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Scale of Space and Time

The Promise of Gold. Gold and Governance in China’s Borderlands, Then and Now

La promesse de l'or. L'or et la gouvernance dans les régions frontalières de la Chine, hier et aujourd'hui.
La promesa del oro. Oro y gobernanza en las zonas fronterizas de China, antes y ahora
Eveline Bingaman


Eagleback Village is located in Eya Naxi Autonomous Township, deep in the mountains of southern Sichuan Province, an area whose history has been intimately bound up in the search for gold since at least the Ming dynasty. In the People’s Republic of China’s Reform era, efforts to extract Eagleback’s remaining gold resources have been fraught with controversy. Since 1984, reforms allowing individuals to pursue their own economic interests, combined with the difficulty of monitoring gold digging in such a remote area, have created a ‘grey area’ regarding ownership of the valley’s gold resources. A gold rush began when speculators, villagers and township cadres alike began engaging in artisanal and small-scale mining for gold in the hope of being able to participate in China’s growing economy and improve the standard of living of their families. At the county level in the early 2000s, efforts began to act on development and poverty alleviation policies, in particular the ‘Three Connects’ (三通) policy which aimed to connect every settlement in the county with roads, electricity, and water. County officials looking for contractors able to build roads made a deal with a Hunan gold mining multinational corporation (MNC) for mining rights throughout the county. However, when the project reached Eya Naxi Autonomous Township the damage done to the Longda River by the use of large-scale mining equipment led to a civil uprising in which villagers protested, eventually succeeding in bringing the mining to a halt in 2010. This chapter takes a historical approach while drawing on ethnographic fieldwork to present an example of ‘rightful resistance’ that offers a more nuanced understanding than that frequently offered with regard to state–society relations in China.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 All personal names are pseudonyms.

1 After several years cutting through hundreds of kilometres of Muli County’s virgin forest, in late 2009 ‘Boss Ho’ and his mining equipment arrived on the bank of the Longda River a few miles upstream of Eagleback Village in Eya Naxi Autonomous Township, Sichuan Province.1 It was the first road to reach the township; it did not, however, lead to any of the township’s villages or even to the township’s government office. Under the auspices of Muli County’s ‘Three Connects’ policy, this Hunan based multinational company had been promised that this river valley was rich in gold and that it would have a monopoly on rights to mine that gold if it contributed to the expansion of the county’s infrastructure by building roads. What unfolded, however, was a series of cat and mouse disputes with local artisanal miners followed by a full-scale civil uprising that revealed the cracks in the state’s ability to enforce its will on a local population.

2 Since the 1980s, mining and the issues surrounding resource extraction have become an explicit focus of anthropological investigation (Godoy, 1985). In recent decades, as technological advancement intertwines with a rising global demand for precious metals, as Jacka (2018) states we have entered the mineral age of the Anthropocene, in which resource extraction has become an imperative of the global economy. Along with this imperative come the creation of new and the enhancement of old dimensions of state–society relations, particularly in remote areas where state presence has historically been thin at times and non-existent at others. This has reopened questions about how to frame local agency (Lahiri-Dutt, 2018) in economically marginalised communities that are coming into contact with states in new ways.

3 In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), state–society relations have been marked by both ruptures and consistencies as the context of these relations radically shifts as each generation comes of age. As Brandtstädter (2011) points out, since the 1980s the global neo-liberal agenda of the post-Maoist state and the country’s increasing interaction with the global market have created an environment in which the parameters of legal–political citizenship have been recast. Yet for rural residents (i.e. the peasants that constituted the heroes of Mao’s revolution) political citizenship remains ‘rooted in rights to collective resources’ (Brandtstädter, 2011, 266). This is perhaps even more true in areas where state rhetoric surrounding policies and promises of ‘ethnic autonomy’ intersects with geographic divisions.

4This chapter takes a historical approach to gold mining to explore shifting state–society relations in one of China’s borderlands and to examine how the process of domestic colonisation is less straightforward than other dimensions of China’s authoritarian regime might lead one to believe. It reveals two things. The first is that while China may be characterised by a strong state and a weak society (Guo, 2003), this does not mean that the Chinese people are either unsophisticated or unsuccessful in their efforts to take a stand against the state. The second is that the durability of the Chinese state, which has allowed it to withstand such massive political and economic change, seems to come precisely from the diffusion of its authority rather than from a concentration of power among state officials.

5At the same time, the actions taken by Eagleback Naxi in response to ‘Boss Ho’ and his mining efforts are consistent with indigenous responses to mining documented elsewhere. As a community already vulnerable due to its reliance on existing natural resources and its remoteness from economic alternatives, it was mining-caused environmental degradation that inspired this locally unprecedented political action (Martínez-Alier, 2002). Damage done to the river solidified the boundary between villager and township government (which in the past had frequently blurred) and delineated both in opposition to a new entity, the intruding corporation, reflective of the common ‘three-legged’ model of mining stakeholders (Ballard and Banks, 2003; 289). The event lead the community to consolidate its expression of and leverage its indigeneity (Golub, 2014) as a means of justifying both its opposition and its claim. Finally, these events demonstrate the presence of a dialectical relationship (Kirsch, 2014), in this case between community and local government, between society and state.

