Category Archives: Yunnan Province

Report: Three Parallel Rivers plagued by unregulated mining

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Image: Greenpeace

One of Yunnan’s most famous natural landscapes is under threat from unsupervised mining, according to a new report. A study published by non-governmental environmental organization Greenpeace claims industrial activity in the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas is seriously damaging China’s most biodiverse region.

The report, issued July 27, contends that through both satellite and on-the-ground research, it is clear mining operations in northwest Yunnan are leading to deforestation, water pollution and habitat loss. Of particular concern, says Greenpeace, is the destruction of what are termed ‘intact forest landscapes’ (IFL) — tracts of “existing forests which show no signs of significant human activity [that] are able to maintain their native biodiversity”.

These green belts are extremely rare in China, comprising less than four percent of the country’s total forest cover. The most complete IFL’s sit clustered in high alpine regions in Sichuan, Tibet and Yunnan, and are known to harbor the vast majority of China’s endemic plant and animal species. However, this biodiversity — especially in Yunnan — is increasingly under threat.

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Image: Wikipedia

Greenpeace researchers found that “over the past 13 years, a total of 490,000 hectares of IFL in China have been lost”. More than half of the lost forest is in northwest Yunnan, where the upper reaches of the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze rivers flow side by side for 300 kilometers through spectacular mountain scenery. The area — which covers 1.7 million hectares — was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.

Despite its protected status, the sprawling wilderness and surrounding buffer zones are home to widespread and unregulated mining. Over the course of their research, Greenpeace representatives found two-dozen illegal mines in a region containing half of China’s total fish and animal species, reporting:

In total we uncovered 24 mines operating in the IFL region, three of which were in the UNESCO site. It also seems likely that some of the mines never applied for the obligatory environmental impact assessment before they began operations, presumably because they knew it would be refused.

The environmental group ends its report with the demand that the “Yunnan government immediately halt all mining operations” in the region. And while stringent environmental enforcement is not particularly strong in the province, there is hope increased national supervision will help. Earlier this year Beijing announced mining and hydroelectric development would be suspended along the Nu river — the westernmost of the Three Parallel Rivers — in favor of tourism industry development. Perhaps this will serve as a model for the entire region.

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Yuxi begins experiment as one of China’s ‘Sponge Cities’

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The city of Yuxi in central Yunnan province. Image: Sina

The city of Yuxi (玉溪) in central Yunnan is one of several municipalities across China to implement a green infrastructure pilot program meant to alleviate urban flooding while also curbing future water shortages. The so-called “Sponge Cities” (海绵城市) initiative is a three-year undertaking studying how urban areas can most effectively be redesigned and retrofitted to capture and effectively reuse rainwater.

Yuxi was chosen in 2015 alongside much larger cities including Chongqing, Xiamen and Tianjin. A multidisciplinary panel formed by China’s ministries of Finance, Housing and Water Resources carried out the the selection process. Committee members stressed the need for variety in their choices of participating cities, choosing Yuxi because it features a unique set of circumstances. The prefectural level city of 2.4 million sits at a relatively high elevation — 1,600 meters above sea level — and over the past several years has built a series of urban reservoirs meant to stave off drought.

By merit of its selection, Yuxi stands to receive an estimated 1.2 billion yuan (US$180 million) inSponge City funding over the next three years. The money will be put toward the construction of what the Chinese press is fond of calling “a more ecological civilization”.

Such strategies acknowledge the need to make municipal areas far more adaptive in the face of climate change. In the words of Yu Kongjian, dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, “The rate of flooding is a national scandal. We have poured more than enough concrete. It’s time to invest in a new type of green infrastructure.” What that means specifically covers a huge range of endeavors.

In Yuxi and other pilot program cities, updating rainwater collection systems, and in some cases rebuilding them entirely, will play an enormous and costly role. Much of the water captured during rainstorms will then be funneled toward newly built or existing parks and wetlands. These areas are planned to serve the dual purpose of providing residents with more green space options during dry seasons, while serving as collection points during the summer monsoon months. The parks and wetlands will feature plants that can withstand sporadic flooding, as well as the ability to help filter impurities out of rainwater runoff.

At their most ideal, Sponge Cities can be thought of as a closed system, capturing nearly all rainwater and utilizing it in some manner. In certain instances — such as with the construction of permeable roads and sidewalks — this may simply include mild filtering before runoff soaks into the ground and replenish groundwater supplies. However, the collected water can also be channeled to underground cisterns, used to irrigate rooftop and vertical green spaces, or supplement nearby agriculture areas.

Over the next four years, according to Yuxi mayor Rao Nanhu, urban planners expect to equip 30 percent of the city with drainage upgrades and gray water systems, as well as build new and adaptable green spaces. This percentage is expected to grow to 80 percent by the end of 2030. In 2015, when the Sponge City initiative began to gain national momentum, Qiu Baoxing, former vice-minister of housing and urban-rural development told The GuardianA sponge city follows the philosophy of innovation — that a city can solve [its own] water problems instead of creating them. In the long run, sponge cities will reduce carbon emissions and help fight climate change.

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Kunming’s Twin Expos, Bigger, More Important Than Ever

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Kunming’s expo grounds; photo: Sina

In a mark of the spring city’s growing importance, both on the domestic and international stage, 5,000 businesses and nearly as many officials from eighty-nine countries converged on Kunming. This is, of course, in reference to the fourth annual China-South Asia Expo (CSAEXPO) and twenty-fourth Kunming Import and Export Commodities Fair (KIEF), which concluded with much fanfare, as well as some highly negative press, this past weekend.

