Yellow (Wikipedia)

The Burmese military attacked areas held by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the armed wing of the Kokang ethnic group — 90 percent of whom are of Han Chinese ancestry. Bombing has been concentrated nearby Laukkai using Russian-made jet fighters and helicopters during the day and artillery during the night, according to MNDAA general secretary Htun Myat Lin.

He also claimed the number of refugees fleeing into China was approaching 10,000 as of Tuesday, most of them Burmese villagers, with a small minority made up of Chinese merchants. Chinese media have so far not estimated the number of displaced but Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying was quoted by CCTV as saying:

China is concerned about the Myanmar situation. During the past two days, some Myanmar border residents, because of safety considerations, have entered China. They have been looked after. China will continue to pay close attention to how the situation develops, and maintain the peace and stability of the China-Myanmar border. We also believe that the Myanmar side should also work hard for this.

State-backed Burmese news outlets have yet to release reports regarding casualties from the fighting. No official reason has been given for the escalation in violence, although it seems likely the actions by the Burmese military are connected to December ambushes by Kokang guerrillas that killed at least seven soldiers and injured 20 others.

The current situation along the border closely mirrors a monthlong period in 2009 when an estimated 30,000 Burmese civilians from Kokang crossed into Yunnan in the wake of fighting. China dealt quietly with those displaced by fighting six years ago, instituting a near media blackout of its humanitarian actions.

This article was written by Patrick Scally and originally published on GoKunming on February 12, 2015 .

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Oil pipeline connects Kunming to Andaman Sea

pipline map

Map of Sino-Burmese oil and natural gas pipeline. (Image via Stratfor)

 

A 771-kilometer long oil pipeline linking refineries in Kunming to oil fields off the western coast of Myanmar began shipments over the weekend. Built over six years, at a cost of 9.37 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion), the project was marred by controversy in China and, at times, violence and threatened cancellation in Myanmar.

An opening ceremony held in the Burmese city of Yangon on January 29 marked activation of the above-ground crude pipeline. It travels from the Andaman port of Kyaukpyu, through the Chinese border town of Ruili and on to Anning just west of Kunming. The inauguration was attended by Liao Yongyuan, general manager of China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), and U Nyan Tun, vice president of Myanmar, according to a report by website The Nation.

The pipeline is jointly owned by Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise and CNPC, with the latter controlling a majority stake of 50.9 percent after having financed most of the construction process. When operating at full capacity, the pipeline is designed to transport 22 million tons of crude oil into China each year, a total nearly double that reported when work on the energy conduit first broke ground in 2009.

Named after seabed fossil fuel deposits off the Myanmar coast, the Shwe pipeline runs parallel with a similar natural gas conduit that went online in 2013. First proposed in 2004, the twin pipelines were conceived in China as a way to bypass oceangoing tanker shipments of crude oil and natural gas from not only Myanmar, but also the Middle East and Africa.

Now that both pipelines are open for business, Southwest China will receive fossil fuels from countries to its west much more directly. Sea-bound shipments not only take significantly longer than those through the pipeline, but must also pass through the nominally United States-controlled Strait of Malacca — one of the busiest ocean shipping lanes in the world.

As with many Sino-Burmese infrastructure projects, the twin Shwe pipelines were not guaranteed to ever be finished. Construction was nearly halted in 2012 when Burmese parliamentarians threatened to mothball the project over environmental concerns, reported labor strife and claims of forced village relocations. On the Chinese side, well-publicized Kunming rallies against a refinery-related petrochemical factory also brought the future of the pipeline into question, at least momentarily.

This article was written by  and originally published in GoKunming.

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A Tibetan Christmas in Yunnan

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Nestled on the banks of the Upper Mekong River — or Lancang (澜沧江) as it is known in China — are several Tibetan villages of mixed religion where Buddhist and Catholic families live together and often join in each other’s festivals. While engaged in research on the history and budding economy of winemaking in this region, I was able to take part in the annual Christmas mass and festival in the village of Cizhong (茨中). Here, celebrations are a two-day event and the largest festival of the year for the area.

