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7.4 Tourism

The idea of using the river as a tourist drawcard has also been widely discussed and sometimes acted upon. The authorities of the port of Simao, for example intend to use their facility as a point of arrival and departure for riverine tourists, particularly comparatively wealthy Taiwanese and Thai. They have had several quite large vessels built for this purpose. The vessels, however, appeared poorly designed, with tiny cabins and few creature comforts. It appears that the authorities had little idea of their intended clients’ expectations, nor did they indicate that they had much concept of how to market their service, or to articulate it with wider tourist networks.

The Thai, having had more experience in such matters, have established several enterprises which while new and ambitious, appear rather more viable. One of these, Mae Salong Tours, has been running for about two years. It is partially owned by the former president of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce, who was one of the main promoters of the Economic Quadrangle concept, and is based in Thailand, at the small Mekong River port of Chiang Sen. It operates three hovercraft, capable of negotiating the shallower sections of the river even in the dry season, as well as several conventional craft. The company offers packages, whereby tourists are taken upstream on a two day voyage to Jinghong, in Yunnan, stay over for two nights, and are then flown back to Chiang Rai.13 The manager of Mae Salong Tours is unusually well connected in Yunnan, so he is more likely to succeed than most. Other entrepreneurs are no doubt waiting to see whether his venture succeeds, before stepping in themselves.

Another tourist venture is of interest. A small American eco-tourism company has been exploring the possibility of promoting white-water rafting and kayaking on some of the tributaries of the Mekong in Yunnan. In 1995 they carried out a exploratory journey down the Yangbi River, which flows into the Mekong in central Yunnan. They were not disappointed with the river, in fact they rated it, in terms of both interest and difficulty, above some of the major rivers of interest to kayakers, like the Colorado, in the United States. They were enthusiastic about the possibility of organising tours. However, there were two problems which were going to rule this out for the foreseeable future. First of all, the Chinese authorities were not likely to allow groups to regularly go into parts of Yunnan where they could not be kept under some form of surveillance. Secondly, while the natural grandeur of stetches of the river was magnificent, they frequently ran into sections which were very heavily polluted with untreated industrial effluent. (Steve Van Beek, personal communication)

8. Yunnan and the Conservation of Mekong Resources

There are two other aspects of Chinese conservation policy in Yunnan, apart from consequences of the dams, which need to be raised. These are forestry policy and watershed, and industrial pollution of the stream.

8.1 Forestry and Watershed Management

Deforestation of the watershed of the Mekong and its tributaries in Yunnan has been widespread. This is despite the fact that population is quite sparse. Shifting cultivators cannot be blamed, rather some of the extreme ‘campaigns’ of the Mao era. During the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, whole forests were felled to fuel refineries for the processing of various minerals which were never present in quantities or quality to make such projects viable. Similar deforestation occurred during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The result has been widespread erosion, which is particularly rapid on the steep slopes which are characteristic of the region. Devastating landslides have become more frequent, and siltation of tributaries of the Mekong has escalated. Provincial forestry authorities are very aware of the problem, and have, within their means, instituted reforestation programs. These have included innovative techniques like aerial sowing of regions which are difficult to reach on foot.

Similarly, conservation areas have been declared in some of the parts of the watershed which were not devastated during the Mao’s period. This is particularly so in some areas of southern Xishuangbanna Prefecture, adjacent to the Laotian frontier. Awareness of the sensitivity of some of the ‘nationalities’ - the minority peoples of the region, such as the Dai - to conservation issue has been acknowledged.14

8.2 Pollution of the Mekong Waters

The Mekong River, in comparison to other international waterways, has up until recent times been considered a relatively unpolluted waterway. Despite token measures by authorities, there is little effort to curb the effluents that are pumped into the Mekong and its tributaries from industries in Yunnan province. These include in particular waste materials from pulp mills, and from the plants that process various minerals. The scale of these operations affects Yunnanese who depend on the stream for their livelihood, and ultimately the riparian countries downstream. Rising levels of pollutants which affect fisheries, and agriculture and which must have originated in Yunnan have been recorded in the Mekong in northern Laos and Thailand. The scale of industry in Yunnan, and consequently, given the lack of control, the level of pollutants, appears considerably greater than on the upper Mekong from Laos or Thailand. There are unsubstantiated reports that concentration of heavy metals in the Mekong near the northern Thai border are increasing to a significant extent.