The twin exhibitions are held jointly each year with the express purpose of promoting Yunnan and China-based companies. While the expos advance provincial businesses and inject capital into the local economy, they also serve to broaden China’s economic soft-power sphere, particularly in those countries sharing the same geographic neighborhood. These nations not only include major trade partners India, Thailand and Vietnam, but also smaller ones such as the Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan.

In years past, the paired events have been enormously successful. Last year, 785 billion yuan (US$127 billion) was generated in newly signed contracts, and some 740,000 people attended. The 2016 version saw increases over last year, although by expo standards, they were modest. The total value of all new contracts signed — which includes non-binding memoranda of understanding — hit 861 billion yuan (US$132 billion). Over the course of the week-long event, some 800,000 people took part, with vendors conducting combined on-site sales of 338 million yuan (US$51.9 million).

Many high-ranking officials attended the convention, among them the vice president of Nepal and the deputy prime ministers of Cambodia and Vietnam. Yunnan Party Secretary Li Jiheng ( 李纪恒) specifically welcomed the diplomatic entourage from Vietnam, which was named the ‘country of honor‘ at KIEF.

Trade between Vietnam and China has been on the upswing despite sometimes faltering bilateral relations. Along the countries’ shared border, improved shipping and logistics capabilities — a focus of Yunnan’s current five-year development plan — have been upgraded to the point that an estimated 87 percent of all trade is scanned and inspected electronically, shortening once laborious customs routines.

Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung (left) meets with Yunnan Party Secretary Li Jiheng

Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung (left) meets with Yunnan Party Secretary Li Jiheng Photo: Dangcongsan

South Asian nations also maintained a strong presence at the expos, with India taking the lead. Small independent businesses from the subcontinent exhibited a wide range of products including handicrafts, handlooms and carpets, while representatives from larger Indian businesses such as Tata and Infosys were also in attendance. Countries from further afield were also represented. Shylar Bredewold, who attended on the final day to do some shopping and network for his business Centreal International Investments, shared the following impressions:

I felt the Expo was a living, thriving example of the ballet of chaos endemic to China and to Kunming in particular. There was a relentless flow of people in absolutely all directions, some more friendly than others. Among the pieces I enjoyed most were the lovely Persian rugs from Afghanistan and Iran, Afghan lapis jewelry, and some embroidered wall hangings from Nepal. As was expected and owing to the nature of my business, I had relatively few meaningful interactions which might prove useful to further my own professional interests, [but] would I go again? Most certainly.

India was not the only South Asian country to make a splash, as Pakistan used more exhibition stalls than any other country. In a statement regarding the expos, Pakistan’s minister of commerce emphasized his country’s eagerness to do business with China. As with Indian representatives, the minister voiced his support for China’s Belt and Road initiative and the long-term prospects of the BCIM trade corridor, while also stressing the need for economic reciprocity.

Huge business deals and southwest China’s slow-growing importance on the international stage notwithstanding, CSAEXPO and KIEF did contain some drama this year. A high-profile meeting held by the foreign ministers of China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states made international headlines when a joint statement regarding the South China Sea was retracted just three hours after being issued to the press. The situation took some of the expected shine off the otherwise well-organized and executed expos, and somewhat perfectly revealed both the positive and negative aspects of Yunnan’s current growing pains.

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Image: V4

 

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Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Overlooks the Real Key to Peace and Prosperity: Mekong People

When I first heard the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMC) last year, the name of the river stood out. I initially thought it was only a mechanism for water management among the six countries that share the longest, mighty river in Southeast Asia. I was not completely wrong, but water management is only a tiny bit of the whole deal.

At the public forum “The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward” organized on April 28 by the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Mr Yang Yi, secretary general of the Chinese Institute of International Studies repeatedly asserts that the LMC is a mechanism to enhance the idea of “Shared River, Shared Future” among the six Mekong countries. It entails a platform to seek peace and prosperity via three cooperation pillars —political and security; economic and sustainable development; and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. It is no accident that these three pillars coincide with ASEAN three pillars of the same name because the LMC aims to pave way for China to strengthen its political and economic influence in ASEAN.

Water resource ranks among the top five priorities of the LMC. Of the 26 measures specified in the declaration to outline the activities of connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources and agriculture and poverty reduction, only one is dedicated directly to water resources management. It lists the establishment of centers for technical exchanges, capacity building, data and information sharing, and joint research projects . The majority of the measures, however, focus on various investment and trade opportunities such as the Belt and Road Initiative, ASEAN+3 partnerships, financial assistance for infrastructure development which opens the door for China to invest in the region.

Other panelists, Cambodian Ambassador Pou Sothirak and Professor Dao Trong Tu, criticized China’s previous lack of engagement in the Mekong River Commission, an organization is set up to promote sustainable development and water management among Mekong countries. Nonetheless, they agreed that the LMC could lead to more discussion potentially on a water treaty, which clearly delegates how the shared international river could be managed—something MRC has failed to do.

But I don’t think it is going to be that simple when China never admits that its upstream projects have destroyed the ecological harmony of the Mekong River.

In the middle of the dry season, between January and February 2016, the Chiang Khong riverbank community, located in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, 200 kilometers downstream of Jinghong Dam, suffered from the abrupt rise of the Mekong River. This is the time when local villagers tend river gardens and reap dry season harvests due to the robust sediment deposited along the river bank during the monsoon season. But this year, the fluctuating water level caused locals to shake their heads when their source of food and income submerged under water.

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Further down in Loei, a fishery network lamented for the decreasing catches and damaged fishing equipment due to the “Water Tsunami.” In Bung Karn Province, 200 kilometers downstream from Loei, the Mekong level rose 2 meters and flooded locals’ riverbank gardens. Some gardeners had to pick up remaining scallions and corns.