2. Life on the Periphery of China’s Development

6After decades of policy-induced economic disasters during the Maoist era (Li and Tao Yang, 2005) and massive environmental destruction (Shapiro, 2001), in 1978 there were 250 million Chinese citizens living in abject poverty (Park and Wang, 2001). That year China instituted its ‘Reform and Opening’ policy, carefully shifting the national economy away from the commune system and towards state run capitalism in an effort to deliver much needed development to its suffering population. However, China’s subsequent efforts to economically rebuild itself were carefully rolled out in a piecemeal fashion, from tightly controlled Special Economic Zones, first opened in 1979, to the introduction of the Develop the West campaign of the 1990s. The goal was to introduce radical economic change while maintaining a firm grip on society, testing the waters in order to confirm that economic liberalisation could be achieved without leading to political liberalisation. As a result of geographically controlled reform, at the turn of the new millennium, while residents of the eastern seaboard had settled in to the xiaozi (petty bourgeoisie) indulgences that the new economy provided, populations in the western regions were still living hand-to-mouth existences, even as the dismantling of the commune system had made doing so much easier. For those populations, the message from the state had been that patience should be maintained: ‘Relief is coming; we just haven’t got to you yet’.

7Observers have had dualistic impressions of the impact of China’s form of economic mobilisation. From the economist’s perspective, China’s incredible growth has been nothing short of a ‘miracle’ (Page, 1994) given its remarkable progress through economically unorthodox means (Sylvie, 2001; Riedel, Jin and Gao, 2007; Cai, 2010). From the perspective of environmentalists and human rights advocates, the Chinese state appears to have continued to pursue development at any cost, much of those costs being both human and environmental (Chunli, 2008; Zhang et al., 2012; Fu et al., 2013; Dzonzi-Undi and Li, 2015; Zhao et al., 2015). It also appears incongruous that at the same time China was setting its sights beyond existing borders the nation continued to struggle with a domestic income disparity gap of massive proportions (Li, 2016; Shi, Guo and Sun, 2017; Zhou and Song, 2017). While China’s new rich do not seem to know what to do with their newfound wealth (Osburg, 2013), there is still a large population—including a high percentage of the nation’s ethnic minority populations—who are struggling to gain access the economic opportunities available to their Han counterparts (Barabantseva, 2009; Bhalla and Luo, 2013).

8Eya Naxi Autonomous Township is nestled in the convoluted mountain ranges that break the landscape between the Tibetan and Yun-Gui plateaus in southern Sichuan Province. The township makes up the south-western most corner of Muli County running along the Yunnan–Sichuan border. Eya Township is divided into six administrative villages with a range of settlements varying in size from the largest, Eagleback—with over 230 households—to single-household ‘villages’ (Chinese (hereafter, ‘Ch.’): dujia cun). Most of the settlements are located at around 2,500 meters above sea level; too high for growing rice and too low for raising yaks. There are two agricultural seasons: corn is grown in the summer, wheat in the winter, making up the two main crops. Food is supplemented with vegetable gardens, which each household maintains. Each household also practices animal husbandry, raising chickens, pigs and goats. Horses and oxen are mainly used for labour.

9In addition to being geographically peripheral, under the system of ethnic autonomy operated in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Eya is also politically and administratively marginalised. Eya Naxi Autonomous Township is located within Muli Tibetan Autonomous County, which is in turn located within Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. What autonomy means in this situation is that leadership positions in local governments need to be filled by members of the majority nationality of the area. For Eya, this means that the position of township head (Ch. xiangzhang) needs to be filled by a member of the Naxi nationality. In practice, there are no Naxi from the local community qualified to hold the position, so the township head needs to be recruited from other Naxi communities of Muli County. The rest of the township government reflects the population balance in Muli County as a whole, with a majority of Tibetans, some Yi, and some Han.

10 The Naxi population of Muli, around 4,000 people, makes up only 3.47 per cent of the total population of the county. In turn, the predominant population in Muli, Tibetans, only makes up 1.39 per cent of the population of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. While all of Liangshan Prefecture is struggling to pull its mountain populations out of poverty, this bureaucratic nesting of autonomy places Eya Naxi at the bottom of the list in terms of priority for receiving the benefits of government development policy. This makes a difference that can be demonstrated most starkly by comparing the Eya standard of living with that of the majority of those of Naxi nationality in China, who reside in and around the Lijiang basin, two days to the south in Yunnan Province. In Yunnan Province, Lijiang has long had the administrative level of ‘City’, placing Lijiang Naxi on the same level as Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in terms of power and sway in provincial actions. There have been several important politicians in Yunnan that have hailed from Lijiang, and thus Lijiang Naxi have been successful in having their voices heard. In Yunnan Province, the Naxi nationality is considered a shining example of a minority that has successfully developed to become a part of the PRC’s mainstream (Su, 2013), while Eya Naxi in Sichuan remain largely invisible, hidden beneath politics involving the political sensitivity regarding Tibetans.

