Yunnan: China’s Bridgehead to Southeast Asia and Beyond


China’s rapid economic development and social transformation brings with it geopolitical ramifications that are features of the daily news. Yet much of the foreign media reporting on China focuses on the eastern seaboard, on the dazzling glass towers of Shanghai or the smog clouded vistas of Beijing. The western regions of China generally only attract attention when something devastating takes places, such as the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan, or in reporting on ongoing ethnic tensions such as between the Han Chinese and Uyghurs in far western Xinjiang. Western understanding of China is thus often skewed. China is a geographically vast and populous multiethnic nation-state/party-state, and warrants more than a myopic focus on the Shanghais and Beijings.

On March 1, 2014, a violent attack at a busy railway station by eight knife-wielding assailants in which 33 people were killed (including four perpetrators) and dozens injured shifted the global spotlight on to China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. The Xinhua News Agency labeled the perpetrators as Uyghurs Muslim terrorists. Some commentators said this would be “China’s 911,” although Chinese authorities played down this angle in the interests, it seems, of defusing ethnic tensions. World attention, in any case, quickly dissipated as the mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 unfolded.

Yunnan Province deserves more attention, and not necessarily directed at the events surrounding the brutal railway station attack. Rather it is worth looking at developments in this land “south of the clouds” (the literal meaning of “Yunnan” in Chinese), which can offer insight into trends in China beyond the eastern seaboard.

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Yunnan is a mountainous landlocked province located in southwest China with an average elevation of 1,800 meters. It shares international borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, and domestic borders with Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. With a population of 45 million, in addition to the Han Chinese that account for 67 percent, Yunnan is home to another 25 ethnic groups, making it one of the most ethnically diverse regions in China. The combination of altitude and latitude – the Tropic of Cancer cuts across the south – give Yunnan a warm and wet, and yet also extremely diverse, climate ranging from temperate rainforests to high alpine pastures. Yunnan is also, not surprisingly, one of the most biodiverse region in China and indeed in the world. The cultural and natural significance of this region is recognized with a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

This combination of ethnic, climatic and biodiversity has given Yunnan a unique mix of cultures and a special position within Chinese history. Although the Han Chinese states of the “central plains” – that is, eastern China – had interaction with the region of Yunnan for at least two thousand years, it was not formally incorporated into the Chinese dynastic state system until the Mongol conquest during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. Since that time Yunnan has been an integral part of the Chinese frontier. Frontiers are important places for us to study if we wish to learn how cultures interact in past, present and future contexts.

A number of historic trade, culture and migratory routes pass through Yunnan that have all contributed to world history. Most notable is the Southern Silk Road, which connected central China with Mainland Southeast Asia, and then to the Maritime Silk Road, which in turn provided routes to India and beyond. When the northern Silk Road was “closed” due to political or social instability in western China and Central Asia, the Southern Silk Road was an important lifeline between East and West. Yunnan is also home to the Ancient Tea Horse Road, a network of trading routes linking the tea production areas of southwest Yunnan with the tea markets in Tibet, Southeast Asian, Nepal and Central China. Tea is perhaps Yunnan’s greatest claim to fame, as it is regarded by many experts as the first place humans actively cultivated and harvested the Camellia Sinensis plant (the tea tree). Tea, we need to remind ourselves, is the beverage that changed the course of world history on numerous occasions. Yunnanese horses were also highly valued and made their way through trade to Central China and as far away as Bengal in India.

During the Maoist period (1949-1976), when the People’s Republic of China virtually closed its borders, Yunnan was regarded as something of a backwater – a remote and dangerous region inhabited by primitive tribes, wild animals and deadly diseases. Indeed Yunnan has for much of its history had to cope with the label of “backwardness.” The Maoist closed-door policy exacerbated this by denying Yunnan its role as a natural conduit to the peoples south of the border. However, once China embarked on the policies of “reform and openness” in the 1980s Yunnan’s place in the Chinese geopolitical scheme of things began to change. Change in the provinces along the eastern seaboard has been much faster and also much more widely reported, but Yunnan, especially in the last two decades, has started to play catch-up.