In March 2016, the Mekong River at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand rose rapidly again and showing no sign of subsiding. It was officially the beginning of summertime and a month away from Songkran, Thailand’s traditional new year and the most important family gathering occasion in the country. Religious sites that usually submerged under Mekong River in rainy season would appear for Thais and Laotians as well as tourists to revere for the annual special occasion. Locals usually set up restaurants and leisure rest spots for tourists on the riverine sand bars in the middle of the Mekong River. But this year, sand bars were inundated; religious sites remained underwater. Less tourists showed up.

On April 13, 2016, the first day of Songkran, the water still remained high. Subsequently, district chief of Woen Phra Baht in Nakhon Phanom cancelled the annual Buddha footprint ceremony, an ancient religious ceremony that attracts local Thais and Laotians for centuries. The new year became a quiet time by the Mekong River. Restaurant owners indicated that they usually earn between 500,000 to 1,000,000 baht (15,000-30000 USD) during the December to April dry season (December-April), but that income had been unstable and decreasing over the past several years due to fluctuating Mekong flow.

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The Mekong River first meets Thai border at a river town called Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province. Here, the Mekong River Commission set up a hydrological station as part of its effort to contribute data for better-practice water management among the four downstream Mekong countries, namely Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Chiang Saen Hydrological Station shows the water flow rate between March and April in 2016 remained high around 2,000 cubic meters per second and dropped to 1,000 cubic meters per second within a couple of days. After a week, the graph climbed up to near 1,500 cubic meters per second. What happened?

On March 16, Xinhua reported that China would release water from its dam following Vietnam’s request. Ministry spokesman Lu Kang stated 2,000 cubic meter of water will be discharged from the dam every second between March 15 to April 10. In response, Pham Binh Minh , Vietnamese deputy prime minister at the time, congratulated the positive move to alleviate drought. Thailand’s coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha  cheered happily for China’s considerate move. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen  joined the acclaim. Laos took a step forward and announced that it too would discharge water to help relief devastating condition downstream.

Looking back at the hydrological data, the Mekong flow rate has been fluctuating for the past few years when, naturally, the volume ought to be decreasing in dry season. Comparing the flow rate between 2014, 2015 and 2016, the number remain around 2,000 cubic meters between March and April for second for all three years. Simply said, China’s altruistic move is actually turning into an annual practice. But locals are not aware of this change unless China announces its plan and notify Mekong downstream authorities to spread the news. Nonetheless, by the time the notification reaches riparian communities, the fish are already gone and the riverbank gardens are already submerged.

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The Lancang River contributes nearly 70 percent of total Mekong catchment area at Chiang Saen in wet season. The number jumps closer to 100 percent in dry season. For this reason, downstream communities will feel any changes happening upstream. It also means that China is in control of how the river flows.

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As of 2016, China has already built at least six mega-dams on the Lancang with a total capacity over 15,000 megawatts. The closest dam to lower Mekong countries is the Jinghong dam located in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan less 100km from China’s border with Laos and Myanmar.  This dam is often mentioned in China’s media release on water discharge. The Jinghong dam is China’s water gate, thus China has complete control over when it shall open or close.

Downstream riparian communities have been asking China for prior notification on dry season  discharge from Lancang dams and to share hydrological information for many years already. Nonetheless, China never taken full responsibility.

“It becomes politics when China announces its discharge,” said Montree Chantawong, a researcher who has been monitoring the Mekong flow for more than a decade now. He illustrates the water flow graph to show that China’s dam discharge is nothing new. The higher volume aims to facilitate Chinese large cargo ships during the dry season. The discharge also helps to generate electricity and make way for new water in the reservoir during the rainy season. What’s new is China’s approach to talk about Mekong water management through the LMC mechanism.

China’s altruistic move came before the release of Sanya Declaration at the first LMC summit on Hainan Island on March 23-24 . The two-day meeting marks the official beginning of cooperation among Mekong countries. However, Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at ISIS and one of the panelists at the LMC public forum, left the audience with a note to think about China’s spatial location and subsequent posture towards Mekong downstream countries. “If China sees its neighbors as the front yard, it would treat its neighbor with respect. If it sees it as its backyard, then the treatment would be different.”

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On the same day that leaders gathered in Sanya, the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces released a statement to the same leaders. The call was simple: admit the transboundary impacts caused by development projects, mainly dams and rapids blasting. The impacts of Chinese dam discharge on Mekong downstream ecosystems and livelihoods were immense in the beginning of 2016—a clear example of transboundary impacts of dams.

The network further emphasized the need for respect and involvement of Mekong grassroots communities . As many riparian communities still depend deeply on Mekong fluvial ecosystems to sustain their livelihoods and nourish their cultures, the Mekong governments ought to take this into account when they design development plans for their countries. To ensure that the needs of the people are met, it is crucial for all Mekong governments to recognize the importance of grassroots riparian communities and respect their indigenous knowledge for the river they depend on for their livelihoods, cultures and economy. A democratic process is more than ever necessary to leverage the voice from the ground to be heard at the international geopolitical platform especially in the region where grassroots participation increasingly become restricted while dictatorship flourishes in the region. In addition, the statement calls Mekong governments to take responsibility to provide mitigation for damages and losses caused by dams and navigation projects. An accountable and participatory water management mechanism must be assured and enforced to prevent further negative environmental and social impacts on downstream communities, rather than transforming a mother river to a dead river.

While the leaders smile and hold hands tight for an unprecedented moment in history that could lead to sustainable water governance in the Mekong Region, grassroots riparian communities suffer from unnatural flow of the Mekong River. The applause for China’s move towards regional peace and prosperity will only be a façade if the Mekong leaders never take a moment to seriously promote public participation. It will only set up the beginning of a countdown to water conflicts.

Four numbers of the Sanya Declarations: 6, 3, 5 and 26.

