A Visit to Yunnan, a Polar-Opposite Land

|China

Recently (in mid-March on a one-week itinerary) I visited Yunnan Province in southwestern China for the first time. The main objectives were a joint-seminar with Yunnan University Institute of International Relations in Kunming, “Japan–China Relations concerning the Development of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS)”; a visit to a Japanese company; a tour of the flower market; a trip to Jinghong (Xishuangbanna) lying 730 km to the southwest (by road, returning by air); and inspections of the Laos and Myanmar borders and Mekong port facilities, etc. Since last year I have also been participating in a research project for the development of the Mekong region, and this led to this trip. For someone carrying out research on the regional economic exchange crossing the Sino–Russian and Sino–DPRK borders of Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces of the Northeast of China, having the opportunity to see firsthand the state of affairs evolving in the polar-opposite region was extremely valuable, and there were a large number of things that were thought provoking.

Going back in history, Yunnan—which also had a period when it formed independent states such as the Kingdom of Nanzhao and the Kingdom of Dali—was long feared as a land of fevers, with so-called ethnic minorities inhabiting it in large numbers. Bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, however, and being a strategic transportation center which adjoins Tibet also, it is an extremely important region in politico-economic and military terms for China, and the influx of the Han has continued from the Ming Dynasty down to today. The Yunnan of the time of the Sino–Japanese War played a key role as a British and US supply route to Chiang Kai-shek, who moved the government to Chongqing in neighboring Sichuan Province (Noriyuki Ishijima: “Yunnan and Modern China: Viewed from the ‘periphery’ “, etc.).

The impetus behind the great change in recent years in Kunming, the provincial capital, was the hosting (in 1999) of the World Horticultural Exposition. Along with developing the city’s infrastructure, the visitors from China and abroad increased spectacularly, which became an opportunity for the development of the tourism industry, and brought an expansion of the cultivation of flowers, vegetables and fruit trees, etc., and of related business, adding to the existing tobacco and tea industries. The farmland on the outskirts of Kunming is covered by the white roofs of plastic greenhouses, the flower market commences trading at nine o’clock every evening, and the flowers that went under the hammer are transported to Kunming Airport by first light, and are shipped domestically and overseas by the first morning flights.

Following on from the World Horticultural Exposition, the Great Western Development Strategy, beginning in 2000, has activated the Yunnan economy through the construction of infrastructure, etc., centered on the building and upgrading of roads. As one approaches Jinghong with a gradually lowering of elevation, in the surrounding mountains the cultivation of rubber trees, in addition to tea, becomes marked. In a Dai village, a great amount of watermelons were piled up on the open ground at the side of the road, and at the side of a large truck the work of packing them into boxes was being carried out by women. In the field, bags are placed over the bunches of bananas, and along with raising the sugar content, they ward off insect pests, and keep the surface of the fruit beautiful. Amid the major drought since autumn last year, rice growing has continued, rice seedling nurseries have been built, and the transplanting of seedlings has begun.

The Chinese enterprises that are business partners of the Japanese firms in Kunming take organic vegetables that make best use of the natural environment, weigh them out, wrap them in cellophane in trays, indicate the place of production, and in a state where the price sticker is ready to be put on, they have been highly successful in a business where they ship them to supermarkets in big cities like Shanghai and to Canada. Currently they are investigating the expansion of business into Myanmar, and have got to the stage of choosing at their own discretion the timing of making their start.

Against this background of the changes in the Yunnan economy, the presence of the Mekong River region development framework, via GMS economic cooperation, is large. Yunnan Province has participated as a local government, alongside the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, in this development, begun in 1992 with an Asian Development Bank initiative (in 2005 Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region also joined in), and the construction of infrastructure including the North–South Economic Corridor (Kunming–Hanoi and Bangkok), the liberalization of trade and investment, and a number of other projects are being put into effect (Masami Ishida and Toshihiro Kudo (eds.) “Greater Mekong Sub-Region Economic Cooperation: The three economic corridors which are to be realized”, etc.).

The construction of infrastructure and the liberalization of trade and investment will not necessarily bring about regional development on both sides of an international frontier. It is clear, however, that their having racked up the hosting of the World Horticultural Exposition and the domestic regional development policy of the Great Western Development Strategy, on top of an international regional development cooperation scheme which includes the financing of the development, has led to the Yunnan Province of today. The Development of the Tumen River Area, for which several new moves have been communicated, has shown the prerequisites for moving matters into full swing.

[Translated by ERINA]