China’s newest global initiative, the so-called One Belt One Road (OBOR), has been widely discussed since Xi Jinping’s famous visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia in late 2013. Yet despite the scale of the debate, concrete plans related to the initiative seem to remain vague and depicted primarily in curved arrows on overview maps of Eurasia.
On the one hand there is a significant power in this vagueness: as long as plans remain uncertain and arrows large and curvy enough to sweep across vast territories, policy-makers can maintain the excitement of the initiative without having to deal with the nitty-gritty of local policies and the discontent of those who might feel left out.
On the other hand, while the belt-and-road routes have not yet being fixed, development zones and special districts have mushroomed all over the country, following the model of the first Free Trade Zone (FTZ) established in Shanghai in 2013. Many of those areas are now incorporated into the OBOR vision, as nodes of development central to the whole strategy.
If, then, colourful arrows and large plans of trans-national connectivity is what makes headlines, the way the Chinese state is enforcing its developmentalist model seems to occur through those specific nodes. Here, despite the rhetorical emphasis on free trade, FTZs and other special areas are fully relying on the state for funding and political support. This is not to say, however, that there is not a strong local will connected to those projects. Local administrations compete for OBOR-related funding and often promote a particular vision of their region in order to attract interest.
This paper analyses one such case, that of Tengchong, western Yunnan. Tengchong lies at the crossroads of old trade routes with nearby Myanmar and underwent significant development in recent years, making it one of the main nodes in Yunnan’s “bridgehead” strategy.
Choosing Tengchong as a case study follows a twofold aim. First, we intend to show how nodes of development are imagined, planned, and branded. Secondly, we intend to focus on the process of “centralisation”, which is paramount to the success of those endeavours. By centralisation we mean the attempt, by local authorities, to show the centrality of Tengchong in historical perspective, and the strategic use of it in order to promote and develop new projects and initiatives.