  • 6 indicates the six member countries in the Mekong Region.
  • 3 points at the three cooperation pillars: political and security, economic and sustainable development and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. The three pillars coincides with ASEAN’s three cooperation pillars. This is no accident. The Sanya Declaration paves way for China to strengthen its political and economic partnership with ASEAN.
  • 5 is the key priorities during the initial stage, namely connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources and agriculture and poverty reduction. Simply put, these are the main programs China hopes to implement and enhance its domination over other members.
  • 26 means the twenty-six measures detailing the five key priorities. Most of them map out how to place downstream countries in China’s “go global” economic policies like the Belt and Road Initiative and affirms its influences in ASEAN+3 partnership.

 

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Filed under ASEAN, China, development, FEATURES, Lancang Mekong Cooperation, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, water release, Yunnan Province

China’s Key Cities: From Local Places to Global Players

China projects a huge and continually growing profile and impact on the world stage. Much of this Chinese influence globally is often anchored to and channeled out by its key cities. Shanghai towers over all these cities in what it stands and functions for China, as the country’s financial and trade centre, largest port (also the world’s top container port), and gateway to China’s huge domestic market. As such, Shanghai gets a lot of attention from the global business community, especially when its stock market tumbled recently and sent shock waves around the world.

Besides Shanghai, a variety of other cities have become more important for China, and the world economy, for that matter. A number of these cities are well known for their significant historic and contemporary economic and cultural roles such as Guangzhou and Xi’an. Other cities have risen from unknown origins to prominent economic centres like Shenzhen. There are also some much less known cities that have grown into new regional hubs with strong global connections. You most likely have not heard about them, names like Ruili and Yiwu.

In this article I take a new look at China’s key cities by focusing on two of their salient features. These cities are drivers of China’s local and regional economic growth. They also serve as bridges to link China’s varied local economies to regional and global markets. I examine both roles in how they play out in similar ways across four very different cities in scale and other dimensions: Shanghai, Chongqing, Yiwu, and Ruili (see their locations on Map 1).


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Map 1: The Location of Four Key Cities in China: Shanghai, Chongqing, Yiwu and Ruili

Shanghai: Leading Nationally and Bridging Globally and Regionally

Shanghai’s transformation has been heavily studied over the past two decades. Yet here is another interesting way to look at how Shanghai itself has changed in leading China’s economic growth and global integration. Compared to all major cities in China, Shanghai has undergone the most striking and sustained shift from manufacturing to services (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Shares of Agriculture, Industry and Service in Shanghai’s GDP

Figure 1: Shares of Agriculture, Industry and Service in Shanghai’s GDP

During the first half of the 1984-2014 period, Shanghai was more of a manufacturing centre as it was built up to be during the centrally planned era from 1949 to the early 1980s. The second half from the late 1990s saw Shanghai move steadily towards a service economy. This trend not only puts Shanghai’s economic transition ahead of all other manufacturing-oriented cities in China but also places Shanghai on a similar pathway like other global cities as important service hubs.

Shanghai is indeed on track to resemble the economic profile of global cities like New York and London (see Figure 2). As Shanghai’s service sector as a share of GDP has surpassed manufacturing, its high-end or producer services like finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) have grown faster than low-end services like retails. This shift reflects the faster and greater concentration of international banks in Shanghai, mostly in the Pudong financial district. More than half of the foreign-owned banks and their branches operating in China are registered in Shanghai. The assets of foreign banks in Shanghai accounts for 47.3% of the foreign banks’ total assets in China. Shanghai’s banking dominance today brings back its heyday in the early 1930s when it ranked the world’s third banking centre, only behind New York and London and ahead of Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Figure 2: Shares of Low vs. High-end Services in Shanghai

Figure 2: Shares of Low vs. High-end Services in Shanghai

As Shanghai marches (back) to its historic global city status, it has also been leading and driving the China’s major manufacturing cities in developing stronger services. At the same time, Shanghai plays a growing part in bridging the global economy with the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) region of which it has been the unquestionable hub (Figure 31). With the shedding of manufacturing functions to second-tier YRD cities like Suzhou, with subcontracting ties to even smaller cities, Shanghai has strengthened its position as the regional core by adding more critical and high-value-added functions such as corporate headquarters and R&D centres. By October 2014, Shanghai secured 484 regional headquarters of multinational corporations, of which 24 were Asia-Pacific headquarters, 295 investment companies, and 379 R&D centres.2

Besides being China’s premier international city, Shanghai continues to lead China’s major cities in transitioning towards a service-oriented and advanced local economy. This has also paralleled Shanghai’s stronger role in connecting and integrating the YRD region with the global economy, driving forward one of the world’s largest and most powerful regional economies.

Chongqing: Shanghai of the West

About 2,400 kilometers up the Yangtze River from Shanghai in western China is the city of Chongqing (Map 1). With over 30 million people in its sprawling administrative boundary, Chongqing may be “the largest city in the world that few people know about.” Chongqing drew some global attention in 2012 when Bo Xilai, the then Party secretary of Chongqing Municipality, was sacked and then imprisoned for what the central government labeled as corruption and other criminal activities.

If we take a much longer historical perspective, Chongqing has always loomed large among China’s major cities, even relative to Shanghai. Chongqing had a small concession zone as an inland treaty port after 1891, with a little similarity to Shanghai’s dominant treaty port status after the first Opium War in 1842. But Chongqing was hindered by its position as a mountain city close to the headwaters of Yangtze and languished as a distant backwater.

Chongqing was never cosmopolitan until the outbreak of the war of resisting Japan in 1937 and when the Nationalist government moved its capital to Chongqing in 1938. Being China’s political centre then in the first half of the 1940s propelled Chongqing to the largest financial, aviation and even cultural/fashion centre in interior China, second only to Shanghai.

