Perspectives on a Region

6 Sep

Southeast Asian Projection

It is a map, a representation of space and time. The space is obvious. A map provides us with a scaled orientation to the world, waypoints pinned to our interpretation of reality. The time is less obvious, but the deeper we look into a map, the more it becomes both a snapshot of the world in which it was made and a chart of what our past has brought to us.

A China Projection

But the map I am studying at this moment is more. It shows the Mekong River basin from China’s perspective. It not only shows the historical names of towns and cities; it shows proposed dams – a proposed history. The names of the dams are in blue, but they are written as though they are already there. What strikes me about this map and its projection of the future is that it reflects China’s confidence that these dams will soon be a part of China’s great history of progress. And what strikes me even more is how appropriate this confidence is. Despite the People’s Republic of China’s many mistakes, mistakes it occasionally admits to (such as the destructive aspects of the Great Leap Forward), this nation’s ability to build infrastructure on massive scales far surpasses that of the United States and other democratic nations.

Just yesterday, my colleague and I observed several such projects here in Kunming, Yunnan. We were driving on one of the main corridors in Kunming from the airport to the northern quarter of the city when she, an engineer by training, stated, “They must be building an underground rail line.” While I had noticed the government’s advocacy for this project in the form of billboards and signs, my colleague had noticed the enormous red gantry cranes used to lower materials into shafts leading to the main project. While in the United States a project like this might make national news (such as Boston’s Big Dig), this is just another project like thousands across China. 

Just minutes after making our observations on the rail line, we happened upon Kunming’s new “Metropolis Center,” a multi-building construction project that begins with the demolition of multiple neighborhoods. To call this a “multi-building” project, however, is an understatement. There are actually many highrise buildings involved, including the proposed 333 meter “South Asian Gate,” a building that was turned down by Kunming’s Department of Construction three times due to its location in a seismically active region.

Kunming is a growing city. Already there are 1.2 million motor vehicles packing the streets for a population of just over 3 million (in urban zones). This, in a nation where public transportation and bicycles is (or was) the norm. Kunming is, as some China-based magazines and development authorities have dubbed it, the “Gateway to the South.” Indeed, it will be home to China’s second largest airport terminal in several months, and serves as a transportation center for roads south into Southeast Asia. According to the Yunnan Airport Group (Co, Ltd.), one goal of the airport is “to build century project, to reach thousand-year achievement, to create China No. 1.”  You get the point.

In four weeks, we will be in the southern city of Jinghong, China’s “Gateway to Southeast Asia,” which sits neatly against the Mekong River. Arguably, and depending on most organized data collected by regional development organizations, this region is growing faster than most of mainland Southeast Asia. China’s ability to build large infrastructure projects quickly and without the blockades of consensus and democracy allows it to become dominant in the development story of the Mekong River basin.

Perhaps this explains why a country like Laos would decide, against its agreements with the transnational Mekong River Commission, to commence work on a controversial Mekong River dam in the province of Xayaburi. What downstream nation would not feel the looming shadow of China weighing down from above, an upstream torrent waiting to flood its economy with commodities, people, and propaganda? In one and a half months, when our expedition enters the land of Xayaburi in the small nation of Laos, we will certainly need to consider the weight of China’s pressure before becoming enraged by the Lao government’s contrary behavior.

So it manifests in a map, this history of development and “progress.” The future is marked as history, something for the world to know. And the world knows it indeed. Just browsing the bookshelves of experts on China would reveal titles such as China, Inc. and  The Rising Dragon. The cliches may run deep, but so does their reasoning. While China may one day come crashing down, it continues to stand as a development monolith, casting its shadow downstream into the swollen monsoon waters of Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. This shadow is not drawn onto the map, but its outlines are vaguely discernible. Perhaps in several years, a new map will reveal these lines more distinctly, and the palpable bloodflow of this economy will be written on paper.

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