Three major factors have contributed to this transformation: Recognition from the Central Government that China’s western regions were falling behind leads to the launch of the “Develop the West” policy. which allocates finances to investing in modern transport infrastructure and key industries (this is interpreted by some non-Han ethnic groups in the far western regions as a “resource extraction policy” but that does not apply to Yunnan); China’s rise changes the dynamic with its Southeast Asian neighbors, in which trade becomes a major incentive to improving relations, along with a number of other policing and natural resource concerns (especially with rivers such as the Mekong and Salween, which pass through Yunnan); and the rising Chinese middleclass and its disposable income, the promotion of a leisure economy and improved transport infrastructure (making once remote regions readily accessible) makes Yunnan’s cultural, topographical and botanical diversity a major tourism asset and tourism quickly grows to become the province’s second largest industry (after tobacco).

Shifting Geopolitical Importance

As the Chinese economy expanded and trade with Southeast Asia (ASEAN) nations increased, Yunnan, once regarded as a backwater on the frontier, suddenly becomes an important strategic region in which more open borders and the flow of goods and people were encouraged. In 2010, the Central Government officially sanctioned the Yunnanese strategy to function as a bridgehead (qiaotoubao) to Southeast Asia. This was a crystallization of existing trends in trade and cross-border cooperation with a much more long term and focused vision to drive Yunnan’s outreach to its neighbors into the future.

The move towards increased connectivity is part of the more general investment in a modern transport infrastructure across China, including Yunnan. With the development of modern expressways, airports, and railways, Yunnan’s once isolated status is now giving way to modern versions of the Southern Silk Road and Ancient Tea Horse Road. Yunnan is home to China’s first international expressway linking Kunming, the provincial capital, to Bangkok. Plans for expressways all the way to Singapore, including fast rail, are also on the agenda. In the coming decades this expanding transport infrastructure has the potential to radically change this region.

Discovering “Shangri-La”

Although Yunnan over the centuries has been an important destination for Han migration, for much of the modern period it suffered from something of an image problem, being seen as backward and primitive. During the Maoist period, thousands of young Chinese, many from Shanghai, were sent to the jungles of Yunnan’s southwest to work in the army corps devoted to establishing China’s rubber industry. For urban youth from Shanghai this was akin to being sent to the end of the world. However, with improved transport infrastructure and rising middle-class disposable incomes, Yunnan has reversed its fortunes and become one of China’s most popular regions for domestic tourism, attracting more than 45 million visitors each year. One area near the border of Tibet even changed its official place name to “Shangri-La,” hoping to brand itself for tourism. Some parts of Yunnan with a more pleasant climate and clean air, such as Dali and Lijiang, have even emerged in recent years as popular destinations for lifestyle migrants, with people from the large urban centers of eastern China moving there to escape pollution and congestion and, supposedly, enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle. The contrast between the young students of the Cultural Revolution sent to the rubber plantations and the contemporary young backpackers and lifestyle seekers couldn’t be more stark.

These trends are generally viewed within Yunnan as positive developments. Many people seem to be happy that Yunnan’s image and importance is changing. But it is also possible to detect concern for what such rapid change will mean for Yunnan’s cultural and environmental diversity. Tourism has generated significant income and employment opportunities but it also commodifies cultures and makes it difficult for younger people to adroitly manage the demands of maintaining their cultural heritage, on the one hand, and embracing the modern world, on the other. The growing influx of visitors and the ongoing process of urbanization within Yunnan is also having negative impacts on its fragile ecosystems.

That is just one way in which Southwest China’s Yunnan Province is a microcosm, offering insights into the many internal paths and trajectories that exist within China today.

Dr Gary Sigley is professor in Asian and Chinese Studies at The University of Western Australia.

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