Chongqing after 1949 was down and up. The uptick phase began during the Cultural Revolution. Concerned about a potential Soviet attack, the central government designated Chongqing as the core of the “Third Front” for hosting the relocated heavy industries from the coast. This turned Chongqing into a “Little Shanghai” that would lead the nation in developing defense-related machinery and ship-building industries. Chongqing ended up receiving 122 enterprises in these industries from Shanghai with a large pool of human talent in engineering and technical professions. In spite or because of this external transfer of resources, Chongqing neglected local advantages as the natural and potentially autonomous hub for the upper Yangtze region in achieving a more balanced development of housing, infrastructure and amenities of city life.

Chongqing got a big boost in 1997 when it was elevated to the fourth central government municipality besides Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. It would now cover 82,403 square kilometers and encompass a population of over 30 million. This designation brought about a great deal more autonomy by making it function as a province, and one of the most important ones at that, and thus setting it onto the most remarkable phase of growth and change in its long history.

Starting in 1997, the central government would give Chongqing $240 million as low-interest loans per year for the Three Gorges Dam-affected region, $80 million for building new housing for displaced residents, and refund $85 million from import taxes to Chongqing for Dam-related projects. In addition, Chongqing was allowed to lower enterprise tax for new foreign investment projects from 33% to 24%, or even to 15% if these projects were located in its economic and technological development zones.

The launch of China’s “Go West Campaign” in 2000 moved Chongqing up another notch to finally become the undisputed economic hub for the upper Yangtze region, or the “dragon’s tail” relative to Shanghai as the “dragon’s head” for the YRD. To live up to this ambitious goal, Chongqing unveiled the “One Circle and Two Wings” (see Map 2) master plan in 2007. It would accelerate the pace and spread of urbanisation and economic development from the enlarging urban core into the two largely rural subregions. It called for converting about 10 million rural residents of Chongqing Municipality to urban dwellers by around 20203, through the building up of several secondary cities like Wanzhou.

Map 2: Chongqing’s “One Circle and Two Wings” Development Plan Source: Chongqing Municipal Planning Bureau.

Map 2: Chongqing’s “One Circle and Two Wings” Development Plan
Source: Chongqing Municipal Planning Bureau.

By building up the municipal and transport infrastructure in and around these secondary cities, the municipal government can scale them up and out so they are capable of accommodating more rural people and also pushing some development impulses deeper into the distant and poorer areas of Chongqing’s sprawling regional hinterland. If successful, this strategy will replicate a similar regional bridging role as Shanghai.

Like Shanghai’s global connective functions but from a less advantaged interior position, Chongqing launched the 11,179-kilometer Trans-Eurasia Railway from southwestern China to Duisburg, Germany, through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland in 2011. In 2005, Chongqing also opened seven new international flights to Paris, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Sidney, Melbourne, New Delhi and Mumbai, even though they all connect through Shanghai. As labour and land costs in coastal cities like Shanghai have gone up, Chongqing has benefited by attracting more foreign investors and domestic producers to move inland. Having set up Asia’s largest laptop factory in Chongqing, US computer giant Hewlett Packard has already shipped more than four million notebook computers to Europe by the Chongqing-Duisburg railroad. This was part of the $2.5 billion worth of goods China has shipped on this route since 2011.4

 Yiwu: Relatively Small Yet Very Global

As the megacities of Shanghai and Chongqing continue to garner global attention, little remains known about China’s much smaller cities, although more of them have begun to play similar roles in driving local and regional growth and in fostering beneficial global connections. I start with the story of Yiwu. Few people outside of China have heard about Yiwu and how it has become one of the most globalised cities in China today.

A small rural town of Zhejiang province in the late 1970s and located from 300 kilometers from Shanghai, Yiwu was an early beneficiary of China’s initial wave of decentralisation and economic reform. With a lot of local autonomy, the local government steered local market and global economic forces in jump-starting rapid urban growth through careful planning and flexible policies. Instead of building many factories in spatially distinctive industrial districts like Shenzhen and other coastal cities, Yiwu chose a commercial route and charted a new path to globalise its own local economy.

From the very outset, the local government focused on promoting spatially centralised and specialised markets and vending booths for small merchandise such as handicraft items and hand tools. These commodities found home at thousands of booths amassed in the International Trade Mart (Yiwu Market) located in a huge mall-like structure of 4.7 million square meters built by the local government (see Figure 4). In 1982 there were only 705 booths in this trade centre. Fast forward to 2004 the number of booths shot up to 42,000, which are estimated to reach roughly 65,000 in 2014.

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Figure 4: Yiwu’s market has an area of 2.6 million square meters, accommodates 58,000 booths, selling over 400,000 plus goods. Source: http://101.69.178.21/purchaserservice/detail/43511.html

These booths display and sell 300,000 different kinds of merchandise goods in specialised markets for glass gifts, wooden gifts, pencils, office supplies, jewelry, toys, radios, earphones, socks, clothes, etc. Some refer to Yiwu as “The Socks City” because it supplies an enormous amount of socks to the world. In addition, 600 factories around Yiwu make about 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations.6

As small commodity booths grew in numbers and density, they attracted hundreds of thousands Chinese and international buyers and traders. The increase in commercial transactions spurred the expansion of small factories around the region surrounding Yiwu. These factories process and assemble more small merchandise to be sold at and exported from the city’s central mart. This trade-manufacturing relationship, on a much smaller scale, bears some resemblance to the dominant trading and marketing specialisation of Shanghai with backward manufacturing ties to the YRD regional economy (see Figure 3).