11Until 2013 there was no road connecting Eya to outside markets, or even to the county government; all journeys in or out were made by foot or by horse caravan. In 2002 when I made my first trip to Eagleback Village, it took two days on foot to reach from the nearest market town. Reaching the county capital to deal with any kind of bureaucratic or administrative issue, including completing compulsory education, involved a ten-day trek. This was shortened in 2010 to five days when the road connecting Wachang to the county capital was completed. Now—and since 2013 when the road finally reached Eagleback—the county capital of Muli can be reached in a day as long as the roads are passable and not blocked by snow (in winter) or mudslides (in summer).

12Despite these transportation difficulties, this does not mean that Eya has been so isolated as to be left unaware of the changes taking place in the world outside the Longda River valley, nor have Eya Naxi people been exempt from state policies since they were first incorporated into the PRC polity in 1957. These include economic and land reform policies (the collectivisation of agriculture, the Great Leap Forward, and finally de-collectivisation and the establishment of the household responsibility system), political policies (the Cultural Revolution), and policies regarding marriage, divorce and childbirth (from 1981 until recently, as members of an impoverished and rural ethnic minority community, they were subject to a limit of three births per woman).

13Beginning in 1995 a variety of programmes were put in place, changing the population from taxpayers into recipients of various forms of welfare. Through the ‘Reforestation of Fields’ policy (Ch. tuigeng huanlin), which began in 2002, people were given walnut seedlings to reforest land that had been opened for cultivation during the commune era, and now receive an annual stipend for not farming that land until these walnut trees have matured enough to provide an income. They also receive subsidies to purchase ‘improved’ seeds for three kinds of crops, even though only one of the three is grown in Eya. They also receive subsidies for raising sows, and the township government receives an annual welfare subsidy (Ch. dibao), which it can allot to a small number of households.

14 However, these programmes have not been able to keep up with the population’s growing needs. As the rest of China develops, a variety of desirable things have become availablethings that cannot be acquired through trade but only with cash. This is not just store-bought items such as clothing and shoes, pots, pans, washing machines and TVs, but also includes opportunities for education and receiving healthcare.

15A school was built in Eagleback Village in the late 1950s shortly after Muli Tibetan Autonomous County was established by the PRC. There is also a clinic that is able to treat minor illnesses and administer vaccines. Villagers are also active in their own attempts to improve their standard of living. Tired of waiting for the government to provide electricity, in the mid-1990s the residents of Eagleback Village all invested in purchasing and transporting the equipment necessary to build a small hydropower station, and since 1996 have had access (although minimal) to electricity.

16 Over the years that I had been visiting Eagleback, when I asked why no state project had had a noticeable impact on improving standards of living there the answer had always been the same: Eagleback Naxi had remained stuck in poverty because there was no road.

3. The History of Gold in Muli

  • 2 During the Ming dynasty, silver became the main currency, especially when the ‘single whip’ tax sys (...)

17Eya’s history, for at least as long as the Naxi have been here, has been tied up in gold. Towards the end of the Ming dynasty, the power of the Naxi chieftains based in Lijianggranted the surname Mu by the Ming courtwas expanding. The chieftain Mu Yi took on the appellation ‘Heavenly King Mu’ (Ch. Mu Tian Wang) and began expanding his reach up the Chong Tian River in search of gold that could be used to increase his legitimacy within the Tibetan Buddhist political system. It was said that he had a golden sword, and a ‘golden’ dog that helped him find the precious metal. Wherever the dog barked, he ordered his men to dig, and the dog was reputed to be incredibly accurate. At this point in history, gold was not a currency in China but was used as an offering between subjects and rulers, often related to religious legitimacy.2 According to local legend, the gold collected by the Naxi chieftain is said to have been sent to Lhasa, where a golden pillar was built in honour of the Buddha. The more gold was harvested, the higher the pillar was built. Eventually the pillar became too tall, and the chieftain was ordered by Lhasa to make it shorter. According to local custom, this should be done by removing a section from the bottom. He, however, chose to remove a section from the top instead. This action, which angered the Buddha, is said to mark the beginning of the end of the power of the Mu Clan, eventually leading to the decline of Lijiang Naxi Kingdom as a whole.

18 In his expansion north from Lijang to Shuiluo, Mu Yi built several encampments close to rivers, the remnants of many of which can still be seen today. Eagleback is one such encampment, a settlement of Naxi settler-soldiers left behind to guard the point where Jinsha River, the Chongtian River, and the Dongyi River approach one another (Wang, 2008). However, Naxi dominance over the territory lasted less than fifty years. In 1647 Lijiang was conquered, and native chieftains were replaced by circulatory government officials (Ch. gaituguiliu), Lijiang being incorporated into the Qing central bureaucracy (MZZX, 1995, 9). Then, in 1675 control of the territory of Eya was granted to the Buddhist Kingdom of Muli by Lhasa as a reward for faithful service (MZZZD, 2002). From the end of the seventeenth century until Eya was officially ‘liberated’ by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1957, Eya was governed by Muli Monastery. This governance operated through a local Naxi headman, a position inherited by principle of primogeniture by males of the Mugua (木瓜) clan (no relation to the Mu native chieftain based in Lijiang).

