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Post-Extractivism: Debates and Practices

Logics of Extraction and of the Valorisation of Culture: The Role of Post-extraction Investment in the Creation of Inequality in China

Les logiques d’extraction et de la valorisation de la culture : le rôle de l’investissement post-extraction dans la création d’inégalités en Chine
Lógicas de extracción y de valorización de la cultura: El papel de inversiones post-extracción en la creación de desigualdades en China
Ryan Parsons


What sort of social and economic arrangements are enabled by an extractive economy and its successors? How are patterns of social stratification influenced by these processes? Drawing on ethnographic evidence collected in a tourist destination town in Yunnan that is surrounded by iron mines, I argue that the underlying logics of extractivism persist into the development of a service sector economy (in this case, tourism). The specific case documents economic and social change in a community being reshaped by an emergent cultural tourism industry. New logics of extractivism are motivated by an assumption that peripheral capital is raw and unchanging and exists to be processed, monetised, and consumed by core elites. Even as the makeup of economic sectors change, the national periphery continues to be a site of raw resources to be extracted and valorised by elites and other stakeholders from urban cores. The effect of this extractive tourism industry is to flatten, ossify, and ‘legibilise’ culture in ways that prioritise performance and experience over the agency of local people. The resulting reformation of cultural practice creates new forms of inequality, here marked by gender and ethnicity.

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1. Introduction

1What sort of social and economic arrangements are enabled by an extractive economy and its successors? How are patterns of social stratification influenced by these processes? Drawing on ethnographic evidence collected in a tourist destination town in Yunnan, China, that is surrounded by iron mines, I document how the evolution of state-controlled mining industries enables state capacity expansions that are marked by increasing inequality between core and periphery, increasingly centralised control over local cultural life, and the entanglement of these process within larger national transformations. I approach the role of extractivism in this context starting from the internal colonialism framework as initiated by Clark (1989) and Hechter (1999). Building on past analysis of how subnational development follows an exploitative, colonial trajectory, I ask how the transition out of a primary industry extractivism (in this case, mining) towards a service economy (here marked by ethnic and cultural tourism) carries forward the same logics of extraction. The central thesis of this analysis is that development out of extractivism risks ossifying an orientation towards peripheral economies in which all life in the periphery can be processed and consumed by urban elites. In such a case, rural development becomes halted, delayed, or redirected as development patterns adhere to the interest of urban elites, absentee capitalists, and state power. The extraction that follows can be described as a form of cultural extraction: cultural forms are reduced to easily managed, predictable units for consumption by urban-based tourists who use these brief experiences as a vehicle for making meaning out of their own lives. In order for this venture to succeed, cultural and social development must be arrested and governed to ensure a reliable experience for urban consumers. This ‘arresting’ functions to represent a local culture as pre-modern, authentic, or otherwise uninfluenced by the modernisation and development associated with urban cores. The chapter proceeds as follows. First, I synthesise the relevant literature on internal colonialism and extractivism in order to provide a theoretical foundation for the chapter’s argument. Then I introduce the case and analytic strategies used. Finally, I explore how this argument unfolds in cultural industries in a complex ethnic hierarchy, before concluding with implications for development policy. In particular, I suggest that development policy meant to promote transitions to more equitable economic structures runs the risk of reproducing and entrenching underlying dynamics of inequality.

2. State Formation and Cultural Extractivism

2Extractivism and its entanglement with development processes have been a common concern for social scientists, particularly with regard to cases drawn from Latin America. The present literature review surveys relevant arguments related to extractivism and its critiques, then highlights elements of the internal colonialism literature as a means to extend critique of extractivism to the present case. The literature review suggests two intertwined questions: As local and regional economies transition out of an extractive (primary) economy, how does the underlying ideological orientation that structures extractivism persist? Secondly, how does the conceptual schematic of state formation described in the internal colonialism literature help explain development that facilitates a transition out of extractivism?

