20 years a-growing and Yunnan’s transformation amazes

Yunnan’s GDP reached €120bn last year, growth of 13% year on year, compared to national average of 7.8%

The commercial and shopping district in Kunming, Yunnan province.

The commercial and shopping district in Kunming, Yunnan province.


This week’s Asia Briefing comes from Kunming, in the southwest Chinese province of Yunnan, where one of the first sights to greet you on arrival is Aer Rianta International’s airport shops at the city’s imposing new terminal.

As mentioned before in this column, my first time in this airport was 20 years ago.

Then there was a big hand-painted billboard featuring happy foreigners above a banner saying: “We welcome our foreign friends” outside a barn-like terminal, so to see the elegant arches of the mammoth new structure brings the shock of the new.

The airport, which opened in June last year, is a powerful symbol of Kunming’s economic rise.

Yunnan is one of China’s most beautiful provinces, with attractive mountains terraced with paddy fields and some of the world’s great rivers, such as the Yangtze and the rivers that become the Salween and the Mekong.

Kunming is known as the city of eternal spring for its very livable climate and both it and the surrounding province are popular destinations for domestic tourism.

Where 20 years ago cyclists jostled for position at the traffic lights and the most exotic consumer experience was buying Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book at the Xinhua book store, now all the Western brands are available.

Yunnan’s gross domestic product has reached 1 trillion yuan (€120 billion) last year, which was growth of 13 per cent year on year, compared to the national average of 7.8 per cent.

In the first quarter of this year, GDP in Kunming rose 13.5 per cent, so the expansion is continuing.

While GDP growth is significantly higher than the national average, GDP growth per capita is still lower than the rest of the country, and it has become part of a national drive to increase rural incomes.

In 2011, its total GDP was 875 billion yuan (€109.5 billion), and the target set out in the 12th five-year plan (2011-15) is for both the total GDP and income of the urban and rural population in Yunnan to be doubled by 2016.

According to Yunnan Statistical Bureau, the province has seen large increases in its investment, consumption and foreign trade also.

Much of this has been driven by a massive infrastructure spend as the province plays catch-up with the rest of the country. After admiring the new terminal, you continue into the city along zippy new motorways, the transformation continues to amaze.

Kunming is geographically remote – it is a 3½-hour flight from Beijing.

China’s largest state-owned oil and gas producer China National Petroleum Corp will build an oil refinery in the province with a projected annual capacity of 10 million tonnes, according to the local government.

China and Burma have agreed to build a €1.9 billion oil-and-gas pipeline, which will ultimately connect the Indian Ocean with southwest China.

It will be 1,100km long and has an estimated annual transport capacity of 22 million tonnes, while the natural gas pipeline has an annual transport capacity of 12 billion cubic metres.

Economic development has come at a cost.

Earlier this month, residents in Kunming took to the streets to protest against a Paraxyline (PX) processing plant planned for the Anning Industrial Park. They were inspired by the success of Xiamen citizens who successfully drove out a PX plant through protests in 2007.

The broader drive, however, to lift Kunming in the national league tables – it is currently in 49th by GDP – is still on.

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