3.1 Muli Kingdom Era, 1675–1957

19 While the Mugua clan was the highest authority in Eagleback, it was relatively weak in terms of authority in comparison to Muli’s monk officials. The Mugua had no authority to grant land as all land was officially owned by the head lama of the Muli Kingdom. The Mugua was not allowed to maintain a local army, and was not allowed to tax the local population, other than the nine houses that were officially designated to provide labour to support his rule. Both the Mugua family and all other houses paid tax directly to the Monastery.

20 Under the Muli Kingdom, the local population was governed as a Tibetan style polity. Taxpayer houses were the lowest unit of the bureaucracy and the main unit of property ownership. Part of Muli’s taxation involved the number of days someone from each taxpayer household needed to spend digging for gold each year at various mines around Muli. The Mugua headman organised a rotation of responsibility through the different neighbourhoods so that every household was required to provide a labourer roughly once every three years. If a household had no men available, women would be assigned. Labourers were responsible for providing for all of their own needs—most importantly their food and tools—for their term performing corveé service. A quota was set for how many ounces of gold each individual needed to provide, and when that quota was reached the individual’s service was deemed fulfilled for that occasion and he or she could return home. Often terms of service lasted for between three and six months. Occasionally people were able to steal gold. If caught, the punishment was death, but sometimes workers digging in the depths would find a solid nugget and swallow it before it could be seen by the foremen, recovering it later from their faeces. It could then be secretly sold to travelling tradesmen, who passed through the valley periodically.

  • 3 In the interim, there was a short period during which the Republican Army (1911–49) was present in (...)

21 With the arrival of the PLA, ownership of all of the gold yet to be mined in Eya shifted from the Muli Kingdom to the PRC.3

3.2 Cooperative Era, 1957–84

22 By the time the PLA arrived in Eya, the PRC had already begun carrying out economic reforms in Muli’s Tibetan areas, so Eya was almost immediately collectivised. At the time, there were several communities in the Muli area that rebelled, leading to a series of temple bombings in order to pacify the region (Shakya, 1999). When the Muli Kingdom was overturned and Muli Tibetan Autonomous County was established by the PRC in 1955, the Mugua headman had already been taken to the prefectural capital for ‘re-education’. All accounts confirm that he became a strong advocate for the communist cause, returning only once to hand over all his property to the villagers. When the PLA headed for Eagleback in 1957, he sent word that the villagers should come to meet the army welcoming it with flowers, which they did. Eya was therefore ‘peacefully liberated’ and cooperated with all reforms.

23 This involved the collectivisation of all property into cooperatives. As was the practice throughout the rest of rural China, Eya was organised into production teams, each team led by a team head who had the job of assigning labourers to different tasks. As elsewhere, this move to collectivisation involved a massive change to family structure. During the Muli Kingdom era, taxpayer households were subject to a monk levy that limited the number of sons at home to two per generation (see Bingaman, 2021), keeping birth rates low and families relatively small. The abolition of Muli Monastery’s monk levy combined with Maoist era policies encouraging births led family size to explode during this era as women had six, seven, even ten children.

24 Gold continued to be mined through the cooperative era. The labour for mining was organised by production team heads and overseen by the township’s government. All gold recovered went to the collective—that is, to the state. According to local accounts, the collective essentially maintained the same method of recruiting labour as that used in the Muli Kingdom era—individuals were sent to dig in the mines on a rotation basis for periods of three to six months.

3.3 ‘Household Responsibility’ Policy, 1984–Present

  • 4 Previously, equality was emphasized, so families were discouraged from economic action that would o (...)

25Beginning in 1982, policies allowing for the disbanding of the cooperatives began to be put in place in Muli and by 1984 the land in Eya had been redistributed and allotted to individual households. Under this new system, the household once again became the most basic production unit of a family’s needs and households were encouraged to make efforts to maximise their economies4. Historically the main commodities that needed to be acquired from outside the valley through trade were tea, salt and cloth. By the 1980s, other products became available at the government-run store—cloth and yarn for making clothes and weaving, pots, pans, bowls, and blankets. Then, after Eagleback’s power station was built, there was demand for TVs, refrigerators and lightbulbs. People needed money more and more, yet there were precious few ways of earning cash with which to gain access to all the things that only cash money could acquire.

26 Under the household responsibility system, mining on behalf of the state ceased and individual mining for gold became a grey area of economic opportunity. Technically, all the gold in the ground belonged to the state. Also technically, under the PRC’s system of ethnic autonomy it belonged to the Naxi people of Eya Naxi Autonomous Township. Periodically township governments would get orders to tighten up on ‘illegal’ gold mining, and they would carry out surveys, dropping dynamite down mining pits to close them when they found them. But for the most part it was a free-for-all for whoever had the time and the ability to invest, and a miniature gold rush occurred. As with gold rushes everywhere, more people went bankrupt than actually turned a profit, but ongoing poverty and desperation kept hope in place and kept people heading out to the riverbed.