3A broad overview of extractivism and its successor ideologies can be found in the introduction to this volume and in Calvão, Archer and Benya (2023). Other writings on extractivism have offered new visions of the relations underpinning extractivism while pushing beyond case studies of tangible, ‘natural’ resources such as ores and rare earth metals. Calvão and Archer (2021), for example, describe how blockchain technologies embedded in mining supply chains create their own forms of social and political value by reinforcing narratives of sustainability. Gago and Mezzadra (2017) use the example of the extractive logic inherent in patents for soya bean seeds—local knowledge is taken and codified in corporate intellectual property, which shifts value away from its source. These authors’ analysis yields an important foundation for an expanded analysis of extractivist structures; the use of the extractivism concept ought to yield insights beyond cases of raw materials and instead should explore the ‘fundament features of the logic of contemporary capitalism’s functioning’ (Gago and Mezzadra, 2017, 577).

2.1 State Formation and the Periphery

4Analysis of the existing literature further builds on the nature of core and periphery development at the subnational level. This configuration of framing and data analyses extends the theoretical literature on internal colonialism as described by Hechter (1999) who envisions the process of internal colonialism as the result of an ‘uneven wave of modernisation over state territory’ that

[…] creates relatively advanced and less advanced groups. As a consequence of this initial fortuitous advantage, there is crystallization of the unequal distribution of resources and power between the two groups. The superordinate group, or core, seeks to stabilize and monopolize its advantages through policies aiming at the institutionalization of the existing stratification system. It attempts to regulate the allocation of social roles such that those roles commonly defined as having high prestige are reserved for its members… [resulting in] a cultural division of labor. (Hechter (1999, 9); emphasis added)

5Though Hechter’s thesis was often discussed during the 1980s and 1990s (and has been less prominent in the literature since), it was rarely thoroughly applied to China. An exception is work by Gladney (1994; 2004), who uses internal colonialism to frame his analyses of media representation of China’s ethnic minorities, particularly Uyghurs. Gladney (2004) argues that representations of minority groups in China are fashioned to assert the homogeneity and superiority of China’s Han ethnic majority group, which makes up more than 90 per cent of China’s population. The present chapter extends this theoretical tradition by more explicitly considering the state’s role in managing symbolic life, and the function of private sector investors in this work. By doing so in connection to an analysis of cultural extraction, the chapter demonstrates how unequal core–periphery relationships persist through economic transformations.

6A theoretical step towards this extension comes from Bourdieu, Wacquant, and Farage’s (1994) analysis of the state’s actions to legitimate itself. Their argument builds on the Weberian notion of the state as the monopolist of legitimate violence by incorporating the state’s control over symbolic violence (and symbolic life more generally):

The state is the culmination of a process of concentration of different species of capital: capital of physical force or instruments of coercion (army, police), economic capital, cultural or (better) informational capital, and symbolic capital. It is this concentration as such which constitutes the state as the holder of a sort of meta-capital granting power over other species of capital and over their holders. (Bourdieu, Wacquant, and Farage’s (1994, 4); emphasis in the original)

7This last point about ‘meta-capital’ is key to the internal colonialism process and its role in transposing one model of extraction from that of raw resources to that of intangible culture. Cultural forms found in the margins of the state precede formal state presence (e.g., the indigenous traditions of the Huayao Dai discussed below long predate the foundation of the contemporary Chinese regime). Successful entrenchment of the centralised state in the supposed periphery requires the ability to define symbolic life as cultural capital that can be exchanged for economic capital, which can then be used elsewhere in the national economy. According to Bourdieu, Wacquant, and Farage (1994), the modern state’s role as a monopolist over the relations between these different capitals has a natural corollary: interpretations of capital’s relative values among the governed—laypersons’ notions of why certain cultural or social practices have a certain value—are subordinated to new official ‘exchange rates’. Thus, as states and regions contend with the relative value of a primary resource (such as iron ore) and an intangible resource (such as the value embedded in cultural tourism), it is the role of the state to decide, informally or explicitly, what the relative value of these things is and how to allocate and redistribute that value.

