By Yuan Yuan
Flanked by snow-capped mountains marking the border with Myanmar in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, Dulongjiang Township, named after the Dulong River that winds through it, was once one of the poorest areas in China. The township is home to people of the Derung ethnic group, one of the smallest in China by population. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Derung people still lived an isolated and primitive life.
It was not until 1999 that a road was paved to link the area to the outside world. Dulongjiang was the last township in China to be connected by road. Access to the township remained blocked by snow for almost six months a year until a tunnel was completed in 2014. One of the smallest and most isolated minorities with less than 7,000 people, almost all of the Derung ethnic group had shaken off poverty by the end of 2018. On April 11, residents of Dulongjiang Township received a congratulatory letter from President Xi Jinping.
“Making it possible for people of all ethnic groups to lead prosperous lives has been my aspiration as well as our common goal,” Xi declared in his letter.
Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, is home to 25 ethnic minorities. The vast mountainous areas within the province have been identified as a major target for the government’s poverty alleviation.
Paving the Way
Gao Derong, 65, former head of the township and a key figure in leading local people out of poverty, could not hide his excitement when reading the letter from Xi to his fellow townspeople.
“The lives of Derung people have changed dramatically in recent years,” Gao beamed. “In his letter, the president encouraged us to build a good homeland, guard the border and create a better future. We will keep his words in mind and work harder to reach even greater goals.”
After graduating from school in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Gao returned to his hometown to work as a teacher in a primary school and ended up making great strides in wiping out illiteracy. Gao was one of the few people of his generation from the town to manage to receive an education. In 1984, he started serving in the township government with the goal of lifting the local people out of poverty.
Even after he was promoted to higher positions in Gongshan Derung and Nu Autonomous County and then further up to Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Gao still spent most of his time working in Dulongjiang.
“Before the founding of the PRC, people in my township subsisted by hunting and slash-and burn agriculture,” Gao said. “No Derung people could speak Mandarin, and they still used knot tying to keep records.”
His relative Kong Zhiqing was the first in the area to attend school and learn Mandarin. In 1952, as the head of Gongshan Derung and Nu Autonomous County, Kong traveled to Beijing to attend a conference. There, he met then-Premier Zhou Enlai, who made Derung the official name of the ethnic group based on Kong’s suggestion.
When Gao joined the government, the township lacked roads, regular schools and businesses. The rolling hills and harsh climate made it difficult to even start building a road. School-aged children would have to take a zipline over the roaring Dulong River to reach county schools. Frequent landslides, avalanches, wild animal attacks and traffic accidents made life extremely harsh.
As a witness to the township’s transformation from long-term poverty, Gao identified three major phases that were crucial to the township’s development: First was the founding of the PRC, which led the township from a primitive society to a socialist one. The second started when a road to the township was constructed in 1999. And the most recent phase, which began in 2010, was heralded by a Yunnan provincial government program aimed at lifting the Derung people out of poverty.
A visitor surnamed Wang from Beijing visited the township in 2007. He still remembers a notice he found pasted on the wall during the Spring Festival.
“The notice said that someone donated 10,000 yuan (US$1,470) to the township, and that the township decided to divide the money among all the residents,” Wang recounted. “In the end, each person received less than 2 yuan (US$0.29). It was the Spring Festival, the most important Chinese holiday, and each person received only that tiny amount of money. It was astonishing.”
In such harsh conditions, Gao meticulously explored methods to increase local income. He saw the advantage of the township to be its superb ecological environment, with more than 95 percent forest coverage over rivers, waterfalls, deep valleys and mountains.
Thus, ecological protection became a top priority. “The well-preserved ecological environment is the great treasure passed down by our ancestors,” Gao said. “We will spare no efforts to protect it.”
Eventually, he found a way to bring economic benefits to locals while preserving the environment: They started planting amomum tsao-ko, a spice and medicinal herb, which is well-suited to the local climate.
Gao set up a base offering free training for townspeople, which encouraged more of them to learn the process. He also provided free accommodations and meals.
The program resulted in a sharp rise in locals’ income. Today, more than 4,000 hectares of amomum tsao-ko farmland blanket Dulongjiang.
“The market for amomum tsao-ko has grown in recent years, which led to a boom in locals getting involved in the business,” noted Zhang Jun, deputy director of the Publicity Department of Gongshan. “In addition, we have started planting of paridis, another medicinal herb, and beekeeping along with cow and chicken breeding, all of which have greatly expanded local income sources.”
Zhang reported that in 2018, the average income of local people was 6,122 yuan (US$900), an increase of 23.5 percent from 2017. Amomum tsao-ko alone brought in 7.43 million yuan (US$1.09 million).
Furthermore, the Forestry Department of Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture has deputized everyone from 195 impoverished Derung households as ecological rangers which provides income in exchange for efforts to protect the forests in their native land.
Meanwhile, various methods of government support have offered further boosts. In 2010, the provincial government implemented entire village advancement projects and pilot projects for the improvement of entire townships, with Dulongjiang included. Financial aid and related programs from the government put the town’s development on a fast track.
During the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-20), the Central Government set the target of achieving annual gross regional product growth over 8 percent in ethnic minority regions.
In 2017, China demarcated three regions and three prefectures as the poorest areas in the country. The three regions are southwestern China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, four areas in southern Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and Tibetan-inhabited regions in Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu provinces in northwestern and southwestern China. The three prefectures are Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan and Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan. More resources have been allocated to these areas.
Developed regions in eastern China including the metropolis of Shanghai are also providing targeted aid for construction projects, industrial development and personnel training.
As a result, Dulongjiang has a sparkling new look today. Many new houses have risen along the road, and residents once surviving in uninhabitable conditions have been relocated into new residences. A 4G network covers the entire township and facilitates internet access through several service providers.
In the early 2000s, a school covering six years of elementary and three years of secondary education was set up in the township. No longer must children brave a zipline to attend school.
Moreover, improvement in transportation has lured tourists to the township, which in turn has inspired some locals to renovate their homes into restaurants and inns.
Gao identified two directions for the township’s future progress: developing the ecological economy and rural tourism.
Tang Xiaocong, a 28-year-old local, runs a restaurant in Maku Village with his wife from which they earn an average of 6,000 yuan (US$882) per month.
“We relocated three times before settling in Maku,” Tang revealed. “Our previous homes composed of either bamboo or wood. They were freezing in winter and leaked when it rained. Our house now is built of bricks. It is steady and firm with three bedrooms and a spacious kitchen. My parents said they had never dreamed of living in a house like this.”
Tang was educated outside Dulongjiang and served in the army for several years before returning home. These experiences broadened his horizons. In 2014, he came back to the village to open a restaurant.
“It has not been just the road and tunnel connecting the township to the outside world,” Tang illustrated. “The 4G network has also linked us up. A growing number of locals are selling agricultural products through online business platforms.”
Tang Jiajia, who also operates a restaurant in the township, hails from Lijiang, a city in Yunnan. She followed some relatives to Dulongjiang over a decade ago in search of business opportunities.
She started as a food vendor with her mother, and although the business was not very profitable back then, Tang still chose to stay because the locals were all so welcoming.
Shops in Dulongjiang enjoy tax-exemptions, and rent is affordable. So, Tang decided to settle down in the township and ended up marrying a local man. Her business has since developed into a restaurant. “Now we easily earn 100,000 yuan (US$14,700) a year,” she said. “With more and more tourists finding their way here, we predict the business will expand.”
Following the Derung people, two more ethnic groups from Yunnan, the De’ang and Jino, have also reported successfully eliminating poverty.
Huang Yunbo, head of the provincial office of poverty alleviation and development in Yunnan, revealed that a total of seven ethnic minority groups will be removed from the poverty list this year, and that the number is expected to increase to 11 by 2020.
“Just as President Xi said in his letter, poverty eradication is only the first step, and better days are yet to come,” Gao said. “We will work hard to make the better days arrive sooner.”