Saturday, March 23, 2013

Yunnan: China's Back Porch

After a month in Kunming and reading about Yunnan province in the months leading up to our move, I’ve come to some realizations about the place that i wanted to share with everyone. It’s of course influenced by my time at Stratfor as well as reading several books about this area of China and talking to people here. Obviously, this isn’t academic writing, but I still feel compelled to cite my sources a bit just to give credit where it’s due.

Right now I’m reading From Mandalay to Momien. It’s a report written by a British naturalist who accompanied a British exploration force seeking out overland trade routes from Burma to China via its southern Yunnan province in 1868. This is the physical area that we’re talking about here.

I’ve learned two major things from this book. First. that, historically, Yunnan province has had good access to the rest of the world via trade along the Irawaddy River in Myanmar. Second, over the centuries, Yunnan has passed in and out of Imperial Chinese rule. During periods of Chinese rule, authorities tend to block Yunnan’s access to Burma. However, Yunnan has been under control of several Islamic kingdoms and during those bouts of autonomy, local rulers sought out access to international trade. In 1868, when the British expedition set off up the Irrawaddy from Mandalay, southern Yunnan had recently fallen out of Chinese control and was an Islamic kingdom.

The greater context of this expedition was Britain and the west’s ongoing struggle with Beijing in the 19th century to increase foreign access to the interior of China. Britain and other western powers were limited to a few coastal concessions along the Pacific coast where they could buy spices, raw materials and other goods from merchants. But ever the businessmen, the British were interested in increasing their access to these products in order to cut out the inflated costs the middlemen charged in the coastal concessions. Interior China also generated excitement as a marketplace for British sellers. Expeditions like the one in 1868 to southern Yunnan province were an attempt to find a profitable “back-door” to China through which the British could access inland commodities directly.

It’s no surprise that the British had Yunnan in their sights. Yunnan is China’s geographic extension into Southeast Asia. As Robert Kaplan points out in Revenge of Geography, Yunnan and and its capital, Kunming, offer China a gateway to southeast Asia and vice-versa. Yunnan is either the source of or contributes significant tributaries to the Yangtze River, which flows onto Shanghai; the Mekong River, which flows on through or borders Laos, Myanmar, Thailand,  Cambodia and Vietnam. The Pearl and Red rivers start in Yunnan and form two of Vietnam’s major rivers. Finally, several of Yunnan’s western rivers flow through the mountains to the Irawaddy: Myanmar’s core transportation artery. One of those rivers, the Taping, was the principal route that our 19th century British explorers followed to traverse the mountainous border between Burma and southern China. Seventy years later, American, British and local forces built a road approximately following the Taping to supply Chiang Kai Shek's Chinese nationalist army in opposition to the Japanese, who had cut off China's maritime access during WWII. That historical example is evidence that Yunnan is China’s second best entry port behind the Pacific Ocean. It’s a far, far distant second place, but nonetheless an option.

All of the river routes connecting landlocked Yunnan to ports along the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean naturally draw Yunnanese business interests to the south rather than north towards Beijing. Granted, many of these rivers are too small to carry significant traffic in Yunnan, but they at least cut a path through the mountains that offer natural road and rail routes. Once the Taping river valley hits the Irawaddy in northern Myanmar, for example, moving goods by boat to the rest of the world via the Indian Ocean becomes much more viable - hypothetically, at least. The political situation in Myanmar and its port facilities still make it difficult, but China is actively trying to improve both. Passable segments of the Irawaddy river are about 500 miles from Kunming whereas the major southern Chinese port of Guangzhou is about 900 miles away. Via the Yangtze, Shanghai is over 1500 miles away, but due to dams it’s not a viable river for shipping goods from Yunnan. Yunnan’s geographical estrangement from the rest of China and its natural proximity to southeast Asia has historically presented a political problem for Beijing.

Ethnic Han Chinese have historically not made up the majority of Yunnan’s population. Yunnan’s distance from China’s more traditional east coast core means that it’s not imperative that China hold Yunnan, but given Yunnan’s geographic position, it certainly helps to have it.

