Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Causes and Consequences of Rapid Urbanisation in an Ethnically Diverse Region: Case Study of a County Town in Yunnan

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Causes and Consequences of Rapid Urbanisation in an Ethnically Diverse Region: Case Study of a County Town in Yunnan

Article excerpt

n contrast with China's coastal regions, where rural urbanisation has largely been a result of industrialisation, urbanisation in the once pre- dominantly rural towns of the interior is sometimes driven by local gov- ernment policies. This article examines the motivations behind these policies, and the consequences of rapid rural urbanisation for an ethnically complex part of China.

Zhongdian is the urban centre and seat of government of Shangri-la County, in northwest Yunnan Province.(1) It is a largely rural county with a population of 176,000, of whom approximately 60,000 today live in Zhongdian.(2) Its transformation from a rural town into a small city has occurred over the past two decades. Before the 1990s, Zhongdian was an economic backwater. The

journey to the provincial capital - a distance of 750 kilometres - took more than two days, and the first day was spent on a single-lane dirt road. There was almost no industry or off-farm employment available to the local popu- lation. When I first visited the region in 1999, the dusty town consisted of one paved street, along which stood dilapidated buildings housing govern- ment offices, a state-owned bank, the post office, and the county and pre- fecture's small official department stores. A handful of shops sold hardware, clothes, and domestic goods. There was no supermarket. Outside the post of- fice was a rail for tying horses - the main means of transport for most locals.

Until the 1990s, agriculture, animal husbandry, and forestry were the mainstays of the local economy. The county government depended on state-controlled commercial forestry for most of its locally generated rev- enue. Stimulated by rising demand for raw materials in the booming eastern provinces, commercial forestry triggered the first stage of urbanisation in Zhongdian in the 1990s when a handful of urban services sprung up to sup- port centrally located timber mills, but the logging operations were too widely dispersed for forestry to trigger urbanisation on a larger scale. In 1998, the central government suddenly banned logging, which had an im- mediate and deleterious impact on local government coffers.(3)In response, a cabal of forward-thinking county leaders devised a new economic devel- opment strategy based on tourism.(4)They were encouraged by the eco- nomic success of tourism in many other parts of the province and believed that they could attract large numbers of tourists due to the attractiveness of the nearby countryside and the allure of an area inhabited by Tibetans and other ethnic peoples.(5)The key problem was the inadequacy of infra- structure and services. The nearest airport was six hours away by car from Zhongdian, and the road network was rough and dangerous. Accommoda- tion was basic and limited. Entrepreneurial county authorities responded to the challenge by securing special-purpose grants from the provincial gov- ernment to improve roads. Construction began on a new airport, and re- sources were invested in expanding the urban centre. The timing of the county's efforts was serendipitous. The central government had begun to dramatically increase investments in China's underdeveloped and ethnically diverse western regions, and large fiscal transfers were available for such development projects.

At the same time, domestic tourism was starting to boom in China. In- creasingly wealthy urbanites from the eastern seaboard were holidaying in ever greater numbers and travelling to ever more exotic locales. Tourism numbers received a major boost in 2000 when the central government in- creased the number of China's public holidays in order to stimulate the leisure economy. A record number of 1.24 million people visited Zhongdian in 2001, up from 43,000 visits in 1995. While this figure included all arrivals, including business travel and locals returning home, the numbers still rep- resented an enormous increase. The social and economic impact of tourism was profound and immediate. …

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