8Limitations in both of these literatures provide motivation for the present study. The extractivism literature has primarily focused on neo-liberal and capitalist interventions and attempts to counter or reform those interventions. Moreover, prior work has frequently engaged with Latin American case studies in countries that are frequently embroiled in the liberalisation agenda of ‘Washington Consensus’ institutions. Similarly, the internal colonisation framework has overlooked countries outside of the neo-liberal or laissez-faire capitalist sphere of influence. By engaging with a case from contemporary China, this chapter extends analysis in both these traditions to a case in which the state exercises a strong influence over development in an integrated way; the same cadres who determine provincial economic development strategies are also engaged in questions of ideological concern, social development, and international politics (Donaldson, 2011). While corporate and private sector interests are certainly present in contemporary China, they often work in tandem with (or are subordinated to) state interests.

3. Date, Case, and Methods

9This chapter draws on fieldwork conducted in southwest China over the summers of 2016, 2017 and 2018. The primary site is a town I refer to as ‘Red River’—a growing town with close to 10,000 residents. The town is surrounded by smaller villages with populations ranging from a few dozen to several hundred. The region has historically been home to several ethnic groups, chiefly the Huayao branch of the Dai minority. In recent years the town has become a Han majority town, but the surrounding villages are primarily Dai.

3.1 The Huayao Dai of Southwest China

10The Huayao Dai (花腰傣; they also refer to themselves as the Daiya, 傣雅) are a branch of the Dai minority group found in Southeast Asia. The Dai overall number more than 7 million, with the majority (6.3 million) to be found in Myanmar, more than 100,000 in Thailand and Laos, and the remaining 1.1 million in southwest China (Tao, 2003). Though the majority of the Dai people practice Theravada Buddhism, the Huayao Dai are one of the few groups in China that still practice an indigenous religion. Their faith is a blend of animist and pantheistic traditions that are often melded with elements from Buddhists sects and other Chinese folk traditions.

11The religious practices of the Huayao Dai are centred around two roles: the beima and the longtou. The beima, typically an older woman, occupies a position similar to a priest or shaman. Her job is to ensure that the spirits associated with the village are content and settled in their appropriate realm. Typical duties include funerary rights to ensure a smooth transition to the next life; annual exorcisms of each home in the village, which encourage departed family members to return to the appropriate spiritual dwelling; divinations and blessings for villagers’ ad hoc needs; and sacrifices and other rites for the village’s primary gods or spirits. The most important spirits to the Huayao Dai are associated with trees, in particular the banyan tree.

12The longtou occupies a position similar to a deacon in Christian traditions. They are bi-vocational, and husband and wife pairs often serve jointly. The longtou’s primary job is to assist the beima in obligatory rituals such as funerals and exorcisms. Longtous also serve as elders in the village, overseeing the secular affairs of the community (this aspect of their social role has waned in recent years as state governments take hold). There is no prescribed number of beimas and longtous that a village must have; people select into these positions on the basis of personal experiences and divination rituals. For example, most of the beimas discussed in this essay acquired their ability to speak in tongues and enter the spiritual realm after surviving a serious illness or injury during early adulthood. Most of the villages in the Red River area had at least two beimas; the number of longtous varies from one to more than a dozen.

13The town is situated between a range of low, jagged mountains and the Red River, also called the Gasa River, which gives the town its name. While the town is densely populated and packed with multistorey residential and commercial buildings, it is surrounded by a dozen smaller villages that have historically relied on agriculture. Beginning in the mid-2000s, the local government was able to substantially increase its revenues via levies on the profits of mining taking place in the surrounding mountain ranges. Much of this extra tax revenue has been invested in tourist enterprises, particularly nongjiales (rural guest houses that allow tourists to participate in rural life) and performance venues. One of the major attractions each year is the Water Splashing Festival, a holiday that occurs each April in Buddhist Dai communities. The traditional function of the festival is to highlight the commencement of a new year with a ritualistic cleaning of Buddha statues and Buddhist temples, and the festival culminates in a playful, village-wide water fight—modern celebrations often feature water guns and water balloons. Even though the Huayao Dai in Red River are not Buddhist, the local government began promoting the Water Splashing Festival as a means of attracting large numbers of tourists.

