schools at the edge

These past few days, I have visited elementary schools in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.

The prefecture capital, Jinghong is undergoing a small (by coastal standards) boom: in 2003, Jinghong had an estimated population of 370,000 and roughly ten years later, school officials estimated a population of over 1.2 million people, suggesting that the same processes of internal migration and rural urbanization that we have seen along the coast; China’s population is not growing so much as it is redistributing (results of the 2011 Census). Indeed, the goals of China’s socialist new village campaign sound explicitly urban — “to develop production, enrich life, civilize the countryside, clean up the villages, and use democratic governance (生产发展、生活宽裕、乡风文明、村容整洁、管理民主的社会主义新农村)”.

Extraction and tourist capitalism have fueled the boom. On the one hand, the primary source of production revenue has been the expansion of rubber tree farming. However, the region also produces pu’er tea, mahogany, and has ancient jade mines. In addition, because Banna (as it is colloquially known) borders Burma, Thailand, and Laos, the prefecture also serves as an entrepôt for Burmese jade, Thai agricultural products, and Laotian hard woods. On the other hand, internal tourism to experience stylized representations of minority cultures continues to grow. Indeed, much of the building development in Jinghong involves adding stereotypical Dai flourishes to concrete buildings, which are structural heirs to Maoist dormitory and mass architecture.

The boom is a reform twist on Maoist efforts to integrate minority communities into the larger Chinese state. The situation of Yunnan ethnic minorities varies, reflecting indigenous pre-Mao state building (the Bai Kingdom at Dali, for example, in contrast to the rain forest tribes of Mengla, Banna), integration into the ancient tea trade, and the building of modern roads and transportation systems. During the Mao era, for example, it took several days to make the trip from Jinghong to the provincial capital, Kunming. Today the trip is a 40-minute plane trip and ethnic Han people hold most political positions and control access to economic opportunities. Indeed, the situation of ethnic minorities in Yunnan resembles that of villagers in Han cities like Shenzhen; whatever opportunities locals have it is tied to traditional land rights as they have been re-interpretted by the state.

However, unlike in Han settlements, where (crudely speaking) rural urbanization has meant making access to some aspects of elite Han culture accessible to peasants, while strengthening class differences, in Yunnan, rural urbanization has had a double thrust — cultural homogenization while asserting Han superiority. In other words, through new village programs, Banna minorities are both sinified and regulated to the lowest rank within Han hierarchies. Of course, many of the Banna born Han are themselves relatively impoverished, but nevertheless better placed than ethnics to capitalize on extraction and tourist opportunities. Thus, what seems to have emerged in Yunnan generally, but Banna specifically, is a situation similar to other colonial situations — on US American indian reservations and throughout the Brazilian Amazon, for example.

The Banna schools that I visited teach the national curriculum to ethnic children. The schools are not destitute, but the problems they face are similar to those faced in peripheral societies elsewhere.

  1. There are not enough students to for large scale investment in education. Consequently, in Banna there are three kinds of elementary schools — education spots (for settlements that only have resources to educate grades 1-2), early elementary schools (combined schools to educate grades 1-4), and complete elementary schools (combined schools that teach the full primary curriculum).
  2. In order for higher level education, most students must leave their home settlements at a young age, some as young as 8 years old to board at an early elementary school. However, any education beyond elementary school entails moving to a county seat; for high school, Jinghong offers the best opportunity to succeed on the gaokao. Not unexpectedly, in Yunnan, Han children, whose parents use a version of Mandarin, are most likely to achieve relative high scores, which are not so high when compared to the results achieved in coastal city schools.
  3. The low birth rate means that even when a complete elementary school exists, there are not enough children to have a class. Consequently, many students end up waiting 2 years to begin their education.

The children were wonderful. The teachers generous. The officials (mostly Han, but some ethnic representatives) determined to improve the situation. However, unless, the values motivating the integration of Banna minorities into the Han state change, I am not sure that the results will differ from other national efforts to integrate minorities elsewhere — cultural loss, relative impoverishment, and the destruction of rain forest. It bears repeating: Underdevelopment and concomitant forms of inequality are the result of human actions, which arise when we confuse profit with the common good.

Impressions from Banna schools, below:

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