A considerable stretch of the Mekong flows through Chinese territory, almost all of it in Yunnan Province. The source of the river is in Tibet, although no one seems sure exactly where. Not far from the source, the river flows through Yunnan. The Lancang Jiang (‘Turbulent River’) as the Chinese call their section of the Mekong, is about 1500 km long. Watersheds in Yunnan contribute about 20% of volume of water entering the mainstream of the river. Despite these magnitudes, outside planners are inclined to ignore the importance of the Chinese section of the Mekong Basin. Thus, for instance, the plethora of reports, tables, maps and memoranda produced by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), and its predecessor, the Interim Mekong Committee only covered the section of the basin up to the Chinese border. Others, with often very different agendas, have done the same.1 This was partly a reflection of the fact that it is only about fifteen years since the border with China was opened. Prior to that, during the Maoist era, China was considered - and considered itself - a country apart. Since then, the Chinese have not shown a great deal of interest in joining the MRC, nor any other regional groupings which may affect the way in which they use the river. There has been, partly in consequence, a continuation of the mindset which ignores what I shall call the Yunnan factor in riparian affairs.
It is possible to argue that the Chinese section of the Mekong is more important than most other stretches of the river for it comprises the headwaters, and the first thousand or so kilometres of the stream. What happens there will ultimately affect of those living in all the countries downstream. This should accentuate worries of the other riparian countries with regard to Chinese activities in the Mekong watershed. Instead the instinct seems to be to place the Yunnan factor in the ‘too hard’ basket.
Yet Yunnan is not isolated, either geographically, culturally or politically. Many of the people living in the border lands - which are thousands of kilometres long and adjoin three countries: Burma, Laos and Vietnam - are more closely articulated both culturally and economically, with the Southeast Asian region to the south than they are to China. Even the provincial authorities of Yunnan see their future lying with the adjoining provinces of Guanxi and Sichuan and with neighbouring Southeast Asian nations rather than any Greater China. From time to time the Beijing authorities tell them otherwise: it is perhaps no coincidence that Mao’s infamous Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was pursued with particular vigour in this province. It is perhaps the province’s interstitial geographical position, and its distance from the traditional centres of power in China, which has made it particularly prone to be rebellious.2
From the perspective of Yunnan, a deep contradiction lies at the heart of the geopolitics of the Upper Mekong Basin. On the one hand the ingrained authoritarianism of the government is reinforced by the knowledge that they control the headwaters of the river and are not really answerable to anyone downstream. On the other hand, the provincial authorities see closer association with the other riparian nations as a means of enhancing the provincial economy, something that has become increasingly necessary as the central government in Beijing has been drastically cutting their budget, leaving the province to raise an ever greater proportion of their revenue. This paper explores some of those contradictions.
2. Geographical Setting
Yunnan’s location, and its spectacular topography are major determinants and constraints of its history. On the one hand it lies at a cross roads: between China and India, between China and Southeast Asia. On the other hand it is on the remote southwestern frontier of greater China. At the same time, the possibilities for closer political and economic integration with the region have been consistently thwarted by the deep valleys that incise the province in a north/south direction, greatly complicating travel.
The basin of the Mekong (or Lancang Jiang) in Yunnan is much narrower than in the lower basin, as the mainstream and its tributaries flow through narrow, deep gorges. In the south of the province, in Simao and Xishuangbanna Prefectures, this changes as the valley opens out, floodplains become wider, the river becomes broader and more sluggish and the stream takes on a similiar appearance as in northern Laos.
The Mekong is only one of several major rivers that flow through Yunnan. The Salween, the Yangze and the Red Rivers have all carved deep gorges through the province. These are roughly parallel on a north-south axis before they diverge to the east and west in central Yunnan.
Because of its remoteness, and its inhospitable terrain, the population of the Mekong basin, which lies in the Western part of Yunnan, is relatively sparse. The basin differs from the plateau to the east of Kunming, which supports a larger, more heavily urbanised, population. There are relatively few areas which can support an agricultural population, although the broader flood plains in the south sustain a larger population.
The province is rich in minerals. Silver and copper were mined from the early nineteenth century. The volume of mining was increased enormously by the French and the British during the colonial era. The French exported large quantities of copper and tin down the Red River, and along the newly completed railway to Haiphong in Vietnam. The flow of these commodities was thus diverted in a radically different direction from the traditional routes, which led eastwards, into China.
During the late 1950s, the Communists increased levels of exploitation, mining newly located reserves of tin, lead, zinc, copper, silver, coal and phosphate. During this period there was also serious depletion of the province’s considerable forests.