27 As described in detail below, by the late 2000s every household that had labourers to spare was involved in gold prospecting throughout the winter months. Men would get together in teams of three or four to invest in the equipment that was needed, and try their luck, sharing any profits between them. Some years some would be lucky, making a big enough return on their investment to buy some items for their households; other years they would suffer a loss. Even township officials and teachers who had been assigned to serve in Eagleback were involved in investing and digging for gold as a means of supplementing their meagre salaries. The promise that they might find gold was informally considered as compensation for officials from more connected areas being assigned to such a poor and remote place.

4. The Promise of Gold

28As already stated, after the household responsibility system was put in place in 1984 giving individual households permission to do what they could to maximise their household economic holdings, opportunities to earn cash income were few and far between. The obvious first option—to invest in some kind of cash crop that would turn traditional agriculture into a profit-making activity—was impractical. The main obstacle remained transportation. Nothing that could be produced in the valley carried a market value high enough to offset the price of transporting it via horseback to distant markets. Additionally, during the collective era households had become accustomed to the white rice that had been shipped in at the state’s expense; thus, the majority of households were already importing staples, making them reliant on external markets that they had no means to participate in. Two commodities that did have some potential were the Sichuan peppercorn and a type of orange that is particular to Muli, but transporting these by horseback was at best a means of making up some of the cost incurred on trading trips to buy staples to bring back.

  • 5 The matsutake mushroom market was a very important part of local economies throughout this mountain (...)

29The Longda River, which runs through the township and the surrounding mountains, did, however, offer two things that could be used to generate cash for households that were able to spare labour from normal agricultural activities: gold mining and matsutake mushrooms.5

4.1 Eya’s Gold Industry

30The Longda River Valley runs west to east through Eya Township. The largest settlement is Eagleback, located along the river at its eastern end. The settlement directly upstream is known as Suda Village. It is in the section of the Longda River that flows through Suda that Eya Township’s richest gold reserves are found.

31The relationship between Suda Village and Eagleback is one of convivial rivalry. The two villages have kinship ties between them, but in terms of economic development, Suda Village has been much more fortunate than Eagleback, leading to what is perhaps a reversal of historical relations (in the past the headman of Suda was subordinate to the headman of Eagleback in the Muli Kingdom’s bureaucracy). To begin with, Suda’s population is much smaller, and the majority of each house’s fields are all close by, making agricultural work much easier. The villages’ topographies also grant Suda’s fields two hours more sunlight per day than those of Eagleback, resulting in higher yields. Also, considerably more forest land belongs to Suda Village, which means more reforested land, which brings in government subsidies per household. Lastly, Suda is a full day closer to the market town of Luoji, which was particularly fortuitous at the height of the matsutake mushroom trade. In the Reform era, all these elements have combined to offer the villagers of Suda many more opportunities to improve their economic standing, and these same villagers often brag that even though Eagleback’s population is several times larger, their population on average is much more educated and financially secure.

32When the collectives were disbanded and land redistributed in Suda, the riverbed, and thus gold mining areas, was not included in the redistribution. Still, the community had its own way of staking claims to areas and negotiating for mining rights. People would use paint to mark off the territory they wanted to claim, and such claims were respected by all, including the township government, a few members of which were eager to invest in the claims. Households that did not have the spare labour required to mine sought to attract speculators from outside the valley who would invest in the equipment needed and share in the wealth if any were found.

33Bendi from Eagleback was one such ambitious investor, and he was intent on making a living from means other than agriculture once the household responsibility system had been put in place. Coming from a large family there were already two brothers capable of handling the farm work, releasing Bendi to try to ‘find money’ by whatever means possible. Immediately following de-collectivisation, Bendi borrowed the funds to buy a few horses and started earning money as a transporter in the caravan trade. Then, later in 2003 he got his first job working as a labourer on a small-scale gold mining operation in a neighbouring township. Three years later, in 2006 he recruited three others from Eagleback to invest with him in buying the equipment necessary to set up a mining operation with a friend from Suda who had a claim ready for prospecting.

34The initial investment in equipment was about USD 7,800 (CNY 50,000 by 2022’s exchange rate). The main elements required were a water pump, motors, and diesel to run them. Once the operation was set up, labourers were hired—mostly from Eagleback—at a daily rate, and were paid at the end of the digging season from the profits made from any gold recovered. By 2009 there were three or four such operations going on during the winter months, providing sufficient labouring opportunities for every household in Eagleback that had labourers to spare to get involved.

35Every local working as a labourer knew that this was no means to get rich. For local investors, labourers were contracted on the promise they would be paid at the end of the season when the year’s take was sold, usually to travelling buyers who would visit each year at the end of the dry season. For village investors, every year was a gamble: some years would see a profit, others losses or break-even. For labourers, wages began at around USD 1.50 (CNY 10) per day, and had risen to around USD 7.50 (CNY 50) per day by the time mining operations were closed down in 2010. The best hope for day labourers was that they would be able to earn a bit of cash ‘for tea and salt’, and if they did well perhaps purchase a TV for their family.

