SWM 2015: China - Urbanizing the Trung – one of China’s smallest officially recognized minorities

Embargo: 2 July 2015 00.01 (GMT+1)

Case study by Ross Perlin

This research is a result of several years of field work in the north-west corner of Yunnan province, one of the most multicultural and multilingual areas in China. The most recent observations and interviews are from November 2014. Dulong is the widely used Chinese name – the people call themselves Trung.

November 2014 marked the official completion of a paved 76 km road, including a 6 km tunnel, connecting Yunnan province’s Trung River valley to the rest of the world. ‘The opening of the highway will lead the Trung people to prosperity and happiness,’ announced Yunnan Party Secretary Li Jiheng. At a reported cost of US $127 million, one of the country’s most isolated places – the mountainous homeland of the Trung people, hard by the border of Myanmar and the Tibetan Autonomous Region – is now fully open for business.

With a total population of 6,930 according to the 2010 census, the Trung are one of the smallest of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, and the majority live in the Trung River valley. Until 1999, the valley had remained almost completely inaccessible to outsiders, except on foot or by horse caravan from the neighbouring Nu River valley. Trung people still derived their livelihood from shifting swidden agriculture with a wide variety of crops, as well as subsistence hunting and gathering. For the last 15 years, a treacherous, unpaved road has allowed uncertain access to shared jeeps, but remained closed half the year due to winter snows. ‘The new all-weather road will cut travel times in half, bring a regular bus service, and allow more frequent visits to the county seat’, said one young Trung man. ‘Everything will be opened up.’

Transformative demographic changes are already under way. On the one hand, the road enables people to leave, prompting classic urbanization patterns in a country where the official urban population has for the first time outstripped the rural – though many in practice move between the two. Until recently, sheer distance and expense had prevented most Trung from joining China’s ‘floating population’, but more are now ascending the rungs from the village to the township to the county seat, and sometimes beyond to the prefectural capital, the provincial capital of Kunming, and (in a handful of cases) even Beijing, over 2,000 miles away. The local government has even encouraged this with a formal labour export programme, attempted in 2008, in which 19 Trung farmers were sent to work in the eastern industrial city of Dongguan. More typically, education is the way out. Secondary school is only available outside the valley, and the most successful Trung students go on to university, even further afield. They only return to work for the county or prefectural governments, which are major employers, especially of minorities.

The focal quasi-urban environment for most Trung is Cikai, the seat of Gongshan county, where the road into the valley originates. China’s county seats are porous membranes where the rural and the urban coexist. About one-third of the county’s 35,000 people live in Cikai, where government, trade and education are concentrated for a substantial rural hinterland, not to mention taxis, karaoke clubs, churches and public amenities. ‘I came here to make more money and because life in the valley is backward’, said a young Trung man who had recently moved to Gongshan to work in construction. ‘I first came here for high school so I have a lot of friends here. I have Lisu friends, Tibetan friends, Han friends.’

Though most Trung remain in the valley, they are effectively urbanizing at an even more local level, in situ and largely by fiat, as scattered houses turn into denser settlements and hamlets mushroom into villages. Others are being drawn into fast-growing Kongdang, the main town in the valley. Besides being the local government seat and the centre of education and trade, Kongdang is where the road into the valley terminates. Though most cycle through, some non-Trung small business owners and traders have settled there semi-permanently. Although currently less than 10 per cent of the valley’s population, such outsiders are over-represented and highly visible in Kongdang, with a palpable effect on the Trung language and culture.

In situ urbanization is the direct outcome of deliberate high-profile national policies which have converged on the Trung River valley as a particular test case, in order to combat what is officially viewed as an embarrassing example of ‘backwardness’ (luohou). The early 2000s brought hydroelectric power stations, satellite antennas and mobile phone reception. Village schools were closed in favor of centralized locations in towns like Kongdang and Gongshan, with boarding for students. Instead of ‘barefoot doctors’ moving between villages, the emphasis was now on hospitals and clinics in the towns. The government cited service delivery and poverty alleviation as reasons to further concentrate and urbanize the population, which had already been resettled from isolated mountain hamlets, down to the riverside, back in the 1950s and 1960s.

In 2003, the Sloping Land Conversion Programme (tuigeng huanlin) abruptly ended traditional subsistence practices in the name of environmental protection and reforestation, promising cash and rice instead and simultaneously ‘freeing’ Trung people from the land and enabling wage labour. At the same time, the central government’s Western Development Programme (launched in 2000) and poverty-alleviation initiative – focused on 592 ‘key counties’, mostly in areas of western China populated by ethnic minorities – provided further impetus and funding. Starting in 2010, a dedicated ‘Help the whole Trung nationality’ programme has led to the construction of 1,068 new houses with windows and balconies in 26 ‘settlement areas’, near the previously existing villages but denser. Within a few years, almost the entire Trung population has effectively been resettled and rehoused – but at the same time, many have left.

Many inhabitants, particularly younger Trung, emphasize the positive benefits that this urban development has brought to the area. ‘It’s completely different now, not backward like before,’ according to one resident. ‘You wouldn’t recognize it: new houses, tall buildings, internet, even a museum in Kongdang.’ Yet poverty remains endemic, with welfare dependence deepening. Estimates vary, but agree that income in the valley remains under the threshold of US $1 per day. An eco-tourism boom has yet to materialize, but direct food subsidies and surreptitious subsistence activities help fill the gap. Other problems, such as alcoholism and rising suicide rates, also remain. 

This case study appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015. View the full report.

Photo: Nu Jiang Valley, Yunnan

Credit: Axel Drainville

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Date: 02/02/2015




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015

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