The regional integration of Yiwu as a globally connected small merchandise hub has fueled the ten-fold growth of the city’s population from 1990 to around one million today. Among the long-term local residents are approximately 10,000 foreign businessmen from 85 countries working for over 3,000 foreign trading companies. This has earned Yiwu the moniker as “the largest commodity wholesale market in the world” with a market index that is widely regarded as a barometer of prices and performance.

The recent installment of the Yiwu-Madrid Railroad further highlights Yiwu’s extensive global economic reach. Covering 13,500 kilometers, this railroad goes through eight different countries as the world’s longest. It begins from Yiwu through central China, joins the Trans-Eurasia Railway at Kazakhstan, continues on from Germany to France, and finally reaches Madrid. The train takes just three weeks to complete a journey that would take up to six weeks by sea. It is also more environmentally friendly than road transport, which would produce 114 tonnes of CO2 to shift the same volume of cargo, compared with only 44 tonnes produced by the train – a 62% reduction.7 This new rail line expands Yiwu’s global trade in small merchandise by making it easy to export its goods all over Asia and Europe.

Ruili: From a Small Border Town to a Major Gateway to Southeast Asia

The last city takes us back from the coastal region to the southwest, but all the way to the border city of Ruili in Yunnan province (Map 1). A sleepy town on the border with Myanmar through the 1980s, Ruili has since grown into a key city for driving lagged economic development in its border region and bridging the latter with the neighbouring Southeast Asian economies. In this process Ruili has acted a little like Shanghai, albeit on a much smaller scale, and in similar ways as Yiwu but with a smaller scope of local marketing.

The collapse of the Burmese Communist Party at the end of the 1980s was key to opening up border trade between China and Myanmar. The city of Ruili created the Jiagao Border Economic Development Zone in 1991 to facilitate trade with Muse on the Myanmar side. At Ruili’s border trade market, hundreds of petty traders and dealers from Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand selling cotton, jade, bracelets, ivory items and aquatic products. The market however is dominated by Chinese and Myanmar jade traders who converge from local and other places in their respective countries to make jade the central focus of Ruili’s lively border trade.

Ruili’s importance rose much beyond a border market in June 2010 when the city became more regionally linked to China’s strategic plan to develop its vast western region. During 2012-2013, the central and local governments began to execute the “Implementation Scheme of Ruili Experimental Zone” and the “Master Plan of Ruili Experimental Zone” in order to build Ruili up to a regional hub. The Master Plan included 238 projects such as industrial parks and trading centres, which would boost Ruili as a gathering place and gateway for economic activities and flows with the neighbouring Southeast Asian economies including a new oil/gas pipeline from western Myanmar into Yunnan.8

The new infrastructure investment strengthened Ruili’s role as an increasingly open land port. In December 2013, the Ruili Experimental Zone began issuing border passes for cross-border travel, which has facilitated the growth of cross-border tourism, especially Chinese tourists visiting Myanmar. The Experimental Zone also became a testing area for foreign current exchange making Ruili the first city in China to trade Myanmar’s currency of Kyat, and also the first county-level city in Yunnan province to establish a currency exchange centre. As of June 2015, Ruili completed hundreds of business deals amounting to over $160 million.9 The cumulative economic opportunities have raised Ruili’s population from around 10,000 in 1990 to over 150,000 today including temporary migrants.

Parallel to the cross-border economic boom has been the flow of illegal or illicit activities into and through Ruili. This is not surprising considering that the China-Myanmar border zone is infamous for gambling, commercial sex, drugs, and arms trafficking. Official figures show that Ruili has 7,700 people with HIV – the second-highest prevalence incidence rate in China behind a city in Sichuan province – and 53% of the sufferers come from Myanmar.10 Of the approximately 40,000 people from Myanmar entering and leaving Ruili, more than 200 are estimated to be prostitutes, 1.6% of whom may be infected with HIV. There are also around 30,000 people from Myanmar, many of them belonging to the persecuted minority group of Rohingya, living in Ruili, adding to the challenge of local governance. As part of a broader effort to deal with drugs and prostitution and thus maintain social stability, the local government has set up clinics for Myanmese citizens who are infected with HIV or who are drug addicts in Ruili including the provision of methadone treatment (see Figure 5).

Compared to Shanghai, Chongqing and Yiwu, the frontier city of Ruili bordering the less developed economy of Myanmar faces a different balance of opportunities and challenges. These however reflect the transformation of Ruili from a local place to a global city of sort.

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Figure 3: Regionalised Global-Local Production and Value Chains Into, Through, and Out of Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta (YRD) Region Source: See Note 1.

A multinational company owns brand names, sets product specifications, subcontracts manufacturing and controls wholesale channels and retail markets. Shanghai (central hub of the YRD) contributes land, some capital, skilled labour, some production equipment, and management expertise; provides some producer services such as accounting, insurance, legal services, custom clearance, shipping logistics and increasingly R&D talent and outputs. Suzhou, Kunshan, and Jiaxing (secondary cities in the YRD) contribute medium-cost land and labour, intermediate inputs, manufacturing expertise, and also finished products to be moved (back) to Shanghai for exports.Wujiang, Qidu and Jiangcun (third-tier cities, fourth-tier towns, fifth-tier villages in the YRD) contribute lowest-cost land and labour, some raw processed materials, and ships parts and components to secondary cities for further assembling or manufacturing.

International Implications

Despite their huge differences in history and population size, these four cities have become both the driving force and bridging agents for their rapid growth, gradual regional integration and increasing global influence. They are no longer local places that they once were, although Shanghai has been global for a much longer time. They show us why they are key cities for China today and in the future. More importantly, these four cities point two critical international implications.