5. The Three Connects Policy and the Arrival of ‘Boss Ho’

36In November of 2009 the first road reached Eya Naxi Autonomous Township, but this road did not go to any of the villages, or even lead to the township’s government offices. Rather, it led straight to the riverbed in Suda, just upstream of Eagleback’s power station. Soon, heavy earth-moving equipment arrived along with ‘Boss Ho’, who confronted the heads of the local mining operations announcing that the entire riverbed had been purchased by him and that all local small-scale operations were to stop immediately.

37As surprising as his appearance was, Boss Ho and his mining equipment had not arrived on the banks of the Longda River out of nowhere. His company, a Hunan-based MNC, had been involved in gold mining all across China and as far away as Africa. Several years earlier it had won a contract with Muli County as part of the ‘Connecting Villages’ (Ch. tongcun gonglu) policy. Although unconfirmed, it appears that his ability to underbid his competitors centred on agreements made with the county government that part of the compensation would come from mining rights. By the time he arrived in Eya he already had several mining operations in progress across Muli County.

38When the first confrontation between Boss Ho and villagers occurred, the heads of the local mining operations appealed to the township government. They were told that the government’s hands were tied; this was part of a larger project to bring development to Eya that had begun at the county level, and the township had to cooperate. Still the villagers stood their ground. It is unclear who made initial moves to escalate the dispute, but efforts were made to disable Boss Ho’s equipment, and dynamite was dropped down the pits of each of the local mining operations, damaging the villagers’ equipment beyond repair. The culprits in both of these acts remain ‘unknown’, as no one has claimed responsibility and anyone who knew the truth has remained resolutely tight-lipped. Regarding the dynamite that destroyed the locals’ mining equipment the township office appears to have made no efforts to investigate, which some have taken as an indication of its involvement, or at least its consent.

39It was not, however, until Boss Ho’s digging began in earnest that the conflict transformed from the relatively contained anger of local operators over the loss of their investments into a civil uprising involving the entire community of Eagleback. In comparison with the methods utilised by local mining operations, which left little visible surface impact and did not disturb the river, Boss Ho’s large-scale operation with heavy earth-moving equipment wreaked devastating environmental damage. The first step involved entirely altering the river’s route through the area so that land that was once the riverbed could be accessed for dredging. Then, machines were set up to sift through the silt, dumping the excess back into the river. As a result, the entirety of river water flowing through Eagleback and beyond became fouled and ran completely brown. The water canals running to the small hydroelectric power station that the villagers had built for themselves kept getting clogged with debris, causing wear and tear on the equipment and threatening its continued operation. Irrigation ditches drawing water from the river filled with silt, cutting off the water supply to the fields and livestock, causing a severe drop in production and a rapid spike in livestock deaths. All the fish in the river died. The villagers of Eagleback had no clean water to wash themselves, their food, or their clothing.

Figure 1 Boss Ho’s mining operation

Figure 1 Boss Ho’s mining operation

Source: Author, January 2010.

6. Collective Action

40The damage to the river unified the community of Eagleback and at the same time divided the representatives of the township government. The villagers decided to sue the Muli County government, and with the help of a local advocate a letter stating the villagers’ position was drafted:

We, the Naxi people of Eagleback, Eya Township, wish to sue Muli County for allowing the mining of gold in the Longda River because of the destruction to forest resources and the erosion it has caused, which has severely polluted the Longda River, which we rely on for our livelihood, and for the severe economic losses and destruction to the environment it has brought upon the Naxi people of Eagleback, which has made it impossible for the people to survive.

The mining resources of the Longda River should belong to the state, and be a part of the wealth of the people of Eya Township. If outside prospectors take all of it without compensation, what will we the people of Eya Township use to develop our economy?

We, the Naxi people of Eagleback are grateful to the central party and the government for the ‘Three Connections’ preferential policy (connecting transportation, connecting water, connecting electricity) given to national minorities in the poor mountain areas; however the Naxi people of Eagleback have not only not enjoyed the benefits of these preferential policies, it has made it possible for outside gold miners to steal and destroy national resources […]. (Author’s field notes, August 2015)

41It was also decided to set up a roadblock on the mountaintop where Boss Ho’s road entered the township and to not allow him or any more of his personnel or equipment entry. Every household in Eagleback sent people to camp on the mountain in rotation to guard the barricade; both young and old took their turns over a two-month period. The township government was unable to come to an agreement on how to proceed.

42Finally, county level officials were sent in to resolve the problem. It is unclear which officials from which departments and which authorities were present, but it is clear that both township and county officials were split, some standing with Boss Ho, others in support of the villagers. Finally, the county and township governments decided to withdraw, removing themselves from the negotiating process. Boss Ho was told that to continue his mining, he would need to come to an agreement with the villagers of Eagleback regarding compensation for damage done to the river.

