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Tibet Outside the TAR: Weixi Xian

By Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke


Brief Description and Impressions

Weixi Lisu Autonomous County, one of the three counties of Dechen TAP, is typical of the polyglot of ethnicities found in many units of political administration in Yunnan Province. Designated a Lisu Autonomous County, it is part of a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Tibetans make up only 6.2% of the county population, although historically they were once a stronger component. Official statistics state a majority of 54.8% of Lisu in the county. Weixi has by far the largest population of the three counties of Dechen TAP, containing a little less than half the prefectureís total. Population density is more than double the prefectural average. It is hard to see why Weixi should be included in a TAP at all, given the very small percentage of its population that is Tibetan. in fact Weixi was only established as the Weixi Lisu AC in 1985, during a period when several changes were made in administrative divisions in China relating to ethnicity. The Lisu in this case gained an advantage; the recognition of their majority status in the county, The Qiang of Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture lost out. The status of a Qiang autonomous county, granted to them in 1958, was removed in 1987, and they were subsumed under the more general division of a Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in which they formed only 16.8% of the total populationí. Weixi LAC is of interest as an example of how ethnic groups other than Tibetans have fared under the Chinese.

Most of Weixi County lies along the Mekong watershed between the Yangzi and the Salween Rivers, covering an area of 4,661 square kilometers. Like the other two counties of Dechen TAP, part of it consists of forested mountains, while the rest is hilly terrain in which the population carries out an essentially subsistence-level existence dependent on grazing and farming. Although the region has long had contact with China, Chinese settlement has never been heavy. Weixi's significance for the Chinese lies in its timber resources and to some extent its strategic position close to the Sino-Burmese border.

The police have and judiciary have quite a strong and modem presence in Weixi. All these units except for the Court are grouped above and on the edge of the old town. The PSB stands directly. below the Detention Center, with the Procuratorate slightly south. The Court occupies a high-profile new white building complex in the lower section of town. Attached to the Procuratorate is the Anti-Corruption Work Committee, a unit not found in many towns but also observed attached to the County Procuratorates in Chabcha and Hualong Counties in Amdo (Qinghai Province).


Weixi depends on agriculture more than pastoralism as its basic economic system, although many rural dwellers practise a mixed economy, growing corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, buckwheat and some fruit trees, as well as raising pigs, chickens and sometimes a few sheep and goats. Closer to Weixi donkeys, mules and cattle are also common. Particularly in the Badi area north of Weixi county town, farmers construct meticulous stone terraces in order to ground for cultivation in steep mountainous country. For farmers of Weixi, life is hard, at subsistence if not near starvation level Mechanization appears virtually non-existent, at least beyond the county town district. Lacking cash, farmers have few manufactured possessions and depend on the natural environment for their livelihood, so that access to forests, which provide wood for fuel and building and some supplementary hunting, is vital for then. In 1992 the per capita income for farmers in Weixi County was 204 Yuan', only two-thirds that of farmers in Dechen County, which in turn was among the lowest in China. Tibetan farmers in Weixi practise a similar economy to their Lisu, Naxi and other agriculturalist counterparts, their villages distinguished by cultural markers like prayer flags and chortens more than differences in cultivation methods or crops. Some of the Weixi farmers' surplus produce must end up at the Grain and Oil Processing Factory in the county town, but the agricultural population's low income shows how little they are earning from market participation, which in the case of grain operates at state-fixed prices.


In Weixi's higher country good alpine grassland exists, allowing herders to practise pastoralism on a purer basis than the mixed farming economy of much of the rest of the county. Herders graze cattle, sheep and goats. Pastoral produce appears to be consumed largely by the herders themselves, as little beef or mutton seemed to be sold in Weixi county town, where pork was the main meat available. Lisu, Pun-ii, Tibetans and other ethnic groups engage in this form of economy, for many of whom it provides no more than a subsistence livelihood.

Natural Resources Exploitation

Official sources report that 36% of Weixi LAC is forested. These forests provide the region's chief natural resource, and they are currently being exploited to fulfill the modem Chinese market's ever-growing demand for lumber. Traditional levels of lumber usage, while quite high as might be expected in a forest-rich area, had not seriously threatened the environment, but population increase and modem demands now pose environmental problems. In 1992 environmental protection departments were carrying out detailed land surveys in Weixi and Dechen counties, as the Chinese Government is aware of the importance of forests to its economic development, and has passed many laws relating to environmental protection.

Enforcing such laws has encountered numerous obstacles among the enforcers themselves, from those whose traditional lifestyle depends on unrestrained access to forests, and from anyone interested in short-term gains from lumber harvesting. Forests produce valuable medicinal herbs as well as wood, a source of income for individuals and county economic units. In July Weixi holds a market attended by dealers in medicinal herbs from Kunming and other cities, an important date on Weixi's economic calendar. Some of these medicinal products are also sold on the international market, and a larger than usual dispensary on Weixi's main street deals in Weixi's natural medicine resources. The value of Weixi's forests also lies in the huge variety of plant and animal species found there. Around the county one does see seriously denuded patches on the mountain sides, some of which represents clearing for cultivation or grazing, but some has also been cut for the lumber industry. Around settlements, Weixi's forests therefore face stress from both local and external users. Small to medium-scale lumber yards and processing facilities are found all along the main roads of Weixi County, perhaps the only real ìindustry' outside the county town apart from mining. A large lumber handling depot lies below the town of Weixi, next to the river [see photo. Some of its stockpiles contain logs large enough to have come from virgin forest, not reforested areas. Many lumber trucks with Dechen TAP registration ply the route between Weixi and Lijiang, where huge lumber yards exist. From Lijiang most logs are then carried by road to the road at Panzhihua, and shipped to markets elsewhere in China. Locals are also heavy users of wood for fuel and building, but the bulk of Weixi's lumber must be shipped outside the county, which does not have the population or level of construction to consume the amount cut. The Lisu and other nationalities in Weixi are subjected to the same type of resource-exploitation in their territories as Tibetans are in theirs.

Although there is no particular evidence of their exploitation in Weixi county town, Weixi LAC has a rich variety of mineral deposits. Of the 36 different minerals already discovered in the county, the most important ones currently being mined are antimony, lead, zinc, copper and manganese. Other deposits of mercury, gold, tungsten, platinum, etc are also being extractedî. In 1992 the Weixi County Mining Products Office injected funding from Guizhou and Yongsheng in neighboring Lijiang County into the county ës biggest mine, the Babao Lead-Zinc Mine. Mining development, if it reaches larger -scale proportions, could potentially encourage a higher level of Chinese migration. Evidence from fieldwork did not suggest that intensified mining activity was imminent, however. Local people, from their appearance Lisu, were seen carrying heavy white sacks for several kilometers along the road between Wem and Badi. The sacks seemed to be filled with chemicals, and the process involved at least a hundred people in highly organized way. The nature of the contents wasn't ascertained, but farmers don't usually transport fertilizer in this way. If the contents were mining-related, which seemed more probable, such human transport indicates a very rudimentary level of development.


So far Weixi has not become industrialized, and industrial facilities noted in the town utilized local resources. The town's main industrial unit is the Grain and Oil Processing Factory, built well before 1980, an installation commonly found in small county towns. Weixi also manufactures other foodstuffs, agricultural machinery and cementî. Extensive lumber processing facilities also exist in the town, as described above. In the countryside simple lumber processing and mining activities are also carried out.

[Reproduced by permission from TIBET: Outside the TAR, by Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke. ©1997, S. Marshall and S. Cooke.]

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