The Dulong valley, one of Yunnan’s most remote corners squeezed between Mynamar’s Kachin state and the Gaoligong Mountains, is home to the Dulong (Drung) minzu, one of China’s smallest ethnic groups. The first road to the Dulong valley was completed in 1999. Soon after, in 2003, the Sloping Land Conversion Program brought to an end the traditional slash and burn cultivation practiced by the Dulong, increasing their dependence on state subsidies (Harwood 2014) and thus generating various social problems (Gros 2011; 2014). In the late 2000s a new road was built along the Dulong river, allowing the government to put into practice another major development plan, which included the relocation of all of the valley’s inhabitants into Socialist New Villages placed alongside the road.
Roads, then, for the Dulong of the valley, were a fundamental conduit for various national policies and development projects. Unlike other border regions in China, moreover, in the area there are no larger plans of transnational connectivity involving nearby Myanmar, nor the valley seems to have any particular strategic relevance for Beijing. For the Lisu and Kachin across the border, however, the new road meant easier access to Chinese goods, and a number of petty traders regularly cross the border on foot to buy various products. Although the trade is tolerated by Chinese authorities, the state does not seem to play any role in this form of exchanges, nor it aims at fostering them – a situation which differs significantly from other similar settings along the Chinese borderlands.
This paper, based on recent fieldwork in the Dulong valley, aims at analysing the interplay between China’s comprehensive plans for the development of its borderlands and the small pathways of trade that remains inevitably out of the reach – and in part out of the control – of the state.