Yunnan claims to have the most minority groups of any province in China. In today’s politically correct world, embracing “minority groups” is synonymous with political openness and compassion. China certainly trumps up its tolerance of minority groups in Yunnan; for example, there’s a whole theme park dedicated to Yunnan’s minority groups in Kunming, but it’s the equivalent of saying that Disney embraces Alpine culture because they feature The Matterhorn at their theme park. Chinese tolerance of minority groups in Yunnan goes as far as the government is able to exploit them for the sake of tourism. As history shows, those same minority groups (many of which are Muslim) have challenged China’s control over Yunnan for centuries. As far as Beijing is concerned, these groups are much safer as exhibits than actual, functioning cultures.

Nowadays, Chinese culture dominates in Yunnan and that’s the result of intentional “sinofication” by encouraging members of China’s dominant Han ethnicity to move to Yunnan. This is extremely evident in the capital, Kunming.

A good metric to measure China’s confidence in its control over Yunnan will be its willingness to build infrastructure linking Yunnan with southeast Asia. One hundred years ago, Beijing’s control over Yunnan was tenuous and external links via British controlled Burma and French controlled Indochina helped indigenous groups in Yunnan maintain a level of autonomy by giving them access to foreign patrons who were more than happy to challenge China. But as Yunnan has become more Han (and thus more mainstream Chinese) and the foreign powers to the south of China have weakened since the end of colonialism, Beijing will be more willing to expand its connections to southeast Asia via Yunnan. Now, the back-door is an opportunity rather than a liability.

It’s become important to China to link Yunnan with southeast Asia. As China’s east coast has grown immensely over the past decade, inflation and competition over labor is driving prices up. China is feverishly trying to develop interior provinces like Yunnan to alleviate the pressure on the East Coast to produce. But Yunnan’s land-locked geography means that delivering goods to ports on China’s east coast is expensive. Yunnan is only marginally closer to Indian Ocean ports like Yangon in Myanmar, but Yunnan’s access to so many major southeast Asian river networks means that there is a great potential for cheaper routes to the south.

Additionally, the United States and China are very different geographically. One of the main differences is the US’s direct access to two of the world’s oceans, giving it direct access to Europe and Asia simultaneously. China, on the other hand, only has direct access to the Pacific Ocean. As of now, if its ships need to access the Indian Ocean, they must sail through the Strait of Malacca - a highly strategic waterway that snakes its way between Singapore and Indonesia that in a dire situation (such as war) could be blocked. However, if China can develop access to the Indian Ocean via another route, such as Yunnan province, then it can hold an insurance policy in the extreme case that it loses access to the Strait of Malacca or its Pacific Coast. It may seem far-fetched now, but it wasn’t 70 years ago.

It’s been proven time and again that China can’t “lock” its back door in Yunnan. So instead of ignoring Yunnan and allowing rivals to sneak in and out of it, China is trying to open it up for business, firmly under its own management. Now that I’m aware of the geopolitical opportunities China has in Yunnan, it will be fun to keep a watch on how it unfolds. As we travel through southern and western Yunnan, we’ll definitely keep our eye on development and see how China is building infrastructure links to the rest of southeast Asia via Yunnan.

1. Mandalay to Momien by John Anderson
2. Forgotton Kingdom by Peter Goullart
3. Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan
4. Pretty much all of the China and SE Asia coverage at

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Death of the Bicycle in China

One of the most stereotypical images of China is a street full of bicycles. They're supposed to be ubiquitous, right? I'm pretty sure that the English language transliterated "Peking" to "Beijing" so that China's capital city would alliterate with "bicycle". That way we could say things like, "this car's got more rust than a Beijing bicycle", or "he's redder than a Chinese fireman on a Beijing bicycle" when referring to someone with excessively leftist political opinions. There are many more such sayings that I may include in future blog posts, but I trust that you get my point sufficiently for the purpose of this post: Americans have traditionally associated Chinese transportation with bicycles.