3.2 Ethnographic and Analytic Approach

14This chapter draws on fieldwork conducted in Yunnan during 2016, 2017 and 2018. During 2016 I travelled to Red River with a small group of anthropologists based at Yunnan University and stayed in a village that I will refer to as Orchid Valley. I returned in 2017 and 2018. Work in Red River consisted primarily of interviews and participant observation. I observed and occasionally participated in religious rituals in Orchid Valley and nearby villages. I also frequently attended or participated in events designed for tourists: guided tours of nearby mountains, song and dance performances of Huayao Dai mythology, and traditional meals set in tourist restaurants. The ethnographic approach adopted in this research is particularly well suited to a study of the emergent traits of development strategies within national peripheries. This particular case, because of its unique confluence of state, market, and local cultural forces, highlights what Katz (1997, 412) calls the ‘rarely occurring but generally relevant interactional situations’ that offer insight into more general social processes. By extending analysis over a multi-year period and leveraging participant observation in a range of social contexts, the data described here are able to identify key tensions in development processes by tracking how social change aligns with official state narratives.

15Data were also collected through formal, semi-structured interviews with around 40 residents of Red River and surrounding villages. Interviewees were aged 18–85, collectively represented four ethnic groups, and were spread around Red River and a half dozen adjacent villages. While several themes were present in each interview, I followed Small’s (2009) sequential approach to interview design: emergent themes and provoked questions were allowed to influence each future interview inductively. Thus, interview data capture a comprehensive range of salient public issues in the region. Candidates for formal interviews were recruited until the number of new emergent themes diminished significantly. Formal interview data are supplemented by casual conversations with people such as taxi drivers, restaurant staff, and neighbours of my village guesthouse. Data are presented below as excerpts from contemporary field notes or as contextual notes to explore connections to the existing literature.

16Red River’s residents are ensconced in steep mountain ranges and patches of flat land along the banks of the eponymous river, but the wider world is rapidly establishing a foothold in previously remote villages and neighbourhoods. My approach to developing the theoretical argument for this chapter follows the extended case method discussed by Burawoy (1998) and Burawoy et al. (2000). My fieldwork sought to explore Red River across both time and space. In addition to literal explorations of the regions connections to larger cities and the expansion of my fieldwork over three years, conversations also touched on perceptions of the region’s evolution, imagined futures for the region and its families. My ‘hook’ into a larger global process (see Burawoy, 1998) is the penetration of supply chains into Red River and the spectre of outside investors. These nascent supply chains constitute primary industries (mining, bananas, dragon fruit), secondary industries (home construction, paper manufacture), and tertiary industries (the tourism sector).

17The Huayao Dai are one of several sub-branches of the Dai ethnic group, but in this chapter I use the terms Dai and Huayao interchangeably; all Dai who live in Red River are members of the Huayao Dai branch. In the empirical sections below, I present data from field notes and from conversations with participants alongside my own analysis.

4. Transitioning from Extractive Mining to Extractive Tourism

18Bai Taitai is a Huayao Dai woman in her early 30s and an entrepreneur in Orchid Valley—she and her husband, Zhou Laoban, have expanded their home to create space for guests, mostly residents of urban China looking to experience rural life in a nongjiale, or guesthouse (Park, 2014). Their home is large and new, with concrete walls painted a bright off white. The house has six bedrooms: one shared by her, her husband, and her two young children, one for her parents, and four reserved for guests, who pay around USD 7.50 (50 Chinese yuan renminbi (CNY)) per night. A balcony on the second floor overlooks the home’s courtyard and poultry coops, and the roof is flat with ample room to lay out grain to dry in the sun and to sleep under the stars during cool summer nights.

19Bai has a serious demeanour that belies her sharp and dry wit. She oversees a household with four generations of Huayao Dai women—her mother and father live in the bedroom next to hers, her grandmother divides her time between Bai’s home and a neighbouring cousin’s home, and a baby daughter follows her in a plastic walker. Bai’s wardrobe highlights the cultural changes between her mother’s generation and her own—she typically wears a cotton t-shirt, capris, and a sun hat while working in the home’s courtyard alongside her mother, who wears a plain white blouse, a black skirt embroidered with Huayao Dai patterns, and cone-shaped rice hat.