First, to understand what is going on across China and its extensive global impact, we need to understand China’s key cities much better. These cities not only continue to drive and sustain China’s geographically uneven growth but also play a key role in regional integration by creating more varied and largely beneficial global connections. We can no longer only focus on the megacities of Shanghai and Chongqing, although their massive scale and economic power will continue to matter a lot more to China’s and global economy than Yiwu and Ruili. The latter cities, and many more like them, will become more important over time as they catch up in development and help bring forth the lagging regions and generate more global integration.

 

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Figure 5: Drug Users from Myanmar Collect Doses of Methadone from a Clinic in Ruili, Yunnan Province, China Source: Photo by Jiang Dong, China Daily, July 10, 2014, p. 7.

Relative to the much larger and more diversified cities like Shanghai and Chongqing, cities such as Yiwu and Ruili face the more difficult choice of how to sustain their growth and play their respective regional or global roles. The narrowly specialised economy makes Yiwu vulnerable to the price volatility in the global economy. Yet diversification beyond Yiwu’s distinctive and entrenched strength is unlikely. The border location may lock Ruili into a developmental path built on border trade unless the city can maximise its gateway position to create wider economic ties with Southeast Asia. These uncertain and contingent conditions will continue to challenge the outside world to better understand these cities.

This article was first published here and is reposted with permission of the author.

References

*I express my gratitude to Yu Xue in Shanghai for her assistance in gathering the most up-to-date data in Figures 1 and 2. This article also draws from some of my collaborative work with former and current students at Trinity College, and research partners in the United States and Shanghai.

1. This figure was adapted from Figure 4 in Xiangming Chen, 2007. “A Tale of Two Regions in China: Rapid Economic Development and Slow Industrial Upgrading in the Pearl River and the Yangtze River Deltas.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48 (2-3): 167-201.

2. Ren, Yuan, Jiaming Sun and Jing Gan. 2015. “Shanghai: The Rise and Future of China’s Premier Global City,” Chapter in Research Handbook on Asian Cities, edited by Xiangming Chen, Sarah Moser and Ratoola Kundu (Edward Elgar Publishing, forthcoming).

3. Chen, Xiangming. 2014. “Steering, Speeding, Scaling: China’s Model of Urban Growth and Its Implications for Cities of the Global South.” Pp. 155-172 in The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South, edited by Susan Parnell and Sophie Oldfield. London and New York: Routledge.

4. Chen, Xiangming and Julia Mardeusz. 2015. “China and Europe: Reconnecting Across a New Silk Road,” The European Financial Review (February-March): 5-12.

5. Figure 11.1 in Xiangming Chen, Anthony Orum and Krista Paulsen. 2012.Introduction to Cities: How Place and Space Shape Human Experience. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

6. Burchill, Billy. 2015. “The Diverse Effects of Globalization: Yiwu, China and Hartford, CT.” A senior thesis for the Urban Studies Program, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.

7. Same as Note 6 above.

8. See Chen, Xiangming and Curtis Stone. 2013. “China and Southeast Asia: Unbalanced Development in the Greater Mekong Subregion.” The European Financial Review (August): 7-11.

9. Chen, Xiangming and Curtis Stone, “Relocating the City in Transborder Spaces: Relative Urbanity, Catch-up Development, and Contested Governance in the China-Southeast Asia Borderland.” Chapter under preparation for The SAGE Handbook of Urban Sociology: New Approaches to the Twenty-first Century City, edited by Ricky Burdett and Suzanne Hall (Sage Publishers, forthcoming).

10. Shan Juan. 2014. “Clinic on frontier of AIDS care,” China Daily, July 10, p. 7; extracted from http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2014-07/10/content_17709424.htm.

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Yunnan border zone slated to cost 200 billion yuan

New infrastructure projects, like the Kunming-Singapore Railway, will be passing through southern Yunnan on their way to Southeast Asia.

New infrastructure projects, like the Kunming-Singapore Railway, will be passing through southern Yunnan on their way to Southeast Asia.

Investment and development money continues to pour into southern Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna. Weeks after the largest resort in the province opened near the city of Jinghong, prefectural officials unveiled plans for a new economic zone with an eye-popping price tag.

The Mengla Economic Zone, according to plans approved this summer by the Yunnan Development and Reform Commission, will span 4,500 square kilometers, centered around Mengla County (勐腊县). Initial estimates place the cost of the multi-purpose undertaking at 200 billion yuan (US$31.4 billion). The zone spans 240 as-yet unclear projects reportedly focusing on the sectors of agriculture, education, logistics, processing, tourism and transportation.

The latter of the these is perhaps most important to national planners. Connecting cities in Yunnan to Southeast Asia by rail has long been a goal of the Bridgehead Strategy, which looks to integrate the province’s economy more closely to those of its international neighbors. Mengla County borders Laos and is one key component in plans to build a web of railway lines by 2020 which will further connect Southeast Asia with Kunming.

Progress, however, has been slow on multiple fronts. The Kunming-Singapore Railway — the main trunk line of the planned network — was once expected to open in 2015. However, due to ongoing financial disagreements between China, Laos and Thailand, completion projections have been pushed back at least five years.

In that time, a branch railway along the recently opened Kunming-Hekou line will be extended 500 kilometers south to the border town of Mohan (磨憨) in Mengla County. When finished, the railway will pass from Yuxi through Pu’er, Jinghong and Mohan before linking up with a 44.5 billion yuan (US$7 billion) Chinese-built high-speed line running to Laos’ capital, Vientiane.

The newly announced Mengla Economic Zone appears to be a very expensive kick-starter of sorts. Its launch is not only aimed at furthering Chin’s Bridgehead Strategy, but also seems designed to convince Laos — which is wagering half its annual GDP on the railway project — that Chinese intentions are serious and longstanding.