First, a very short primer on the history of Catholicism in Yunnan’s northwest, and how the religious observance of Christmas became a major festival for local Tibetans: Yunnan’s official renaming of the nearby Zhongdian region as Shangri-La — based on James Hilton’s classic 1930’s novel Lost Horizon — actually gains a small bit of credence as the real location of Hilton’s story thanks to Cizhong and its nearby villages. In the book, the fictional Shangri-la is a mixed monastic community where Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese, and western Catholics all live peacefully in together. This is largely true in Cizhong today, though Catholicism historically faced a somewhat violent reception from some in the region, while other peopele openly welcomed it. French Catholic missionaries first arrived in northwest Yunnan in the nineteenth century, and viewed their work as a gateway to expanding their teachings across greater Tibet.Brendan 2

Never being able to reach very far into this isolated and at times violent country — often due to resistance from local Buddhist lamas — the French would eventually manage to set up a community of churches and convert many Tibetan communities in northwest Yunnan along both the upper reaches of the Lancang and Nujiang rivers. They were never quite able to penetrate much farther into Tibet. Even in these areas, religious crusaders at times faced violent repression from local religions leaders and in many cases even death.

Yet the French persisted in their missions, and were later joined in the early to mid-twentieth century by request by a group of Swiss from the Great Saint Bernard Hospice high up in the Alps. These priests had already become quite famous for providing mountain rescues and services to Catholic pilgrims crossing the Alps en route to Rome. Their expertise in mountain travel and high-altitude living were crucial in helping to continue and eventually take over the work first begun by the French in Yunnan.

Today in Cizhong, where the original cathedral built by the French in 1905 still stands, about 80 percent of villagers still actively practice Catholicism. They are led by a Han Chinese priest from Inner Mongolia who arrived in 2008, sent by the Catholic Association of China. Prior to this time, the village had no priest, and so no formal masses were held after 1952 when the remaining French and Swiss Christians were expelled. Villagers nonetheless maintained their religion and began to openly pray together in the 1980s after Deng Xiaoping lifted bans on organized religion put in place during the Mao era.

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2014 Christmas observance

Christmas today in Cizhong is a major event, and the non-religious portions of the festival are in fact celebrated by both Catholics and Buddhists alike. Major preparations and community events for the festival began on the morning of Christmas Eve, when many villagers gathered together at the church to clean the building and decorate it for the festival. Lunch was made for those working through the afternoon, and then everyone returned home before dusk.

The decorations set up in the church were predominantly what one might equate with a Western Christmas celebration: Statues of Mary and Joseph in shrines on each side of the altar were surrounded by strings of lights, and a similar statue of Christ was placed high up on the wall behind the altar for all to see. Several plastic Christmas trees which grace the inside of the church year round were also cleaned and redecorated with Christmas lights.

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A very elaborate nativity scene was set up to one side of the altar, decorated with pine boughs, with lights on its roof. In addition to the boughs, the areas in the front of the church are also decorated with branches from a local broadleaf evergreen tree with red berries from the genus Photinia. Local elders say they have called this plant shengdan shu — or ‘Christmas Tree’ — since the time of the French and Swiss fathers.
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Around 7pm, villagers slowly began to arrive and file into the church for the evening mass, which began this year around 8:30. It should be noted that Christmas seems to have become quite a publicized event in Cizhong, perhaps due to the attention it receives in tourism materials. The mass not only included Cizhong villagers but many foreign — particularly French — and Chinese tourists, photographers, and other academics including myself. Christmas Eve mass continued for just under two hours, after which everyone returned home until the next morning. Both Christmas masses, and particularly the morning mass, were much more extravagant than a typical Sunday service. Large numbers of villagers showed up from all over, dressed in their full traditional Tibetan regalia. This drew even more tourists.

The Christmas morning mass — which actually didn’t begin until almost noon despite villagers arriving around 9am — also included a full processional composed of the priest and his assistants walking into the church in their robes, with candles, a cross, and incense censer. None of this is normally used for weekly services.The language of the mass in Cizhong is peculiar.  Many familar Catholic songs sung by villagers are sung in Tibetan using the translations originally created by the French and Swiss. Conversely, the mass and bible readings themselves are conducted by the priest in Mandarin Chinese, so the service is quite syncretic and eclectic being Chinese with Tibetan chanting.