9. Conclusions

Yunnan is in many respects the wild card of the Mekong basin. Since it is the most upstream of the riparian countries, practices affecting the river in the province will have consequences for all downstream nations. The extent and nature of these impacts remain obscure. However, the Chinese authorities in Yunnan are not subject to agreements such as those made by the other riparian nations concerning the river. As a non-democratic government, with sovereign power, they are not exposed to media scrutiny, they are not answerable to their public, and they do not have to deal with the NGOs which are today influencing outcomes downstream. As a consequence they have the power to dictate use of their section of the river, even where this involves the construction of dams and the disposal of effluents in a manner which adversely affect even their own people to an even greater extent than those downstream.

At the same time, local officials are subject to the policies imposed on them by outside authorities. This occurs particularly where finance for major dams and control of important aspects of the cross border trade are concerned - as evidenced by the unheralded imposition of a 200% import duty on cars crossing the southern border.

The Yunnanese authorities thus want to extend the power and wealth of their province by dealing with outsiders - other Chinese provinces like Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi as well as Thailand, Laos and Burma. At the same time they resist relinquishing their power over the diverse and unruly regions of their own province to allow free reign to a new regime of regional autonomy and at least a degree of self government. They are also disinclined to negotiate on an equal basis with their counterparts in adjacent countries - as evidenced by the lofty response to the Chiang Rai provincial governor’s complaint about the falling water levels of the Mekong.

The complexity of politics between provinces within China, between particular provinces and Beijing, and between prefectures and even counties within provinces cannot be overestimated. All these levels will affect the evolving relationship between Yunnan and the other riparians. One outcome, at least in the short term, of the current disinterest by the Chinese to answering a community of fellow riparians, may be that the Thai power authorities, perhaps the most assertive of all the forces in the Mekong basin, push their interests on the use of the river more firmly. Thus Chinese policies might have the no doubt unintended consequence of promoting division rather than unity amongst the downstream riparian states.


Asian Development Bank (1993) Subregional Economic Cooperation: Initial Possibilities for Cambodia, Lao PDR; Myanmar; Thailand; Vietnam and Yunnan Province of the People’s Republic of China, Asian Development Bank, Manila.

Asian Development Bank (1993) Technical Assistance for Promoting Subregional Cooperation Among Cambodia, The People’s Republic of China, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam, Asian Development Bank, Manila.

Asian Development Bank (1993) Growth Triangles Will Spur Development: Economies Should Be Complimentary, Flexible, Information Office: Asian Development Bank P.O. Box 789, Manilla, Philippines.

Bamber, Scott (1991) ‘Pitfalls and Politics: Research on Health Care in Southwest China’ Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, no.13, pp. 15-20.

Chapman, E.C. (1991) ‘The Expansion of Rubber in Southern Yunnan, China’, The Geographical Journal, 157 pt1, pp. 36-44.

Chapman, E.C. and Hinton, Peter (1993) ‘Recent Dam Construction on the Mekong in Yunnan and Laos and its Consequences’ Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, no. 22, pp. 5-10

Chapman, E.C. and Hinton, Peter (1993) ‘The Emerging Mekong Corridor: A Note on Recent Developments’ (to May 1993), Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, no. 21, Canberra.

Chapman, E.C. and Hinton, Peter (1994) ‘Through Southeast Asia to the World’: Reflections on the First Kunming Export Commodities Fair’, Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, no. 24, pp. 9-13.

Chapman, E.C. and Hinton, Peter (1994) ‘The Mekong Corridor/‘Economic Quadrangle’: Who Benefits?’ Paper presented to Conference on Asia’s New Growth Circles, Chiang Mai, 3-6 March 1994.

Chapman, E.C., Hinton, Peter and Tan Jingrong (1992) ‘The Cross-Border Trade between Yunnan and Burma and the Emerging Mekong Corridor’, Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, no. 19.

de Carne, Louis (1872) Travels in Indo-China and the Chinese Empire, Chapman and Hall, London.

DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) (1995) Overseas Chinese Business Networks in Asia, East Asia Analytical Unit, Canberra.

Hill, Ann Maxwell (1989) ‘Chinese Dominance of the Xishuangbanna Tea Trade: A Interregional Perspective’, Modern China, no. 15, pp. 321-45.

Hill, Mark T. and Susan A. (1994) Fisheries Ecology and Hydropower in the Mekong River: An Evaluation of the Run-of-the-River Projects, Don Chapman Consultants Inc., Boise, Idaho (for The Mekong Secretariat, Bangkok.)

Hinton, Peter (1994) ‘National Borders, Local Identity and the Discourse of Business in the Mekong Corridor, the Backdoor to China’, Paper presented to the 93 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Atlanta.

Hinton, Peter (1995) ‘Growth Triangles, Quadrangles and Circles: Interpreting Some Macro-models for Regional Trade’, Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, no. 28, pp. 2-7

Lattimore, Owen (1943) ‘Yunnan, Pivot of Southeast Asia’, Foreign Affairs, no. 21, pp. 476-93.

Lintner, Bertil (1994) Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948, White Lotus, Bangkok (with Westview Press, Boulder).

McCoy, Alfred W. (1972) The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Harper and Row, New York.

McKinnon, John (1993) Traffic, Teak and Trafficking: Observations from the Burma Road. Australian National University Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, no. 22, pp. 2-5

Mekong Secretariat (1993) Strategy Study on the Development of the Upper Mekong Navigation, The Mekong Secretariat, Bangkok.

Mekong Secretariat (1994) Mekong Mainstream Run-of-River Hydropower: Main Report, Mekong Secretariat, Bangkok.

Mekong Secretariat. (1987) Statistics on Inland Water-Borne Transport (Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Thailand), Mekong Secretariat, Bangkok.

Nantiya Tangwisutijit and Kamol Sukin (1996) ‘Giant Catfish Becomes the Bait in a New Era of Regional Unity’, The Nation, 12 May, Bangkok.

Ohlsson, Leif (ed) (1995) Hydropolitics: Conflicts Over Water as Development Constraints, Zed Books, London.

Osborne, Milton (1975) River Road to China: The Mekong River Expedition 1866-1873, Liveright, New York.

Pasuk Pongpaichit and Chris Baker (1996) Thailand’s Boom, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai.

Pei Shengji (1991) ‘Conservation of Biological Diversity in the Temple-yards and Holy Hills by the Dai Ethnic Minorities of China’, Ethnobotany, no. 3, pp. 27-35.

Pei Shengji, Guo Huijun and Dao Zhiling (1990) ‘An Introduction to the Study of Ethnobotany of Xishuangbanna’, Proceedings of the International Conference on Thai Studies, Kunming, vol. 3, pp. 435-45.

Pei, Shengji (1984) ‘Some Effects of the Dai People’s Cultural Beliefs and Practices Upon the Plant Environment of Xishuangbanna, China’, in Karl Hutterer (ed.), Human Ecology in Southeast Asia, University of Michigan Papers, no. 27.

Renard, Ronald D. (1996) The Burmese Connection: Illegal Drugs and the Making of the Golden Triangle, Lynne Reiner, London.

Walker, Andrew (1993) ‘Transport Networks in the Middle Mekong Region of Thailand and Laos’, Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, Canberra, no. 21.

Walker, Andrew (1994) ‘The Myanmar Trade Fair: Takhilek 21-31 December 1993’, Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, no. 24, pp. 8-9.

Walker, Andrew (1995) ‘Trade and Transport in North-Western Laos’, Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, no. 28, pp. 7-11.


Research for this paper was mainly funded by two Australian Research Council Large Grants: 1992-1994 and currently 1995-1997.


