Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
I travelled to Kunming, the economic capital of Southwestern China, to observe first hand the effects of economic development. After having spent a semester in Thailand, I had been observing the effects of development for several months. Thailand is a “Newly-Industrializing Country” or NIC. China is similar, but because of its enormous size and diversity in culture, the effects take a very different toll.
China’s economic development, like that of all development, disproportionately affects minority groups and the poor. The Naxi, one of the 55 recognized minorities in China, make up a large part of the minority population of rural Yunnan province. After the government decided to make Kunming the economic capital of the region, minority groups were forced out of the coveted agricultural zones and development zones.
I hiked the Tiger Leaping Gorge Trail in Qiato, climbing thousands of feet above the Yangtze River below. The river banks on the Yangtze have suffered major erosion as policies and enforcement in the rural province struggle to catch up with rapid development. According to many Chinese I spoke with and students who were studying the effects of development in Kunming, the Naxi were slowly pushed into the hills of the gorge. Here, with steep rocky cliffs and harsher weather, they have created an economy centered around guest houses and providing hikers with supplies and luxuries.
Villages have built roads to supply guest houses along the beautiful trail. Many villagers have created trails to outlook themselves and charge a small fee to walk a hundred feet to a beautiful outlook. For a foreigner, the fee is quite small—for the Naxi, it can make a world of difference. Economic imperialism boasts its head, even here—you can purchase Coca-cola and Snickers bars on the side of a hiking trail.
Oddly enough, the Naxi have been allowed to cultivate and sell marijuana, an act that would lead to life in prison anywhere else in China. Students I interviewed told me that this was one way the government respects a tradition that lay deep in Naxi culture, a small repayment for the perils they face from development. Aside from supplying hikers with a roof and food, they also mined the mountain looking for precious metals and ore. You can see a mining/sifting operation taking place right next to a cliff here on the mountain.
Seeing the negative side of development first hand was a sobering experience. Development is so often championed and the costs are so often forgotten. While development has brought millions out of poverty in China it has also forced many minority groups to lose their culture.