Later an engaged couple walked down the aisle to receive a special Christmas blessing from the father. They were followed by a procession of children in traditional Tibetan clothing and Santa hats, followed by traditionally dressed women bearing gifts for Christ. The priest and his village assistants accepted the gifts and then placed them in front of the nativity scene that had been set up below and to the side of the altar.

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The Afterparty

Following the Christmas morning mass, everyone — villagers, tourists, and anyone else in attendance — gathered in the courtyard in front of the church and began the afternoon festivities of drinking and performing traditional Tibetan dances and sings. During this portion of the day, Buddhist locals also arrived to join in the festivities.

To begin, everyone first simply found a spot in the courtyard to enjoy the sun, the company of others and cake donated by all the village families. It was served followed by a choice of barley liquor — known as qingkejiu — mixed with meat, or a locally made rice wine called mijiu mixed with egg.

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After a short time, traditional circle dancing began, accompanied by singing and several men playing traditional string instruments called piwang. The singing is always done as a back-and-forth exchange, with men and women each singing separately while dancing on opposite sides of the circle which rotates around as more people join.

While the merriment ensued, a lunch of several Chinese-style dishes was served in a small museum room next to the church. Here, several tables were set up and groups of locals and visitors rotated through to sit down and be served. After they finished, the tables were cleared and a new group welcomed in to eat.

Dancing continued, and by this time many of the villagers had joined in. The men particularly all seemed to be sporting a bottle or can of beer. By around 5pm things began to wind down with most people returned home, while the tourists and other visitors headed back to their guesthouses. And with that, my Tibetan Catholic Christmas on the Upper Mekong came to an end.
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In Anti-Corruption Campaign, Top Yunnan Officials Pay Steep Price for Graft, Political Relationships

During dynastic times, Yunnan was known as a place where disgraced mandarins were sent to live out their days and where the local officials maintained a large degree of independence from the capital. As the saying goes, “the heavens are high and the emperor is far away.” However, as new highways and railroads have linked Yunnan to the rest of China over the past century, Beijing is not as distant as it used to be, and the days of the province’s freewheeling officials seem to be at an end. If that were ever in doubt, a recent string of high profile corruption cases have confirmed Beijing’s grip on its representatives in the land south of the clouds.

President Xi Jinping

Since President Xi Jinping took office more than a year ago, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has undertaken the herculean task of ridding itself of graft, collusion and anything that would diminish the public’s already low level of trust in its leaders. By going after both high-ranking party leaders and petty bureaucrats, or ‘swatting flies and hunting tigers’ (拍苍蝇,打老虎) in the modern parlance, the current anti-corruption drive has yielded impressive results.

To date, over 50 high level party members have been arrested, 182000 government officials punished, and as of July 2014, 6,000 officials have been placed under investigation this year. Among the ‘tigers’ caught in the campaign are former mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, former Minster of Railways, Liu Zhijun, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Caihou and former Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang, also a member of the Politburo Standing Committee under Hu Jintao.

Thousands of officials from every region have been swept up in the campaign and Yunnan Province has indeed seen its fair share, with hundreds of local public servants investigated since the 18th Party Congress almost two years ago. However, in recent months, a number of high profile officials in the province have found themselves in the cross hairs of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Shen Peiping

Shen Peiping, former vice-governor of Yunnan Province

The first major official to fall was Shen Peiping, former vice-governor of Yunnan Province. Shen, a native of Baoshan, Yunnan, worked in various government posts before becoming Mayor of Pu’er City in 2007. Dubbed ‘Mayor of Tea’, Shen gained fame in promoting the local Pu’er tea to the rest of China and the world, leading to quick economic development of the region. However, Shen was also known locally for his heavy-handed tactics in dealing with petitioners and shady relationships with local businessmen.
After spending a little over a year as the vice-governor, Shen was officially investigated in March of this year and in August, he was charged with using his post for personal benefit, accepting large bribes and committing adultery. Traditionally, intra-Party disciplinary investigations almost always lead to a court case, where the conviction rate is above 99%. Therefore, few expect Shen to recover from these accusations.

