The Half of It – Liangshan (Southern Sichuan Province)

My passport has three stamps — Australia, Hong Kong, China — but I’ve been to far many more countries in the past two months.

My main mission in coming to China was to understand China. And in these Aabservations, I’ve made a series of vast generalizations, stereotypes as it were, about what China is and isn’t. But to make one more generalization, China isn’t 1 country, and I’m not talking about the Taiwan issue. Even within Chengdu, people live tremendously different lives. Get out a bit, take a train overnight and jump on a bus for three or four hours, and you end up in a different world entirely.

The weekend before I left for Australia I visited my friend Ben down in Liangshan. Liangshan is a part of Sichuan that is mostly Yi; China has 55 minorities, so you hear all the time, though the Han majority is over 90% of the population. Ben, who’s in med school now, went there this summer to study AIDS/HIV, especially among commercial sex workers in the city of Xichang. I don’t want to misrepresent his research, so I’ll leave it at that. But if you want more info on what he’s working on, I can put you in touch with him.

I arrived in Xichang one Friday morning, and we jumped on the next bus to Butuo, a much smaller town a crowded 3 hour bus ride away. A few Aabservations emerged:

* Unpaved roads are awful when wet. It had been raining, so you had to work your way on piles of trash around the puddles. The last time I had seen mud puddles like this was back at Woodstock ’99.* Okay maybe the puddles in Butuo weren’t that bad. Then later this summer in Yunnan province, near Lijiang, the roads were also not yet paved; you don’t appreciate paved roads until you are fighting car sickness and going 5 miles an hour for an hour.

* There were paved roads. They were empty. No one in this region can afford to buy a car. There was the occasional tractor, but that’s about it.

* Despite the unpaved roads and lack of street lamps (never mind healthcare — but talk to Ben about that), the government had built a major hotel and arena in Butuo to promote Yi minority culture, specifically the July Torch Festival where Yi people dress in traditional clothes and have traditional ceremonies. All over China minority culture are being promoted to tourists; people in the middle of Yunnan sold Naxi or Dai textiles and foods, and in northern Yunnan everything tourist was Tibet this or Tibet that.

Watch tourism closely. It will, I believe more than anything else, change the face of China. Take 1.3 billion people, 1.2 billion of whom are Han. Make it almost impossible for them to leave the country to travel, for visa and financial reasons. Then give about 10% of them — over 100 million people — enough money to travel and go to tourist places. A few things will happen: the famous tourist sites (Great Wall near Beijing, Forbidden City, etc.) will become drenched with people; savvy business people will develop new tourist sites, at places like Zhongdian (now named Shangrila); and the weight of this crush of will undoubtedly change the places it touches (I’m curious to see how Tibet is already changing).

Later this summer I went with my childhood friend Shannon to Lijiang, an ancient city that crumbled in 1996 thanks to an earthquake. (I didn’t know they had earthquakes in China either, but there was another 5.1 one in the same region this week.) The city completely rebuilt and is now 100% filled with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops (mostly jade bracelets). A girl we met has been doing a documentary on life in Lijiang. So I asked her, What compels someone to look at this city of jade bracelet shops, and think to themselves, “Wow, you know what this city needs? A jade bracelet shop!” She said that these vendors make hundreds of thousands of RMB a year; compare that to teachers for instance who make 8000 RMB a year ($1000 USD), or successful college grads who land a job paying 15,000 RMB a year.

So do the math: tourism is coming to China, and will turn places with nice fengjing (scenery) into souvenir shops. Commercialize culture.

But it may also bring money — lots of it — to places that have historically been really poor. Butuo, for instance. If the government’s gamble that tourism may spark development in China pays off, these poor farmers may have a way to raise their standard of living without migrating to Xichang or Chengdu or Shenzhen. Which may give them more money for healthcare, a cushion to retire on, and maybe even money to do some traveling themselves down the line.

They get to promote their culture too. To preserve it, like how Mao is preserved in Tiannamen Square I suppose. Pretty close to the real deal but maybe a little waxy. Down in Lijiang, Shannon and I visited a Dongba research facility, thanks to an eager Han student who was either bored or wanted to share his excitement for Naxi culture or something. Apparently the Dongba culture, which encompasses a religion, a special hieroglyphic-like character set, a way of making paper, and a mythology involving frogs, has been fading for a while. Children don’t want to learn the language (they dream of speaking standard Mandarin and opening jade bracelet shops I suppose), and so it’s been dying. But now that Lijiang is hot stuff, Dongba is too. And guys like this Han student want to capture it and preserve and promote it.

