Sunshine through the Clouds: The East Wind from Yunnan

Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh *

The spread of knowledge and technology across borders as part of globalisation is a key factor in social and economic changes around the world. Despite its negative side effects, globalisation has contributed to the spread of knowledge and global competition. It motivates innovation and adoption of new technologies for productivity where the ecosystem is conducive. In this regard, the underdeveloped Northeast India must look forward to healthy interactions with knowledge and technology from the east.

Difficult terrains, poor infrastructure, failure to harness the human resources and inability to create sustainable development model suitable to the local conditions continue to affect creativity and productivity in the region. But, as China is pushing for development of its border areas and underdeveloped regions to fulfill its dream of “building a moderately prosperous society”, the wind of change might sweep across the borders in higher velocity.

The sunshine over Yunnan (literally means “South of the Clouds”) is closely related to the east wind (Dongfeng) of the Chinese Dream (Zhongguo Meng). In the long term, it is worthwhile to discuss whether the east wind sweeping across Yunnan could be a blessing for the three zones of underdevelopment (see Fig. 1). The cascading effects of infrastructure development in Tibet-Yunnan Zone will surely scale up the construction works both in Northeast India and Myanmar. And it is happening at the moment.

  Tri-junction of three zones of underdevelopment in India, Myanmar and China
TFig. 1 Tri-junction of three zones of underdevelopment in India, Myanmar and China

In fact, the biggest disadvantage of Northeast India is the thick wall of underdevelopment that surrounds the seven states. Northeast India shares borders with relatively underdeveloped states of Bangladesh, Myanmar and China. It is further complicated by lack of access to the sea, thus hampering participation in the global value and supply chains. In this context, the Chinese Dream is an interesting topic for every China watcher.

A rising Chinese tide will not lift all the boats. But it will definitely create opportunities for those who are ready to pluck the low-hanging fruits. The east wind has reached Northern Myanmar though armed conflicts between the Myanmar government and several ethnic armed groups have delayed the process of change. Even during this period of uncertainty and violence, flow of knowledge and technology continue uninterrupted across the borders.

As China is looking towards South Asia, Northeast India should capitalise on transport connectivity, opening of border gates, access to cheaper technologies and availability of raw materials to enhance productivity. Presently, the region is at the periphery of global competition and innovation. The positive spillovers from China’s journey towards building a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020 could provide more opportunities for the people. It, therefore, calls for a holistic approach to address the concerns of the people in Northeast India to get rid of underdevelopment and poverty with a sense of urgency.

As far as China is concerned, under the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), Beijing has vowed to lift all poor people out of poverty by 2020. Reportedly, a total of 13.86 million people were lifted out of poverty in 2018. Moreover, the Chinese government has built or renovated 208,000 kilometres of rural roads in 2018 as part of poverty alleviation.

In 2019, the Chinese government is planning to remove 10 million people living under poverty line out of the remaining 16.6 million poor people as reported by the end of 2018. Basically, China is working to provide the five essential needs of food, clothing, compulsory education, basic healthcare and housing to all the Chinese by 2020.

The outcomes may be far from satisfactory, but China after 2020 will definitely be a new China. The centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2021 and the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2049 carry the visions of building China into a “prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful country” by 2050.

Again, the 2019 Government Work Report of the PRC was delivered by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on March 5, 2019. The document mentions the “three regions and three prefectures” where poverty alleviation measures will be intensified. Poverty alleviation works in Yunnan, especially in the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture bordering Kachin State of Myanmar is significant for Northeast India. Such anti-poverty measures will have spillover effects in Northern Myanmar as well as Northeast India.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Yunnan in 2015 and he met with seven representatives of the Dulong (also called Derung) ethnic minority which has a total population of about 7000 people in China. It was an important development as the Dulong (known as ‘Rawang’ in Myanmar) people are living is the remotest corner of China called the Dulong Valley with minimal transport connectivity with the rest of China and the outside world.

While calling for promotion of ethnic autonomy and ethnic solidarity, Xi pledged that “no ethnic group, no matter its size or remoteness, would be excluded from the Chinese Dream.” The statement is important against the backdrop of China’s fight against poverty in Yunnan which has a large concentration of ethnic minorities and a sizeable population of poor people.

   Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province
Fig. 2 Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province

Due to difficult geographical terrain, socio-economic development of the people living in China’s remote and mountainous areas has been stunted over the years. One such place is the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan which shares border with Kachin State of Myanmar. Along the China-Myanmar border, new towns and cities (see Fig. 2 for towns and cities within red circles) of varied size and development have emerged on the Chinese side. Such developments take place along with creation of new opportunities for better livelihood and infrastructure for socio-economic and political advancement.

For the first time, the Dulong River Valley was connected with Gongshan, which is located along the Nu River, by a highway in 1999. Nevertheless, rockslides and snow cover continued to affect the traffic movement. In April 2014, the Dulongjiang Highway Tunnel was opened to facilitate year round transport connectivity between the Dulong Valley and the Nujiang Valley of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture. Also, the Chinese government has been investing in tourism sector, irrigation facilities, model villages, power grids, telecommunication, education, healthcare and professional training.

 Strategic location of the Dulong Valley near the India-China-Myanmar Tri-junction
Fig. 3 Strategic location of the Dulong Valley near the India-China-Myanmar Tri-junction

Also, China is changing Myanmar through assistance, loans, cooperation projects and technology transfer. One such example is the Chinese loan that has facilitated the establishment of a new train coach factory in Myitnge near Amarapura and a locomotive factory in Nay Pyi Taw. This would help Myanmar expand its railway infrastructure across the country. Moreover, the proposed Mandalay-Muse railway with a length of 431 km will connect China and Myanmar railway networks.

At present, construction is being undertaken on the Dali-Ruili section of the Kunming-Ruili railway in China. With Ruili as an important Chinese town along the China-Myanmar border, changes taking place in Northern Myanmar along the Muse-Lashio-Mandalay route is already visible. However, Northeast India has to wait for the spillover effect of development in Myanmar especially in Kachin State, Sagaing Region and Chin State. No doubt, the fertilization process is a two-way street.

To be in sync with the changes in the other two zones, the concerned agencies and stakeholders in India need to work diligently towards bringing development and progress in Northeast India. Dreams and aspirations of the Northeast Indians to join the global competition for knowledge and technological advancement need timely and judicious support as part of India’s emergence as a global actor. Politics is the crux of the matter.

In this regard, sustainable exploitation of resources in Northeast India and empowerment of the people through dissemination of knowledge and technology are inevitable. Political ecology of Northeast India calls for empowerment of the states as well as the ethnic groups living within the territorial boundaries of the seven states. The centre and the concerned states should embrace this historic opportunity with diligence and sincerity.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council

* Dr. Puyam Rakesh Singh wrote this article for
The writer is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs and can be reached at khuman_mei(AT)yahoo(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on March 19, 2019.

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