It was not long after Shen Peiping’s investigation began that Kong Chuizhu, a personal friend, began his demise, albeit under much more scandalous circumstances. The provincial vice-governor from 2003 to 2013, Kong was known to share mistresses with Shen Peiping and the two would often frequent high-end brothels together. For Kong, the consequences were grave.

Kong Chuizhu

Kong Chuizhu, former vice-governor of Yunnan Province

Following the announcement that Shen was being investigated in early March, Kong, in Beijing attending meetings at the time, attempted suicide in his hotel room. The attempt, however, was unsuccessful and Kong was admitted into a Beijing hospital for recovery. Following medical tests, he was found to be HIV positive. The central government immediately opened an investigation on Kong and ordered him back to Yunnan to lay low while undergoing treatment. Two months later, he unsuccessfully attempted suicide for a second time and was admitted into the Provincial Armed Police Hospital. Finally, Kong jumped to his death from his hospital window on July 12.

Days after Kong Chuizhu’s death, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced it was investigating Zhang Tianxin, former Party Secretary of Kunming. Zhang’s Party membership and posts were immediately revoked as a result of the investigation.
Zhang, the CPC Party Chief of Yunnan’s Wenshan Prefecture from 1999 to 2006, was apparently involved in corrupt practices in the prefecture’s mining industry. In addition, it is significant to note that Zhang was taken down just two weeks after an exposé aired on CCTV revealing plans for a number of illegal housing developments on the shores of the famously polluted Lake Dianchi, plans that Zhang reportedly approved.

That Zhang Tianxin was investigated is not surprising to many Yunnanese.  According to one local government employee who wished to remain anonymous, “Everyone knew Zhang Tianxin and (former Yunnan Provincial Party Secretary) Bai Enpei were corrupt. Once (the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection) started looking at Yunnan, they were done.”

Zhang Tianxin, former Party Secretary of Kunming

Indeed, Bai Enpei did not have much time left. On August 29, it was reported that an investigation was being opened on him and that he was suspected of “serious discipline and law violations,” Party jargon for ‘corruption’.

Bai, Provincial Party Secretary from 2001 to 2011, oversaw a period of rapid growth for the province. He was a vocal supporter of hydropower development and campaigned intensely in favor of damming western Yunnan’s Nu River, also known as the Salween. Following 10 years as the CPC’s top man in Yunnan, Bai assumed the post of deputy secretary for the Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Committee.

His tenure there, however, was cut short. According to a report from YiCai, the former vice-secretary for the People’s Political Consultative Conference of Yunnan, Yang Weijun submitted to Beijing an official complaint regarding Bai’s corruption in mid-August in which he detailed Bai Enpei’s extensive dealings in selling off mining contracts in the province.

In the most grievous case, Bai sold sixty percent ownership of China’s largest zinc and tin mine for a mere one billion yuan, despite the mine having an estimated value of fifty billion yuan. The shares were sold to a relative of Liu Han, a Sichuanese mining tycoon and close friend of Zhou Yongkang. Mr. Liu was sentenced to death earlier this year for murder, among other charges.

A map of Bai Enpei's relationships with other corrupt officials. An asterisk next to the name indicates that official has been investigated. (Infographic originally produced by Sohu.com August 2014)

A map of Bai Enpei’s relationships with other corrupt officials. Click to enlarge. (Infographic originally produced by Sohu.com August 2014)

As the above infographic shows, Bai Enpei was at the center of corruption among Yunnan’s political elite and closely tied with Zhou Yongkang and Liu Han. What’s more, when Bai was the party secretary of Qinghai from 1997 to 2001, he had dealings with Jiang Jiemin, a former executive of the notoriously corrupt Sinopec who is currently under investigation for embezzlement of state funds. Many of Bai’s former colleagues from his days in Qinghai have also met the same fate as him and currently face investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Bai Enpei, former Party Secretary of Yunnan Province

