Nujiang Prefecture is one of the most remote, most sparsely populated, and least-known parts of China. Until very recently, people of the Lisu, Nu, Drung (Dulong), Tibetan, and other small ethnic groups have lived subsistence livelihoods in its deep valleys between precipitous mountain ranges, practicing farming, herding, and forestry. The prefecture stretches for 400 kilometers along the Nu River, for which it is named, and it takes at least six hours to drive along the main highway from the prefectural capital at Liuku to the seat of the northernmost county at Gongshan. From there to the really remote northwestern parts of the prefecture, across the Gaoligong mountains to the Dulong valley, there was not even a road until 1999, requiring the Drung people who live in that valley to make a three-day walk just to reach the county seat. Even now, a vehicle journey takes six hours along a dirt road that is narrow, winding, dangerous, and often icy, even in June. Later in the summer, when drivers no longer have to drive gingerly across ice, they still have to drive through waterfalls.
Why should we care about so small and peripheral a place as Nujiang? China calls itself a developing country, and not for the usual reason that “developing” sounds nicer than “poor.” China is no longer poor by any standard, but it continues on a decades-long, erratic, but relentless mission of development. Very important goals of this developmental project are to bring modern prosperity to the whole country, to convert even the remotest regions from subsistence to market-based livelihoods, to urbanize the population while maintaining agricultural output and food security, and to improve the “quality” of its population by giving them education, health care, and opportunities to participate in the modern industrial economy. Nujiang, despite its small size and peripheral position, or maybe because of its small size and peripheral position, is the perfect case study.
Way off in the corner, Nujiang was late to China’s developmental project, late even by Yunnan standards, but it has not escaped. Since the Chinese regime announced the Big Western Development (also known as “Open Up the West”) project in 2000, Nujiang too has been developing. The progress, the paradoxes, the leaps and lurches of the multifaceted developmental process in Nujiang, and particularly in Gongshan County, are the topic of Russell Harwood’s provocative account in China’s New Socialist Countryside. Harwood conducted fieldwork in Gongshan between 2005 and 2007, and here he presents us with an account of development there that is at once comprehensive, sensitive, and relevant to the larger issues of China’s development.
China’s New Socialist Countryside portrays three aspects of the development process—conservation, education, and migration—and shows how they are all connected by a basic logic of development: the idea that poor, peripheral, or even just ethnic minority regions suffer from lack. They lack income and the amenities of modern life, of course, but the reason for this material lack is a more profound lack of scientific knowledge and the spirit of change and innovation. Because the local people are ignorant of science, they do not know how to manage their environment, so the state must step in and be conservationist, imposing reforestation initiatives, payment for ecosystem services programs, and protected natural areas. Both because they are ignorant of science and because they lack the spirit of innovation, the state must step in and provide education to change their backward attitudes. And because another way to gain the spirit of innovation is to come in contact with those who have it, the state must encourage people to leave the backward periphery and travel to China’s urban core, where they not only provide cheap labor for factories and construction projects, but, more importantly, learn how to be modern.
By juxtaposing these three wings of the developmental process, Harwood shows us not only how coherent China’s overall development project really is, but also how consistent the project is with another project with which Studies on Ethnic Groups in China has been concerned—the project of building a coherent nation out of a multitude of ethnic and cultural groups. Ethnic minorities have to be trained and formed into citizens not only of a united nation, but also of a modern country. It all makes sense, but it raises a larger question: Can China really be multiethnic and modern at the same time? It is certainly possible in theory, since China grants all sorts of cultural and linguistic rights to its ethnic minorities and explicitly rejects “great Han chauvinism” as a basis for development or national unity. At the same time, the economic and educational logic of the programs set out in this book suggests otherwise. The pull of getting off the farm, getting into schools, and going out to factories and construction sites is the pull toward a modernity that seems to have very little room for ethnic variation—the Lisu, Nu, and Drung are told that their ways of managing the biophysical environment are backward and destructive; they are told that the only knowledge worth knowing is the universal knowledge of science and nationalism that they learn in their schools; and even their languages become useless when they are working in Guangdong.
What will happen to the multiethnic population of Nujiang Prefecture and its local livelihoods in the next decade or two is impossible to predict. But by drawing a portrait of the developmental projects of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Russell Harwood has given us much to ponder in the present, as well as a baseline for future research. We are proud to add China’s New Socialist Countryside to the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China series.
SEATTLE, APRIL 2013