As an avid bicyclist, I was bursting with excitement to purchase a bicycle of my own as soon as I got to Kunming. I had the privilege to ride a bicycle in Urumqi back in 2011 while I was there. Riding bicycles in China is cathartic. With all 1.3 billion people perpetually trying to go the same way you are, you have to be very aggressive to get anything done. You have to cut people off in order to cross the street and you have to look for every little opening to maintain forward progress. I don't consider myself a very aggressive person, but get me on a bicycle in China and I'm a downright ass-hole. I swerve around pedestrians loitering in the street, I butt out in front of on-coming traffic ignoring their red-lights and I hop from sidewalk to street and back looking for the clearest route. It's a game of inches and in a place like China, the margins are hotly contested. For someone as calm as me, a ten-minute bicycle commute to school every morning can be pretty cathartic.

But as a bicyclist, I am sadly a minority in China. The streets are still full of two-wheeled vehicles, but they are electric powered instead of pedal powered. These street demons are referred to in English as "e-scooters" or "e-bikes". I have no idea what they're called in Chinese. Despite their environmental friendliness, I despise these vehicles and, as of today, am at war with them.

When I think of scooters in Asia, I associate them with an ear-piecing whine, or obnoxiously loud "put-put" as their dinky two-stroke engines strain to move entire families, their chickens and their sofas up the road. Ever looking for a way to improve their pollution problem, China (or at least Kunming) appears to have switched over to electric propelled scooters. I haven't seen a single hydrocarbon powered scooter or motorcycle in Kunming. We've seen one or two outside of town, but they are mysteriously absent from the streets. It makes me wonder if gas powered bikes have been outlawed all-together. There are outlets in most scooter parking areas where people can charge up their bikes and you can buy one used for around $500. If you're sane, you carry no more than one other person on the back of your scooter. But if you're the majority of Chinese e-scooter drivers, you are perpetually moving your living room furniture around town on the backseat. Bungee cords are amazing.

They certainly carry the hero's curse in that their greatest virtue is also their downfall. True, gone are the days of noisy, smelly, puny motorbikes and scooters. But in their place are lethally silent predators who sneak up on you and attack with as much noise as the drop of a feather. AND, since they don't move as fast as car traffic and they have two wheels, they use the bicycle lane! They are the big fish in the small pond, which makes them even more petulant predators.

You may be thinking, "Wait, Ben, bicycles are pretty quiet, too, how are the e-scooters any different than them?" To that I answer, about 200 pounds of mass. Plus, the bicycles here (as alluded to in the first paragraph) are rusty and squeaky and, therefore, actually easier to hear than the e-scooters. I remember when, as a youngster, our family cat (Lucy) kept catching live birds and bringing them into the house. We put a bell on her for a while to give the birds in the yard an edge over her. I feel like the e-scooters should all be fitted with a bell so that we could hear them coming. It's a lot more pleasant than a lawn-mower engine, right?

Just today, I was crossing the street and almost got hit by one. Already familiar with the fact that they often go the wrong way on one-way streets (I admit, I do it too sometimes on my bicycle) I checked to my left just to make sure none were coming. The coast being clear there, I looked to my right to check for traffic there. I had looked to my right for maybe... two seconds, but as I started crossing, an e-scooter stealthily zoomed past me going the wrong way and clipped my knee. That was the last straw. I was wary of these devil machines before, but that incident put me over the edge and I am now firmly against these things. If there are any physicists or electrical engineers out there reading this, about how strong of a magnet would I need to disable these e-scooters? I'm thinking about packing a super-electro-magnet in my backpack and zapping these things as I ride down the street. I'll let you guys know how that works out.

I shouldn't be so hard on China. The universal use of electric scooters here really is a huge improvement over the motorbikes of the past. They're stealthiness is great for urban noise pollution and the use of electricity instead of gasoline certainly contributes to clearing up the smog. They're so great, in fact, that everyone appears to have turned in their bicycles for e-scooters. Often, when I'm debating the morality of cutting people off as I'm bicycling down the street, I console myself by saying that I'm just fitting into the traffic culture here. Maybe I need to get with the program and join e-scooter culture myself?

For those who haven't been updated, my girlfriend and I moved to Kunming, China Feb. 26 and we'll be here for about the next six months. I've been trying to write an introductory blog post but we've been having connectivity issues. It looks like we've resolved those though, so keep an eye out for more!