End of the frontier

China’s Go West campaign is launching Yunnan into the global economy, but new infrastructure carries an ecological price tag. R Edward Grumbine reports on the green dynamics of a rural transformation.

China’s Go West campaign is launching Yunnan into the global economy, but new infrastructure carries an ecological price tag. R Edward Grumbine reports on the green dynamics of a rural transformation.

This article is excerpted from Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River by R Edward Grumbine. Copyright © 2010 R Edward Grumbine. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.

When Deng Xiaoping determined that China’s future lay with a state-directed market economy, he also realised that the People’s Republic of China would have to begin the transition where development was most likely to succeed. The eastern and southern coast of China already had much of the basic infrastructure for global communications and commercial exchange – this would be the place. Western China would have to wait.

Yunnan waited 20 years. During these decades, economic growth in China pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and created a rising world power. Some 150 million rural residents moved to east coast factory jobs, the largest human migration ever recorded. But this loss of labour from the country to the cities only added to east-west social disparities.

In 1999, Beijing announced a solution: xibu dakaifa, “great western development strategy”, or the Go West policy. Then-premier Zhu Rongjisummed up the plan: it would “strengthen national unity”, “safeguard social stability” and “control border defence”. But what did premier Zhu’s rhetoric really mean?

For Yunnan, Go West means the end of the frontier. The margin will become modernised, poverty will shrink, incomes and education levels will rise. The provincial government has no intention of stimulating economic development just for tourists. For China, Go West will reduce the east-west wealth gap, slow down the stream of migrant labour and spur a domestic market of consumers that will make the PRC less dependent on selling computers, toys and furniture to the rest of the world.

While the domestic benefits of Go West are many, China is also looking beyond its borders. From the times of ancient emperors to the Communist Party, frontiers have always insulated the Middle Kingdom from foreign influences. The traditional role of government has been to seal frontiers; Go West punches holes in them. By constructing a vast array of road, rail and hydro/powerline links to its south-east Asian neighbours, Yunnan is joining the global economy.

I have a difficult time grasping the sheer scale, speed and style of Go West in Yunnan. Let’s start with roads. From 2006 to 2010, the PRC national road plan calls for building and paving 180,000 kilometres of all grades of roads each year. For comparison, the United States interstate highway system is about 76,000 kilometres long. In Yunnan, I have witnessed three villages make the transition from “roadless” to “connected”. Imagine going from walking, biking or maybe hitching a ride on a tuo luo jie (a village tractor) to continuous paved road access. You can now negotiate a better price for your tea or vegetables. Your kids can go to school beyond sixth grade because you no longer have to be concerned about boarding expenses.

The environmental consequences of all this road building are another matter. The government is spending tens of billions on roads and, within a decade, Yunnan will be linked by modern highways with Tibet, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and India. Yunnan will soon have direct road access to saltwater ports in three separate countries. Bereft of access to the sea for its entire existence, the province will be landlocked no more.

Railroads have always been expensive to build in Yunnan. The mountainous terrain keeps construction costs high. But now China is flush with cash. When Go West is complete, there will be three new rail lines connecting Kunming with Singapore, India and Lhasa. Some of the new rail cargo will be precious metals and industrial minerals. Yunnan has China’s largest lead, zinc and phosphate deposits, most of which still lie underground. There has never been a modern transportation system to haul them to market.

As for dams, there are 33 separate hydro projects proposed for Yunnan’s three great rivers, the Nu, the Lancang and the Jinsha. Any observer can do the math – Yunnan doesn’t need that much electricity. Why build so much hydropower capacity? In the mid-twentieth century, one could have asked the same questions about the Colorado or Columbia rivers in the American West. Much of the electricity generated by damming these rivers is shipped to California. Without this power, California could not have created the eighth largest economy in the world.

Go West hydro companies will sell a portion of the energy of Yunnan’s rivers to power growth in Bangkok and Hanoi. The rest will be shipped to south-east China. The next chapter after the Go West strategy is implemented is to link Yunnan with Guangdong and the industrial supercities of the Pearl River delta on the far side of China. This will create a European-style common market powerhouse across the southern half of the PRC. Designs are already being drawn up to construct 20 new shipping ports the size of Seattle or larger on China’s eastern seaboard. The irony is inescapable: the ultimate goal of Go West-style development is to “Go East”.

How will the ethnic nationality peoples of Yunnan survive the coming transitions? How can conservationists support people and nature in Yunnan when Go West development is “reinventing another China”? The PRC has already answered this question. Go West will stop ecological degradation and foster shengtai jianshe, “ecological construction”. But this mandarin phrase is vague; I believe it masks more than it reveals. “Ecological construction” is so broad that it can mean building 13 dams on the Nu, or it can mean erecting only a few. In China, building no dams at all is not an option.

The question is not whether to develop, but how. One way to proceed is to embed basic environmental-planning practices into Go West projects, but this is not happening on a large scale. Of course, there is the political problem of gaining access to information about the dams. Details about road construction projects are also lacking. Though Chinese law is clear, none of the new roads that I saw opening up access to villages came with environmental reviews. And it shows – design and construction are so shoddy that many roads are impossible to keep open year round.

Basic conservation biology principles could also guide Go West. Ecological planning could influence where a railroad or highway gets sited, thereby reducing habitat loss so that an elephant or monkey population might not be eliminated. But as with integrated environmental assessments, conservation biology is not yet featured in large-scale Chinese planning. The roads, dams and powerlines are simply getting built.

At the conclusion of The Retreat of the Elephants, his magisterial survey of environmental history in China, Mark Elvin searches for reasons why unique Chinese attitudes about nature might have dampened the drive toward environmental destruction over the course of 3,000 years. He can’t find any that worked for very long.

What Elvin does discover is that the impetus to compete for scarce resources is common throughout human history and that, in China as elsewhere, “What might have been more viable long-term patterns counted for little or nothing faced with short-term choices for power.” After nations gain strength and influence, pressures to reach outward to control more resources almost always swamp long-term environmental protection.

Maybe it can be different in Yunnan. Maybe Go West can yet be steered toward keeping Yunnan ecologically intact. The only way to find out is to search for what is happening on the ground in the backcountry villages and the protected areas, to meet people in the growing group of Chinese conservation leaders and, when an opportunity arises, to offer assistance.

R Edward Grumbine chairs the masters in environmental studies programme at Prescott College, Arizona and teaches the undergraduate environmental studies programme. He is author of Ghost Bears: Exploring the Biodiversity Crisis and editor of Environmental Policy and Biodiversity.

This is an excerpt from his new book Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River. It is used here with permission.

NEXT: R Edward Grumbine talks to chinadialogue

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