But what happens when your culture goes from being your culture to being commercialized? Is that a good thing, like Jack Johnson getting airtime all over the world? Or a bad thing, like Paris Hilton releasing a CD? (Okay maybe not the best analogy, but I just needed to say that you know something is criminally wrong with the world when Paris not only releases a CD, but when it is #12 on iTunes!)

So I asked one of the Yi people we met what she thought about having her culture sold to tourists. About the conflict between development and, well, development.

“Some of it’s good,” she replied concisely. “Some of it’s bad. Things change.”

* “The Gods Must Be Crazy” could not be written today. I don’t believe that there is anywhere in the world where someone could a bottle of Coke could land on people who’d never seen one. I am in awe of Coca-Cola. No matter where you go in China, there you see the familiar red and white lining the shelves of the smallest stores. Coupled with sisters Minute Maid and Sprite, of course.

How did Coke do it? How did they get their product into all the nooks and crannies of China.** How does product get to market efficiently and cheaply enough, given how some of it is transported on minitrucks, bikes and even camels?

So distribution, transportation, is another key thing I’m watching in China. In my mind, it’s closely tied to migration, which is closely tied to development.

I just came back from a two day conference in Chengdu on poverty. In his keynote address, economist Jeffrey Sachs talked about outmigration as central to China’s development — basically people putting down their straw baskets of potatoes and heading to population centers to give back massages to the stressed-out urban dwellers. He pointed to America’s development, which followed the same pattern of migration from agricultural areas (Nebraska) to service-heavy population centers (Cali).

Sachs might be right, and perhaps migration to big cities is inevitable. But the problems outmigration creates are visible in the places that people leave, like Butuo. Walking around the streets for a half a day, I saw lots of women spinning wool by hand, or taking care of their children on the streets. The fields were relatively empty, I suppose since the plants were growing just fine. “But where,” I asked my friend Ben, “are all the men?”

Throughout China, men are migrating to cities to climb bamboo scaffolding or schlep around loads of coal or look for other kinds of work. Leaving behind families. I was surprised; I had always heard about young single women — not men — moving to sweat shops to make some cash (like the Starbucks worker I wrote about earlier). But apparently men are moving, sending money back to those they left behind.

The other question I have about outmigration is, what happens to the old people? There’s no social security in China (or at least not a system that’s significant enough for me to have heard of it), so old people rely on their kids. It’s not a novel model, and actually is one that makes a lot of sense. Except when they don’t have kids, don’t like their kids, or their kids move to big cities. Do these kids continue to support their parents when they’re gone?

And then what happens to the cities themselves when people get to the cities in droves? Crowding, fierce competition for jobs, pollution, higher costs of living, and other problems of mass urbanization. So wouldn’t it be nice if rural folks could make more money, or more stable incomes, right where they are?

A professor from Marietta College in Ohio at this conference was looking at just that question, and many have (apparently its called Town Village Enterprise, or TVE). So I asked her, basically, How. How will rural people make more money selling stuff to other rural people, if no one has money? She pointed to the most obvious solution: sell to the cities. And that requires transportation.

Maybe they can get Coke to buy jade bracelets.

Okay, so this got long, and so I’ll cut if off with how The One Half lives. When I get back from Tibet, I’ll let you know about Hong Kong — and the Other Half.


An Ke Xin

* Woodstock 1999 — That was the one that burned down at the end, which probably had something to do with overflowing port-o-potties, gushing drinking water that formed muddy puddles which seeped into and around the overflowing port-o-potties, overflowing trash cans that lead to a general layer of trash over the entire airbase, 95 degree weather, no shade, no seats anywhere except on used pizza boxes and hamburger wrappers, $4 bottles of water (if you didn’t want to walk through raw sewage to get to the fountains), $8 hot dogs, 100,000 “peace” candles, a Red Hot Chili Pepper concert where the band came out naked, and a lot of people on drugs. I had won two tickets on the radio (WPLJ) and was therefore trapped until the return bus on Monday morning at 5 am. At some point after the rioting and looting, everyone had glowsticks, which were suddenly flying through the smoky air like a scene from Star Wars. Some were breaking them open and burning them (“Cool man. It glows and burns.”) My brain hasn’t been the same since. I think.

** I have a link to a pretty good case study, for you business school graduates or wannabe graduates. The answer rests on the fact that Coke worked with existing distributors, the Chinese government right from the start of the liberalization (3 days before US had a formal relationship with China!), and local upstream producers. But how do the distributors distribute?



Leave a Reply