1For example, a recent publication (Ohlsson 1995) surveys the politics of several major river systems around the world, including the Mekong. The Mekong chapter does not extend beyond the Chinese border. Similarly, a periodical, published by a Bangkok based conservationist group, Watershed, is mainly concerned with the Mekong and its tributaries. Yet its stated charter is confined to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

2 The first French explorers to the province, in the 1860’s, were, for instance, impeded in their progress by a major rebellion by the Muslims of Yunnan, to the west of Dali, who denied access to the region to the central government for some years. An account of this expedition, led by Commander Doudart de Lagree appears in de Carne 1872 (reprinted 1995 by White Lotus Books, Bangkok under the title Travels on the Mekong. See also Osborne, 1975)

3The growing of rubber in this location, far from the equatorial tropics where it is of particular interest. Special varieties have been developed to handle the relatively cool conditions (Chapman 1991). Having been deemed a ‘strategic industry’ by the authorities, the rubber industry is heavily subsidised and it is uncertain whether it would be viable otherwise in this climatically marginal area.

4In 1994, for example, the main road between Ruili on the Chinese frontier, and Kunming, the Yunnan capital was closed for about three months after a landslip caused a kilometre long section to slide into a valley. It is rumoured that 300 people died. Traffic was diverted along a route which took twelve hours to negotiate.

5 It is significant that the sixth Chinese enterprise to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange was Kunming Tool, a precision tool making business (Chapman and Hinton 1993). Its success was no doubt a legacy of this background.

6 But the current ascendancy of Thailand may not last. Pasuk and Baker (1996:239) for instance, make a cautionary comparison with Brazil, which experienced double digit growth and industrial expansion until 1973, when the economy ‘stopped and stayed stopped’. Pasuk and Baker comment: ‘There are many, many differences of detail and the Latin American states. But these details do not mean that the broader picture could not be similar.’

7 The future development of Yunnan is likely to follow a different trajectory from either Fujian or Guangdong. Both had a rich source of nearby capital in Taiwan and Hong Kong respectively. Guangdong in particular enjoyed a honeymoon period early in the Deng era, after 1959. As a prototype for the new approach to development, it was given strong incentives by Beijing to expand its export-oriented market economy to an extent unlikely to be replicated elsewhere in China.

8A recent report in the Far Eastern Economic Review (Vatikiotis 1996) reveals that the Thai foreign ministry is resorting to cultural diplomacy, that is using certain annual ceremonies common to the Tai peoples of the region, including Yunnan, to emphasise commonality in the face of resistance to strategies for purely economic cooperation.

9 Lintner (1995) has written the most carefully documented and authoritative account of the narcotics in the region in recent years. Another recent account corroborates these observations (Renard 1996). For an historical account of the growth of the narcotics trade see McCoy (1972)

10 A report headed ‘Power Deal With Laos Hinges on Line From China’ appeared under the by-line of Chatrudee Theparat in the Bangkok Post, 15 June 1996. It states in part: ‘The National Energy Policy Committee (NEPC) yesterday ruled that Laos must allow Thailand to build a transmission line from China to Thailand as a condition for the Kingdom to double its power purchase from Laos.’ Thailand has a Memorandum of Understanding to buy 1 500 MW from Laos. An accord with Laos to buy electricity from Theun Hinboun dam in central Laos, and from the Hongsa lignite-fired plant remains under negotiation. It remains unclear what authority the Thai NEPC thinks it has over Laos, a sovereign country.

11These plans have recently resurfaced in modified form in the master-plan for the Mekong River Commission, drawn up by its predecessor, the Mekong Secretariat (1994a). This is for a series of ‘run-of-the-river’ dams which have smaller, but still very large reservoirs than their precursors.

12More is known of the fisheries of the Lower Mekong but there are still vast gaps in the understanding of the complex ecology of the river system, and the relation of the ecology of the tributaries to that of the mainstream. (See Roberts, Tyson, and also Hill & Hill 1994)

13At the time of writing, however, there are reports (Vatikiotis 1996) that Beijing has vetoed further direct flights from Jinghong to Thailand. Tourists would thus have to fly from Jinghong to Kunming and then to Chiang Mai. There have been regular scheduled flights from Kunming to Chiang Mai for several years. This contingency would increase the complexity and expense of arrangements. It is also an indication of the vagaries facing any cross-border enterprise in the region.

14 The work of Pei Shengji (1984; 1990 and 1992) is of particular interest in this respect. Pei has carried out considerable research into the ethno-botany of the Dai peoples of Yunnan. The Chinese medical authorities are also very well aware of the medicinal values of many species found only in undisturbed forest. (see Bamber, 1991)

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