Visitors experience nation's efforts to alleviate poverty, revitalize rural areas
Southwest China's Yunnan province is famous for its all-season blooming flowers, tea leaves picked by hand on mountain slopes and people from ethnic groups dressed in traditional clothing.
Yunnan has now gained more significance as the newly built China-Laos Railway connects it with Luang Namtha, a province in northern Laos that features a similar climate, ethnic customs and culinary culture.
It has also become a magnet for Laotians who wish to experience the ecological, economic and tourism development in the province.
In May, a group of 10 Laotian village chiefs from Luang Namtha made a train journey to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Tong Xoc Piewmeu, 30, one of the 10 village heads, said that during the fact-finding trip, he focused on rice planting.
"In Laos, many villagers face financial constraints, and under the current economic situation, we are only allowed to engage in small-scale farming. Otherwise, we have to seek employment away from our villages," said Piewmeu, who has been a village chief for 10 years.
"I hope that in the near future, we can try planting rice in our village to help local people benefit more from cultivation," he added.
From May 15 to 19, Piewmeu took part in a training class in Kunming designed for the village heads. They learned about modern agricultural cultivation techniques, the development of traditional Chinese medicine, China's experiences in alleviating poverty, and measures to revitalize rural areas by promoting tourism and healthcare.
The first stop on the visit was the Lancang-Mekong International Vocational Institute at Yunnan Minzu University in Chenggong district, Kunming. The visitors attended a two-hour class taken by Yin Xiaoying, an associate professor at the university specializing in industrial integration.
In addition to the friendliness of the Laotians, Yin was impressed by their desire and passion for economic development and their specific interest in understanding the policies and measures implemented by the Chinese government for poverty alleviation and rural revitalization.
Yin said, "As far as I know, these village chiefs from the border area between China and Laos, especially those near the crossing points, proposed coming to Yunnan to learn and exchange ideas.
"To my surprise, they were enthusiastic during and after the class. They asked many questions and were fully engaged throughout the session."
Yin instructed the visitors on development of the walnut industry in Yangbi Yi autonomous county, Dali Bai autonomous prefecture, Yunnan. They were also told how the province has improved industrial, production and operational systems in the agricultural sector.
The county is known for its walnut production, and in Guangming village, which sits on Cangshan Mountain in the east of Yangbi, walnut trees can be seen everywhere, with the oldest boasting a history of 1,165 years.
Local farmers relied on planting walnuts for a living, but in 2017, the price of walnuts suddenly plunged by 10 yuan ($1.4) per 500 grams. The villagers could not sell their crops for a good price, and factories processing the walnuts were struggling to stay in business.
To cope with this sluggish market, the walnut growers considered establishing village cooperatives to manage and sell their produce in a more orderly way, in the hope of raising prices and the quality of their crops.
Yin also began conducting a five-year field study in 2017 to observe factors influencing the village's economic development and methods to help lift local people out of poverty.
"I saw that they had diversified the way in which walnuts were produced. The villagers established a number of cooperatives, introduced smokeless ovens to bake walnuts, and expanded the distribution channel to establish e-commerce platforms for online sales," Yin said.
"From farming to manufacturing, the walnuts produced were fully used, and the village also launched a group of specialized homestays to boost rural tourism."
During her lecture in Kunming to the Laotian village heads, Yin told them how Guangming was lifted out of poverty. The ensuing development of the walnut industry, along with accompanying measures to boost tourism, was also discussed.
"Because Guangming has a small economy, it is still exploring advanced processing of some agricultural produce, and has yet to achieve large-scale operation. However, the local tourism industry is booming due to its reliance on scenic Cangshan Mountain," Yin said.
She added that the Laotians wanted to learn more about such progress and how Guangming had achieved relatively fast economic growth, as their own villages are facing a similar situation.
Laos has only three administrative levels: province, city and village. Each Laotian village has a chief, whose administrative power is second only to that of the mayor — similar to a district or county head in China.
Due to a relatively low urbanization rate, most people in Laos still live in rural areas. Village chiefs act as a bridge between the government and the people, and in rural areas of the country, residents often have a close relationship with their village head.
Seng Xaiyavong, 44, head of Ban Borpied village, which is about 8 kilometers from Boten, a northern border crossing point with China, said 696 people live in the village, and most of them work in Boten during the day.
Two of the villagers work at Boten station on the China-Laos Railway, which is only about 1 km from their village, said Xaiyavong, who was among the village heads who took this rail line to Kunming for the exploratory tour. It was the first time that Xaiyavong had traveled abroad.