Bai Enpei, former Party Secretary of Yunnan Province

The dominoes did not stop falling with Bai Enpei, however. In mid-October 2014, state media announced that Yunnan Party Secretary Qin Guangrong had been relieved of his duties and would be replaced by sitting governor, Li Jiheng. Qin will now assume the post of vice-secretary of the State Organs Work Committee. However, local Kunmingers interviewed see the job transfer as more of a demotion with possible serious consequences. “(Qin’s) new position is meaningless, he has no power there. The central government just put him there until he’s formally charged… and that should be coming soon,” Yang Mouren, a local teacher, claimed. He may be right. While Qin was well-liked by many locals, he had close ties to a number of disgraced officials and it is probable that like his colleagues, Qin also had his hands in corrupt resource deals. However, unless he is formally investigated, details regarding any corruption Qin took part in will not be publicly released.

Qin Guangrong (R) with his replacement as Yunnan Party Secretary, Li Jiheng (L)

Qin Guangrong (R) with his replacement as Yunnan Party Secretary, Li Jiheng (L)

With so many high officials, and hundreds of local bureaucrats, investigated, it’s clear that the central government has its sights on Yunnan’s corrupt officialdom. But, with countless other corrupt officials scattered across China, many locals are asking ‘Why Yunnan?’ The reasons are twofold.

The first has to do with Yunnan’s natural resources. Of the two provinces that have so far been cleaned out by Beijing, Yunnan and Shanxi, one important commonality is their abundance of resources. With such wealth in natural resources come opportunities for massive corruption. In the case of Shanxi, its army of ostentatiously wealthy coal bosses were known nationwide, as were their close relationships with their political patrons. At the same time, Yunnan’s reserves of aluminum, lead, zinc and tin are the largest in China and it’s clear from the cases of Bai Enpei and Zhang Tianxin that provincial power brokers were heavily involved in the illegal distribution of these resources.

Also significant is the fact that all of the high officials mentioned in this article have ties to the disgraced Zhou Yongkang and his mining tycoon friend, Liu Han. With his power base in Sichuan, Zhou’s influence on officials in neighboring provinces, including Yunnan, was deep. Shen Peiping, Bai Enpei and Qin Guangrong especially were known to belong to the same political clique that formed under Zhou Yongkang. Shen and Qin were heavily rumored to engage in business with Zhou’s family members worth tens of millions of renminbi, while Bai Enpei sold off control of a western Yunnan mine to Liu Han’s family at a cut rate. In addition, Bai and Qin were Zhou Yongkang’s unofficial hosts when he visited the province in 2007, and Bai accompanied the Politburo Standing Committee member on his 2011 trip to Laos, all implying very close relations. For their part, Kong Chuizhu and Zhang Tianxin were intimately connected to Bai Enpei and as his power grew in the province, so did theirs. As is often the case within Chinese bureaucracy, underlings rise and fall with their leaders. Bai Enpei, and those who came up with him, were intimately connected to Zhou Yongkang; they are now paying the price for their political associations.

Former Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang

Former Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive has rocked the national bureaucracy, clearing out the upper echelon of Yunnan politicians in the process. It isn’t just top officials that have felt the squeeze however; there have been noticeable effects for local bureaucrats as well. According to one university administrator who wished to remain anonymous, his college’s office environment has changed in the past year. As he explained, “Before, you just had to show up, sit in your office, drink tea and chat with the other teachers from time to time. Now, a lot of people are very nervous at the school because we’re known to be pretty corrupt.” However, the corruption crackdown has led to some unexpected opportunities. “I actually have more freedom with my job now. Because all of the higher officials are so worried about their own jobs, I can consult for other companies on the side, and they’re too busy to notice. Plus, I wasn’t too corrupt to begin with so I’m not worried.”

The changes may not be over yet, however. When asked about corruption in Yunnan, locals still doubt the effect of the current campaign. “In Yunnan, nine out of ten officials are corrupt,’’ Mr. Yang, the school teacher, claims “and it’s the same everywhere else in the country. The story isn’t over yet.”

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Filed under China, Current Events, Governance, SLIDER, Yunnan Province