In the early 1950s, the Communist Party dismantled the Dai aristocracy which had been ruling over Sipsongpanna for centuries. In Dai language, sipsong means ‘twelve thousand’ and panna means ‘field’ and the region became formerly known as the Dai autonmous prefecture of Xishuangbanna (西双版纳傣族自治州). As the central government was facing an embargo on raw materials and since Xishuangbanna is one of the few places in China where rubber trees can grow, the ‘Twelve Thousand Fields’, became the land of rubber and a region of strategic importance.
The Cultural Revolution had a major impact on Xishuangbanna. Thousands of sent-down youth were dispatched to the desolate jungles of southwestern China ethnic borderland to clear up large stretches of forests to plant rubber.
Sent-down Youth in Xishuangbanna
In 1968, Mao Zedong issued a directive “The departure of educated urban youth to the countryside,” thereupon starting the “Up to the mountain, down to the countryside” movement, also known as the ‘Sent-down Youth movement’. Educated urban youth, known as the zhiqing 知青 in Chinese, were sent to rural areas to teach peasant revolutionary thinking and endure the hardships of farmer’s life.
Among the 17 millions of urban youth sent to the countryside, only tens of thousands of them were sent to Xishuangbanna where they lived on a ration of 20 kg of grain and a stipend of 28 yuan a month, planted their own vegetables, lived in shacks they built themselves and were competing for survival with local ethnic minorities.
During the early days of the Mao era, the Communist party sent anthropologists, ethnographers and linguists to the four corners of China in an attempt to classify all the ethnic minorities of the new China which were ranked following the Marxist modes of production (primitive, slave, feudal, capitalist, socialist). The conclusion of this nation-wide quest shaped the state point of view towards ethnic minorities which were all considered backwards, primitive and in need of help to progress towards modernity (and socialism) like the Han did.
The zhiqing profoundly altered Xishuangbanna’s landscape. Since ethnic minorities were considered backwards and primitive, in Xishuangbanna, they did not partake to the establishment of state-owned rubber farms. The zhiqing came to fill an important labor shortage. In less than 10 years, they cut large stretches of forest and planted 1.5 millions mu (1000 km2) of rubber trees in state-owned rubber farms. Encroaching on local villages’ fertile land, state farms were military-like, closed and self-sufficient operations which responded to a strategic need: the production of rubber for military and industrial purposes. In Xishuangbanna, Communist forces successfully generated a colonial landscape of rubber plantations where the zhiqing were mobilized to provide free labor.
The Great Return of the Zhiqing
After the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, millions of sent-down youth were still toiling in the countryside and hoped for a return to urban life. The zhiqing had become a relic of the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, the freshly re-habilitated Deng Xiaoping was aware to the situation of could not go on forever, but the central government had to solve the problem of absorbing millions of people back to the cities.
The news that a series of letters containing the finger prints sent-down youth and sent from Jinghong State Farm spread quickly among the workers of other state farms in Xishuangbanna. Soon, a delegation of zhiqing left Xishuangbanna for Beijing to present a petition to the central government leaders and request to put an end to the sent-down youth movement. In the meantime, across Xishuangbanna’ state farms, 60’000 zhiqing had stopped working and hundreds of them started a hunger strike to express their determination to go back to the city.
Finally, in January 1979, the secretary of Yunnan province party committee published a 15-article guideline on of which states that: “whoever did not want to stay could just leave”. The Great Return of the Zhiqing 知青大返城 had started. In Xishuangbanna’s state-farms the zhiqing vied to be the first to leave. Some zhiqing had children here, but regardless, jumped on the first Kunming-bound truck. The zhiqing bid farewell to the southern borderland in a hurry and sighted of relief once they arrived in Kunming.
Post-Mao, Post-Cultural Revolution – Moving forward
A handful of Xishuangbanna sent-down youth were at the origin of the movement which allowed millions of people to go back to the countryside, putting a definitive end to the Cultural Revolution.
Not all the zhiqing left.
One zhiqing who arrived in Xishuangbanna in the early 1970s and who owns a convenience store at the Menglun bus station said he saw no point in going back to Shanghai. “We did not go to school. What job could I find in Shanghai without education? I worked at the state farm, cutting forest, planting rubber trees. That’s the only thing I can do. I am better off here”.
During one of my journey, I also met the son of zhiqing originally from Hunan. He worked at Mengxing State rubber farm lifestyles. When I asked whether he had family members back in Hunan and whether he was going back to see them during Spring Festival. He said: “Of course I have family members in Hunan. I have never seen them. For me, home is here”.
After the Great Return
The Great Return of the Zhiqing contributed to a shortage of labor in state owned farms. Ethnic minorities of Xishuangbanna were allowed to come and work in the rubber farms, but also, under the impulsion of the economic reform, were strongly encouraged to plant rubber themselves.
A series of policy allocated collectively owned forestland to household, thus creating individual property rights. Rice farmers or shifting cultivators, ethnic minorities were weary to plant a crop that cannot be consumed. However, after ten years (it takes 8 years for the rubber trees to grow and yield the precious liquid), ethnic minority farmers realized that rubber was a cash crop. Since then, Dai people have planted rubber virtually everywhere and when landing at Jinghong airport or on a bus heading towards the Lao border, it is hard not to notice all the carefully planted rows of rubber trees.
A significant decrease of area covered in forest coupled with a massive surge of area dedicated to monoculture rubber has contributed to a loss of biodiversity. Beyond the environmental concern, rubber farmers are now dependent on the price of natural rubber.