"I came to study, and learned a lot. I was particularly impressed by the rural tourism businesses that are flourishing in Gulang village, Anning, where natural hot springs help boost the local economy thanks to the development of related cultural tourism facilities," he said.
Xaiyavong said boosting agricultural industries, which requires large amounts of capital and resources, is often beyond the reach of individuals. "Laos is different from China in terms of rural industry growth. We have a lot of room for improvement," he added.
The opening of the China-Laos Railway in December 2021 boosted trade between the two countries, injecting new momentum into Laos' economic recovery, which was badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Even though Laos had a short rail link along its border with Thailand before the China-Laos Railway opened, many Laotians consider the latter to be the country's first modern rail line, and are proud of it.
Piewmeu, the village head, said: "People in our village depended on planting and tapping rubber trees for a living, because there is no local pillar industry. A few years ago, we could only sell the rubber to a local factory for a low price. With the railway opening, more business owners from China are now buying our rubber, and prices of the product have risen."
He said that traveling to Vientiane, capital of Laos, typically took two days by bus from Boten.
"After the railway opened, travel time to Vientiane was reduced to just four hours," Piewmeu said, adding that villagers now choose to go out to work instead of staying at home to farm.
In addition to convenient transportation, Laotians' incomes have risen.
"We used to rely on natural conditions to make a living, but rarely thought about how we could improve our living standards," Piewmeu said. "The railway connected us to the outside world, allowing Chinese businesspeople to come to our village. They saw opportunities, and I tried to recommend local projects to them to give the villagers more employment opportunities."
Communication with business owners in Kunming further strengthened the confidence of Laotian village chiefs in boosting development.
Qi Mingde, general manager of Yunnan Ruran Letu Agricultural Development Co in Anning, said the visitors were most interested in how Chinese entrepreneurs, as investors, have helped villagers raise their annual income from 18,000 yuan to 23,000 yuan in just two years. They also wanted to know why the entrepreneurs took the bold decision to make such a large-scale investment in a rural area.
"In the hope of earning a better living, the village chiefs were inspired to think outside the box and experiment to test the knowledge they gained from our experience in developing rural ecotourism," Qi added.
He said that in the past five years, his company has turned local farmers into shareholders by involving them in making decisions to fully tap local resources. The village's 30 surplus laborers were all employed, and last year, the average monthly income of local residents reached about 3,000 yuan.
Qi said that to improve the village's environment, areas where garbage was piled high were cleaned up and transformed into green zones. Residents' houses were renovated, and a walking path now surrounds the village to improve fitness levels.
"The average annual income of villagers in Gulang, where we developed rural tourism, has risen from 18,000 yuan five years ago to 23,000 yuan. The second phase of our tourism project has been completed, and the third phase will continue to expand the scale of operation," he said.
On an exploratory tour to the border, Qi saw that Laos boasts abundant natural resources.
"It is a good place to develop ecological tourism. The village chiefs may not be aware of the specific methods involved, but the pleasant environment in Laos could be used to improve tourist resources," he said.
"Many Laotian village chiefs said they hoped to replicate the success that our company has had in Gulang in their own villages. They also plan to send more villagers and officials from relevant departments to China to learn from us.
"I have no hesitation in sharing our experience with the Laotian people and I am very willing to help the development of rural areas in Laos."
The Laotians were also impressed by the agricultural planting techniques used by rural companies in Yunnan.
Xaiyavong, the Ban Borpied village head, said he hoped agricultural experts and technicians from Kunming would visit his village soon to guide residents in producing plant products in a more advanced technological way.
"We grow rubber, sugar cane and watermelons. Much of our produce is sold to other parts of China through Yunnan. I was deeply impressed by the diverse varieties of specialty crops, large-scale planting models, and the mature procurement and sale systems in Yunnan. I hope to strengthen cooperation with the province in this respect," he said.
Progress has been made in cooperation between China and Laos in terms of transportation.
The 1,035-km China-Laos Railway has produced a convenient logistics channel between the two nations. After the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership officially took effect in January last year, demand for logistics services between the two countries greatly increased.
International freight services on the China-Laos Railway have risen from an average of two trains a day after the line opened, to an average of 12 trains per day. As of May, more than 20 million metric tons of goods had been transported by the line. The types of goods carried by the railway have risen from just over 10 at its initial opening, to more than 2,000.
Yin, the associate professor, said: "The Laotian people are pragmatic. They are now more interested in the specific way of doing things, such as how to sell produce and better cultivate crops. I told them that we love the dark Laotian beer, and they immediately asked how they could find the best retail channels for beer sales.
"Compared with direct aid, I think they wanted to know more about methods to improve their economic situation."