China moves to develop Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. The city's residents, however, are cautious for what the country's leaders have planned. From a Paraxylene plant to a shiny new airport, unrest has been provoked and simmering.
I’ve spent the past few days in Kunming, a southwestern Chinese city that’s only an hour’s flight from Kolkata, but can feel like it’s half a world away. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Kunming, which is the provincial capital of Yunnan, also happens to be one of my favourite places to visit. In China, this city is known as “the city of eternal spring”. The weather is always pleasant, cooled by the winds that sweep down from the mountains that buffet this city. At its heart is the lovely Green Lake, which sits in a quiet green neighbourhood, encircled by outdoor cafés.
Last week, I had a glimpse of how much this city has changed since my first visit here some four years ago. Sadly, much of the changes, to my romantic eyes at least, don’t seem to be for the better. A sprawling and shiny new airport greets visitors. The city seems to have expanded in all directions. In the north, where I stayed, next to the Horticultural Expo Gardens, a new industrial zone houses luxury car showrooms and software companies. There are construction cranes everywhere. A new metro is being built, with the massive construction leaving the city’s streets caked with dust.
The infrastructure makeover coincided with the city hosting its first “South Asia Expo”, an event I went there to cover. The trade fair was, no doubt, impressive: a strong statement of intent of how officials in Kunming and Beijing see the future of this city. Provincial government officials told me they saw their city as a future centre of trade and connectivity that would bind the region spanning from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar in the west to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
To this end, they’ve even started building an express train line running southward and eastward, to Laos and Thailand. As I reported, India hasn’t appeared too keen with this push, although our South Asian neighbours appeared far more enthused.
Getting away from the Expo, I spent one evening having a traditional Yunnan dinner with a group of young Kunming residents. Last month, several hundred Kunming residents, including my dining companions, took to the streets in a rare protest to call on the government to stop building a Paraxylene (PX) chemical plant in the suburb of Anning. The Kunming protest followed similar protests in Dalian. The protesters believed the government hadn’t been very transparent with its plans, and were concerned about the health hazards.
What they told me was that the protest was, in some sense, not just about this one PX plant. The fact that it brought out such a wide cross-section of people – from high school students and college graduates to bankers, lawyers, and retirees – suggested that it was underpinned by a wider anxiety about Kunming’s future. There were rumours of another protest on the opening of the Expo, which prompted a massive security deployment on a scale I’ve rarely seen in China – it even very easily dwarfed the rather sizeable security blanket that is deployed across Beijing every year for the annual Parliament session.
The city’s new development has elicited different responses from its residents. While older residents and college-educated Kunming youth I spoke to were generally disapproving of the changes their city had seen, younger migrants – whose population here is growing steadily – had a more positive take.
Kunming has become a magnet for people from across China’s hinterland, particularly from the provinces of Hubei and Hunan. One older Kunming resident recalled how, when she was in her teens, her friends would go swimming in Dianchi Lake, a vast freshwater lake whose famously pure waters have been praised even in older Chinese literary works. “Today,” she told me, “the water is too filthy even for the fish”.