43In the end it was Bendi who was chosen to represent Eagleback in the negotiations with Boss Ho. The villagers demanded an exorbitant amount in compensation, not actually in the belief that they would receive it, but to make their stand. Boss Ho made a counteroffer, to be paid directly to Bendi if he could get the villagers to agree to allow the digging to resume. Bendi replied that he could not carry such a burden in the knowledge that he had betrayed his village. Boss Ho finally threw up his hands and withdrew, claiming that he had previously assumed that the money he had paid to the county to secure mining rights would have been given to the villagers, thus pointing the finger at the county government. In March 2010, Boss Ho engaged a local family in Suda Village to look after his equipment, and departed.

7. Discussion

44Unlike the ‘resigned activism’ observed by Lora-Wainwright (2017), the successful shutting down of Boss Ho’s mining operations on the Longda River through village protests can be considered an example of what O’Brien (1996) and O’Brien and Li (2006) have termed ‘rightful resistance’. Building on prior works by Herbst (1989) and Scott (1990) exploring various forms of popular resistance, O’Brien uses the term ‘rightful resistance’ to describe forms of protest in which groups ‘dispute the legitimacy of certain political authorities and their actions while affirming (indeed relying upon) other authorities and established values to pursue their ends[…]’ (1996, 32). In other words, rightful resisters seek to use the state against the state by ‘us[ing] a regime’s policies and legitimizing myths to justify their defiance’ (1996, 33).

45 In their study of rightful resistance in rural China, O’Brien and Li (2006) show that the rise of instances of this form of resistance indicate a growing fluency in the language of ‘laws, regulations and other authoritative communications’ (2006, 6) and of ‘contractual ways of thinking’ about state–society relations. O’Brien identifies three characteristics of ‘rightful resistance’: it ‘(1) operates near the boundary of an authorized channel, (2) employs rhetoric and commitments of the powerful to curb political or economic power, [and] (3) hinges on locating and exploiting divisions among the powerful’ (O’Brien, 1996, 33).

46In the debates going back and forth between villagers and township officials regarding the actual legality of Boss Ho’s digging, the ‘grey area’ in policy that had previously given villagers and township officials alike the space to seek to create or supplement incomes with gold prospecting became a problem. Villagers cited policy that all natural resources belonged to the state, therefore arguing that the county had no right to sell mining rights to an outsider (and definitely not to a Han individual from Hunan). Township officials countered that according to this logic the villagers’ own digging (and township officials’ digging as well) was likewise illegal. Villagers countered again, arguing that although the Naxi people are also subjects of the Chinese state, Eya is recognised by the state as a Naxi minority autonomous township, and therefore that if any part of the state had a claim on Eya’s natural resources it was the Naxi people. If anyone was going to benefit from these resources, it should be them.

47None of these arguments ended up being particularly persuasive, and the final solution, which followed the county government’s attempts at intervention, was the imposition of a county-wide ban on all gold mining in Muli, whether carried out by locals or by outside prospectors. The idea is that this ban will stay in effect until such a time that the county government is able to oversee environmentally friendly means of extraction and the ‘fair’ distribution of benefit, however that is to be calculated. The ban came into effect almost immediately following the Eagleback incident in 2010, but was not effectively enforced until 2012.

48Secondly, the methods the villagers employed also demonstrated their sophistication in employing state rhetoric to bolster their cause. In the end, the letter that was drafted in preparation for their suing the county government was never submitted to higher authorities; it provides, however, an example of ‘employ[ing] government commitments and established values to persuade concerned elites to support their claims’ (O’Brien, 1996, 32). For example, the passage from the letter cited above is followed by a step-by-step description of how the ‘Three Connects’ promise made to minority populations has been violated by the county government:

Connecting transportation: Eagleback is the largest settlement of Eya Township and is still not connected to a road, but in order to mine for gold the road has already been built through the virgin forest. The gold miners have done this for their own profit, causing major destruction to the virgin forest resources and massive erosion, which has led to the loss of the beautiful scenery on both banks of the Longda River.

Connecting water: The Longda River has always been the mother river that the Naxi people of Eagleback rely on for their livelihood; the river water was originally clear and transparent, and is the water the Naxi people of the whole village use for their daily needs. But because of the pollution caused by gold mining, it is impossible for the Naxi people of Dacun to live.

Connecting electricity: not only do the Naxi people of Eagleback not enjoy the benefits of the national preferential policies for the connecting of electricity, […] because of the erosion caused by gold digging the small electricity station we build ourselves has been severely damaged. (Author’s field notes, August 2015)

49 Finally, there is no doubt that the villagers made full use of the divide between local township officials to build sympathy for their cause. After all, several officials were partner investors in the local mining operations and thus had also had their equipment destroyed. But ethnic divisions also undoubtedly played a role in alliance building. As already mentioned, although Eya is a Naxi autonomous township, the majority of the representatives of the township government, like those of the county government, are Tibetan. However, many Tibetan officials, particularly those who have/had been placed in Eya Township for a number of years, develop deep affections and commitments with regard to their Eagleback Naxi friends, putting them in a position to advocate on behalf of Eagleback Naxi across the ethnic—and particularly the linguistic—divide.