Regardless of the effects on Laos, the economic zone is another enormous financial shot in the arm for largely rural Xishuangbanna. Less than one month ago, real estate conglomerate Wanda opened a 15 billion yuan (US$2.36 billion) resort and development area of its own in the prefecture. The goal for such a sizable investment, in the words of company chairman Wang Jianlin (王健林), is to “…revolutionize Yunnan’s tourism industry“. One way or another, it looks as if sleepy Xishuangbanna is in for drastic changes in the coming years.

The preceding article was written by Patrick Scally and originally posted on GoKunming. It is republished here, in its entirety, with full permission from the author. 

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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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China initiates enormous Yangtze water diversion scheme

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Although not on the scale of the Grand Canal or the Three Gorges Dam, the waterways of Yunnan province are undergoing radical changes. This is especially true in the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas. In the name of “development” and “drought prevention”, a new project launched in the province will divert a stunning quantity of water away from the headwaters of the world’s fourth longest river.

Dignitaries and officials attended groundbreaking ceremonies for the Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project (滇中引水工程) on September 30 in Lijiang. Attendees oversaw the initial launch of a program that will divert an estimated 3.403 billion cubic meters of water annually away from the upper reaches of the Yangtze — known as the Jinsha River (金沙江). The ceremony was overseen by Provincial Party Secretary Li Jiheng (李纪恒), while a similar event was held simultaneously in Dali.

The water in question will be funneled southeast through naturally occurring rivers and lakes, first passing near the cities of Dali and Chuxiong before reaching Kunming, Yuxi and Honghe. The intended goals of the project include providing more water for municipal, agricultural and industrial use during times of drought. Of added benefit, according to local media reports, will be the influx of clean water into several lakes suffering from major environmental degradation.

Even though Yunnan as a whole is rich in water resources, the middle of the province is periodically crippled by drought. It is hoped by officials the Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project may avert future water shortages such as the five-year dry-spell between 2009 and 2014 that threatened millions of people and led to billions in lost revenue.

Lakes affected include Kunming’s Dianchi (滇池),Qilu (杞麓湖) near the city of Yuxi, and Yilong (异龙湖) in Honghe Prefecture. Dianchi in particular is an environmental nightmare, and for more than a decade has been covered in a thick, green film of algae rendering it’s waters useless even for industrial use.

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The provincial government has repeatedly thrown large sums of money at various Dianchi clean-up and “rehabilitation” efforts. Over the years such measures have included the introduction of invasive plant species, efforts to oxygenate the lake, and theconstruction of water treatment plants along tributary rivers and streams. Nothing has yet showed substantial success.

Two years ago, then-Provincial Party Secretary Qin Guangrong (秦光荣) outlined a new plan for Dianchi, one that would effectively “flush the lake clean” of pollutants and algae with water from the province’s northwest. The Dian Zhong Water Diversion Project appears to be based largely on Qin’s vision, although with a heavily modified and enlarged scope.

The project begins in Shigu (石鼓) — known in China as ‘the first bend in the Yangtze’. From there, an amount of water equivalent to 1,360,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools will be diverted away from the Jinsha River through man-made canals and underground pipelines connected to existing waterways, including the lakes mentioned previously.

Work on the 661-kilometer endeavor — which will not include the construction of any new dams — is expected to take eight years, with “long-term goals” realized by 2040. No cost estimates have yet been made public. Speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony held last month, Yunnan’s acting governor Chen Hao (陈豪), said “This is an exciting time, a time of dreams.”

This article written by Patrick Scally was first posted here on the GoKunming.com website.

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WanDa opens 15 billion yuan resort in Xishuangbanna

Mockup of Wanda's theme park in Xishuangbanna. PS it never looks like this...

Mockup of Wanda’s theme park in Xishuangbanna.

China’s richest man is looking to expand his gargantuan real estate empire by diversifying into the tourism industry. The first major step in this direction was taken during Mid-Autumn Festival, when Wang Jianlin (王健林), Chairman of Wanda Group, oversaw the opening of a multipurpose resort development in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna (西双版纳).

Construction on the Wanda International Resort Xishuangbanna began three years ago. Eventually it grew to cover more than five square kilometers of river valley just northwest of the city of Jinghong (景洪). Built at a total cost of 15 billion yuan (US$2.36 billion), the complex features several artificial lakes, an amusement and water park, IMAX theaters, Dai minority themed luxury villas, a Wanda shopping center, three resort hotels, a hospital and several schools.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Wang revealed his company will invest 95 billion yuan for further tourism and business development in the province over the next four years. Quoted by the South China Morning Post, Wang said with such a large outlay of funds, his company plans to “…revolutionize Yunnan’s tourism industry”.

The success of that revolution will definitely be aided by the money Wanda has already invested, but other factors loom large. Chief among these is a spur line on the oft-delayed Kunming-Singapore Railway. When and if is is built — some forecasts predict an opening date of 2018 — the high-speed railroad would connect Yunnan’s capital to Jinghong in just over two hours. The city currently has no direct rail link to Kunming.

Currently, Xishuangbanna Prefecture receives an estimated 13 million travelers yearly. That number is expected to rise significantly over the next five years as under-construction and proposed infrastructure projects are completed. For its part, Wanda is banking on a surge in both tourism and investment, offering newly built villas and condominiums located inside the Wanda International Resort Xishuangbanna for between 4,500 and 6,000 yuan a square meter.

The development conglomerate is not only focusing on Yunnan and what is commonly called its “untapped tourism resources”. This year alone, Wanda has signed other travel development contracts in Guangxi, Guizhou, Henan, Liaoning and Sichuan provinces worth 680 billion yuan (US$107 billion). Completing the circle connecting tourism and real estate, Chairman Wang has also hinted his company will soon delve into China’s cutthroat airline industry.

This article written by Patrick Scally was first published here in on the GoKunmin.com site. 

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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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