Join our Mailing List

"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

End of the frontier

July 13, 2010

R Edward Grumbine
July 12, 2010

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.

"‘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."

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 Rongji
summed 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.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank