Nowhere to Run in Xi’s China
The Chinese leader’s cult reaches into the most remote regions of the country.
DIMALUO, China—For one brief moment, we were away from it all.
I was in Dimaluo, a small Catholic Tibetan village in Yunnan’s Nujiang Valley. To the west lay Myanmar’s Kachin state, and Tibet was just 12 miles north.
My host Tenzin and I sat with each other in his dark, open-air living room, warming our knees by the wooden stove. The silence was only broken by crackling embers and the trickle of a nearby stream as we ate our stir-fried lamb with yak milk.
I’d been in the Nujiang Valley for a week, aiming to get away from the concrete and chaos of modern China. But instead of a quiet, distant valley, I found a construction site: whole mountain sides excavated to build roads, bridges, hotels, and houses for the thousands of Han Chinese laborers encouraged to migrate here.
Nujiang was heralded as one of the toughest challenges for the Chinese government—one officials were confident they’d cracked. That night, the government’s presence was inescapable, even inside the house.
Tenzin opened a cupboard door to reveal a hidden TV. When he turned it on, the room flooded with color and rapturous applause, as wall-to-wall coverage of President Xi Jinping’s latest exploits from Beijing—a factory visit, a speech to Chinese dignitaries—filled the room.
For centuries, Dimaluo’s villagers sought shelter from subjugation and religious persecution among the valley’s 13,000-foot-high mountain peaks. A decade ago, it was still hard to reach by car and was without power. Today, a road cuts the town in half, Chinese flags fly over every house, and living rooms are occupied by the sermons of a distant, foreign president for life.
“Do the people here identify with China? Do you really believe you’re Chinese?” I asked.
“We are Tibetan,” Tenzin sternly replied, switching off the TV.
Enveloped by steep, soaring peaks, separated from lowland power centers by vast distances, and home to a society culturally and ethnically unaligned with its parent state, Dimaluo typifies the type of hermetic community that James Scott describes in his 2009 book, The Art of Not Being Governed.
Scott argues that the peoples of Zomia—a term for the vast highlands of Asia covering territory from Thailand to Tibet, Nepal to Yunnan, encompassing more than 100 million people—have willfully abstained from state structures throughout history.
In this “world of peripheries,” as he calls it, diverse peoples had long found sanctuary from often oppressive states. Countering the narrative that such “hill peoples” were “barbarous,” Scott argues that the peoples of Zomia were deliberate actors, successful in escaping the yoke of empire for millennia, albeit at the cost of economic and technological development seen elsewhere.
“The reason why … some people didn’t ‘develop,’ may not be a question of them not having the talent, or being backward and so on, but may be historically produced by their desire to avoid what they saw as the inconveniences of states,” he told the Boston Globe in 2009.
The Nujiang Valley historically exemplified the “ungoverned periphery” that Scott describes: a sliver of impenetrable land inhabited by diverse groups of subsistence agriculturalists and rarely troubled by distant machinations of geopolitics and empire building.
Dimaluo itself provides an acute example of the communities that the Asian highlands foster. Its residents found a nook between two powers—China and Tibet—that uniquely permitted their culture and religion to thrive.
While Dimaluo was never truly absorbed into any foreign state, that isn’t to say it hasn’t experienced outside influence. French missionaries came to town in the 1840s, their Catholicism permeating the village like it did in much of valley. Today, the adoration for Jesus is only comparable to that of basketball, Dimaluo’s most observable pastime—one invented half a continent and an ocean away.
But external influences in Dimaluo were never evidence of its annexation. It feels like that is changing. Today’s China—with its limitless resources and appetite for modernization—is unavoidable.
In October 2017, Xi announced a “new era” of socialism that could provide “a new option for other countries and nations that want to speed up their development.” By 2035, Xi proclaimed, China would have transitioned from developing to developed, proving the infallibility of the Chinese model.
In much of the country, it feels like the job is getting done. China’s eastern metropolises, such as Shanghai, increasingly look like Singapore or Dubai in their development, economic buzz, and frenetic pace. In many ways, they outshine comparable Western cities in infrastructure and economic capacity.
In other corners of China, Xi’s vision may be trickling in more slowly. But nowhere is it inescapable.
Gongshan County, where Dimaluo is located, sits at the northern end of the Nujiang Valley in the southwestern province of Yunnan.
The Nujiang Valley is one of the world’s deepest and longest gorges, running along one of the final places imperial Chinese power reached. Chinese power didn’t stretch into Nujiang until the Qing Dynasty, the last—and most aggressively expansionist—of the Chinese empires. Its dramatic topography has long kept the population low, providing sanctuary for diverse ethnic minority groups and giving shelter to unique wildlife in one of the world’s most biodiverse environments.
It is also a politically sensitive region, bordering both Tibet and Myanmar. Before a recent influx of Han Chinese laborers, ethnic minorities comprised 96 percent of the county’s population. Han officials saw it as having treacherous terrain and equally treacherous people.
Russell Harwood, formerly of the University of Western Australia and now an Australian diplomat, conducted fieldwork in Gongshan between 2005 and 2008, publishing one of the few foreign-language works on the valley. His 2013 book, China’s New Socialist Countryside: Modernity Arrives in the Nu River Valley, makes clear what was once Gongshan’s abject poverty.
In 2008—the year electricity came to Dimaluo—nearly 65 percent of the population in Gongshan (around 23,000 people) lived below the Chinese poverty line of about $167 per year. This was just 7 percent of the disposable income of the average Chinese household at that time.
Education was scant, and it took significant effort by Beijing to enforce the minimum nine years of schooling. Infrastructure was poor, and the few roads that did exist were often impassable due to frequent landslides and haphazard construction.
Even economic output was almost nonexistent; the lack of arable land in the valley meant that, despite modest population growth over previous decades, the region could barely feed itself without outside assistance.
This convergence of challenges, Harwood argues, fueled an attitude of disdain by Chinese authorities toward the region and its inhabitants.
The valley became a harbinger of future glories: Overcoming the Nujiang issue would demonstrate the unstoppable momentum of China’s push to modernity.
For decades, Beijing’s answer to the valley’s woes was simple: turn it into Yunnan’s power station.
Despite the Nujiang being China’s last major wild river, Beijing planned one of the country’s largest hydroelectricity projects around it, proposing the construction of as many as 13 dams along the length of one of the world’s natural wonders. Protests—at home and abroad—hampered Beijing’s efforts. In 2016, environmentalists rejoiced at the Chinese government’s decision to abandon the project.
But after traveling the length of the valley, the environmentalists’ joy feels premature.
Beijing’s public abandonment of the dams hasn’t meant an abandonment of Nujiang. It has just meant that it has approached the valley’s development in a different way.
The government has not even entirely abandoned its quest to extract hydropower from the valley. In Dimaluo—which straddles the Dimaluo River (a tributary of the Nujiang)—a new dam has been imposed on a community that had resisted such impositions for centuries.
And while it is providing electricity for the 3,000 residents who reside in the village and nearby, that doesn’t feel so transformational. Tenzin remains wedded to the same agricultural lifestyle he did before the lights were switched on. So, too, does the rest of the village.
What the dam did change is Dimaluo’s community. Twenty local houses were destroyed to make way for it. A small apartment block less than a mile south of Dimaluo was built for the Han laborers constructing the dam. Many have remained, working on the dam and in nearby road construction projects, detached from their neighbors—both physically and linguistically.
When I asked Tenzin about the impact of the dam—something I knew he was opposed to after reading his blog—he refused to answer.
“I shouldn’t say,” he said, before confessing his opposition could get him into trouble with a local government official.
Tenzin’s reticence disturbed me. It spoke to a trend I’d observed in the valley that contrasted to my experiences elsewhere in China. A few days earlier, in Bingzhongluo—the last major settlement before Tibet—my questions were also met with discomfort.
Li, a Han guesthouse operator and devout Catholic, had moved to the valley from China’s east. He felt he could practice his faith unhindered in Nujiang. We talked one night over candlelight—the power had been cut—about all things innocuous. He showed me his Mandarin bible, from which he gave me a crash course in Chinese characters.
When I asked about persecution—about why he fled and if he felt safer in Nujiang—he turned silent. The candles flickered on, but our conversation was over.
The only person who would openly talk to me was a young hiker named Bao visiting the valley, whom I met at a local hotel. Bao taught himself English by falling asleep to the BBC World Service and unburdened himself with visceral critiques seemingly informed by his late-night radio binges.
“I hate the government,” Bao roared. “You can’t do anything here—no Facebook, no Google, nothing.” Tent in hand, he planned to escape to the nearby wilderness for a month, seeking solace from a state he despised, just like the exiles of Scott’s hypothesis before him.
The reluctance by residents to talk openly in the valley is almost certainly compounded by its heavy paramilitary presence.
Police checkpoints are common in China. Traveling on its fringes, you quickly become used to routine passport exams.
Less common are ID checks when entering individual towns or villages. Dimaluo bucks that trend, with well-manned, well-armed, gated checkpoints not far from each of its ends. Other state propaganda is more subtle in Dimaluo. I saw many calendars in town, all carrying photos of Xi, standing tall above the leaders of each of Nujiang’s minority communities, during his 2014 visit to the valley. Chinese flags fly prominently over every building—even Tenzin’s.
But there is no attempt at subtlety in the heavy police presence; it is an inescapable statement, one every resident faces every time they leave their home.
In lieu of any alternate economic purpose to Nujiang, the Chinese government has been focusing on transforming the valley into a thoroughfare between Yunnan and Tibet and into a hub for tourism.
But Nujiang remains a work in progress.
From Liuku, the provincial capital, I moved north toward Gongshan. While beautiful, the valley is littered with hotels, many of which prohibit foreigners and are clearly geared toward domestic tourism. Endless government-built and supplied yellow houses dot the hillsides, each with a bright new Chinese flag flying wildly in the mountain winds.
Between Liuku and Fugong—the valley’s second city—the development seems almost complete. But the deeper into the valley you travel, the more overwhelming the scale of the construction effort becomes.
Instead of a pristine gorge, the valley looks like a muddy, urban building site, familiar to anyone who tramps around the edges of Chinese cities.
Six of my nine days in Nujiang were spent moving back and forth along semiconstructed highways etched into the vertical valley walls. Traffic is paralyzed by vast sums of laborers, concrete trucks, and earth movers.
The pace of travel remains glacial: It took six hours to travel 25 miles between Gongshan and Bingzhongluo.
Despite a rigorous commute, the promise of relatively unspoiled trekking and dramatic river views has fostered an increase in tourism.
In Bingzhongluo, tour groups paraded the streets. I drank tea with Chinese holiday-makers who’d traveled from as far as Urumqi and Beijing. Tourist-friendly boardwalks are under construction on steep hillsides currently populated by only farmers.
Dimaluo remains more detached but still receives some 400 tourists per year—most of whom are there to do the four-day trek along an ancient pilgrim route linking Nujiang to the neighboring valley.
That number will expand now that the mountain pass has been paired with a new tarmac road, cutting the four-day trek down to a daylong drive. It has transformed Dimaluo into a thoroughfare, which will bring economic opportunities but will also compound the external influence already disrupting the village.
The Nujiang that Harwood describes was one of real hardship. Its long-standing isolation has meant major challenges to the health and well-being of the local population. The valley I found has more opportunities, though the cultural impact of such change is obvious. And while the Dimaluo of Tenzin’s childhood—the type of exiled community Scott describes—is not entirely gone, it feels more threatened than ever.
I learned something that night in Dimaluo: Even at its farthest frontier, Xi’s China has landed.