50Much has been made of the resilience of the Chinese state, and particularly of how solidly the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has managed to maintain its authority throughout periods of such incredible social and economic change (Nathan, 2003). The secret to this resilience seems to lie in the particularity of Chinese statecraft, and the character of that statecraft. One common feature of peasant protests in China is that they seem to always be directed at lower levels of bureaucracy, never at the system itself and never at the CCP. The key to understanding this perhaps lies in the institutionalised vagueness of PRC policy, in which ‘policy’ often takes the form of vague slogans such as ‘Harmonious Society’ or ‘Chinese Dream’ or in this case, the ‘Three Connects.’ The incident involving large-scale gold mining in Eya Township can be considered to be a result of the ‘Develop the West’ policy, which was launched in 2000 in an attempt to bring economic reforms to China’s interior and particularly to its ethnic minority populations. Holbig (2004) refers to Develop the West as a ‘soft policy’, emphasising the diffused nature of decision-making with regard to how economic reform is to be carried out. Under this policy, local leaders are under huge pressure to bring about economic growth, with very little guidance as to how this should be done. In this way, it is the lower levels of the PRC bureaucracy (in this case, township and county level governments) that are left making the hard decisions and taking all the risks in their efforts to bring about change. If successful, the individuals involved may enjoy long and illustrious careers. If unsuccessful, they will be the ones to take the fall. What this demonstrates is that the Chinese state is not as ‘authoritarian’ as it seems, or at least not in the top-down manner that is usually imagined.

8. Epilogue

51Looking back today on the incident at Eagleback, although the villagers were not happy to lose their means of scratching out a meagre income from gold mining, all agreed that a ban on any digging in the valley was a fair compromise. In recalling stories of the conflict, particularly the two months of camping on the mountain pass to barricade the road, villagers relived their anger and expressed their pride in their success in standing up for their village’s welfare.

52 Although Boss Ho’s digging had taken place on Suda Village’s territory, the location was downriver from Suda’s water supply, and thus Suda’s villagers were not negatively impacted by the mining. They therefore did not actively take part in the protests or in mounting the barricade. It also appears that some from Suda continued to mine after the county-wide ban was put in place, which remains an issued of unsettled tension between Eagleback and Suda Village.

53Not long after the incident, there was a reshuffling of officials at the township government, and the majority of those who were present at the time of the incident were replaced, being promoted to the county level or reassigned to other townships, or retiring. Current township officials have maintained a stricter distance from the villagers than had previously been the practice.

54By 2013, a road suitable for passenger vehicles had finally reached Eagleback, with motorcycle paths connecting most other villages in the township. Since then—like in so many other rural areas China—seeking work outside the village and sending remittances has emerged as the preferred method of diversifying a household’s economic holdings. As far as paid labour within the village goes, more and more opportunities are arising, usually related to state development projects, which are now in progress, fulfilling the promise of the ‘Three Connects’ policy to bring a reliable electricity supply to all communities.

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1 All personal names are pseudonyms.

2 During the Ming dynasty, silver became the main currency, especially when the ‘single whip’ tax system (yitiao bianfa一條鞭法) came into effect and taxes were to be paid in silver rather than in grain. This had a number of effects, including commercialisation of property, among other things. For more information, see Liu (2010).

3 In the interim, there was a short period during which the Republican Army (1911–49) was present in Muli mining for metals to support the war effort. The presence of the Republic of China did not, however, mark a change in governance in this territory ruled by the Muli theocracy, and all the mining that was carried out by the Republic took place with the permission of, and was also taxed by, Muli.

4 Previously, equality was emphasized, so families were discouraged from economic action that would only benefit their own household and not the whole community. For example, people were not allowed to have household gardens to supplement their family's diets. But after reform, there was no more fear of doing whatever you could to raise your own house's production. People were no longer accused of creating inequality if they produced more than other households.

5 The matsutake mushroom market was a very important part of local economies throughout this mountainous region in the early reform period. Matsutake mushrooms grow wild in only a few places, and for about two decades they fetched an extremely high price in Japan, a phenomenon that connected some of China’s most remote communities to an international market. The Japanese market has since dissipated, and matsutake mushrooms no longer represent the opportunities they once did. For more information on the area’s mushroom industry, see Yeh (2000), Yang et al. (2008) and Arora (2008), and for a global scale view of the mushroom economy, see Tsing (2015).

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 Boss Ho’s mining operation
Credits Source: Author, January 2010.
File image/jpeg, 559k
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Cite this article

Electronic reference

Eveline Bingaman, The Promise of Gold. Gold and Governance in China’s Borderlands, Then and NowInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 15.1 | 2023, Online since 02 May 2023, connection on 06 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Eveline Bingaman

Eveline Bingaman has been conducting field research among Naxi communities in south-west China since 2001. Her research interests include cultural tourism and rural development, and kinship, friendship, and ethnicity studies. Her dissertation focused on Gelug Tibetan monastic governance of non-Tibetan communities and how taxation and monk levy policies impacted the kinship practices and structure of one Naxi community.

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