20Her husband, Zhou Laoban, is a muscular Han man from a mountainside village about an hour away. He worked in construction for most of his teens and early twenties, and met Bai Taitai while building houses in Orchid Valley. Now he works intermittently as a demolitions expert in the iron mines that encircle Red River and its satellite villages. The work pays well and he typically only has to work a few hours a day when the mine boss needs something blasted. I ask Bai if she worries about her husband’s safety—‘What good does it do to worry?’ she replies while feeding the baby strips of dried apricot. Bai and I often talked about her life in Orchid Valley and the town of Red River while I lived with her and her family. Mining and the subsidies it enables have transformed the cultural and economic lives of families around Red River. The mines themselves still operate, but are far enough away from villages like Orchid Valley to not upset the idyllic image cultivated by tourism entrepreneurs.

21Scholars of tourism in developing spaces have noted the possibility of functional similarities between extractivism and tourism. In an analysis of the rise of ecotourism in Honduras, Loperena (2017, 621) notes that both ‘entail mostly outward-oriented production, market valorisation of natural and cultural resources, and processes of dispossession in areas with high economic potential’. Each of these dimensions is present in the emerging tourist economy of Red River. Consumption of cultural and ecotourism is marketed heavily to ethnic Han Chinese tourists from urban China and international tourists from Thailand, and the cultural experiences for sale are largely flattened to cohere with the demands of a market economy. Tourism is also fundamentally reshaping the political economy of Red River as villages are marked for either tourist or industrial development and residents face the risk of violent dispossession (Devine and Ojeda, 2017). While some models of post-extractivism tourism (coupled with logics of degrowth and local sovereignty) have successfully evaded these parallels with primary resource extractivism (e.g., Chassagne and Everingham, 2019), the transition to tourism in Red River has been marked by widening inequality at the expense of local indigenous populations.

22I arrived in Orchid Valley for the first time in 2016, the night before a major funeral; the husband of a local beima had just died. The occasion brought in family and friends from nearby counties and townships, many of whom were able to contextualise Red River’s development:

We asked Yang, a distant cousin of the deceased from a neighbouring township, about the outlook for his village and the communities around him. The government of Yunnan had somewhat arbitrarily decided that Red River and its constituent villages would be a centre for Dai-related tourism in the region, while his own village continued to rely on agriculture. The villages connected to Red River township enjoyed generous subsidies from the government. Peasant households rented out their land to banana and rice plantations, guaranteeing a passive income of several thousand [CNY] [several hundred USD] per year. Households who opened bed and breakfasts were also entitled to a [CNY] 10,000 [USD 1,500] […] annual subsidy.

Prospects for men and women my age were still somewhat grim. Yang told us that many young people sought out part time jobs in the [county’s administrative capital], the women as office or clerical workers, and the men at nearby iron mines. The mines are particularly treacherous; Yang tells us that someone dies at a mine every day. Despite the dangers, work at the mines pays well, netting the young Dai men several hundred [CNY] [several dozen USD] per day. The easy cash brings its own challenges; Yang tells us that many young men spend their pay on KTV [karaoke] parlours (which implicitly function as brothels as well) before the next day’s work begin[s]. After they marry, we ask, do Dai men still seek out this type of part time work? Yes, Yang replies; after working there long enough they learn […] to watch for the falling rocks. (Author’s field note, July 2018)

23Yang’s comments about the high death rates in the mines underscore the high toll that extractivism extracts from local populations, as do his comments about the capriciousness of the tourism development plan. The seemingly random distribution of mining risk and tourist fortune reflects the state’s role in facilitating development: the conversion of mining subsides into narrow tourism ventures has been directed by local cultural management cadres. The arbitrary selection of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ could be seen within the Red River area. The town of Red River is surrounded by a dozen smaller villages ranging in size from 100 to 700 households. Each is within walking distance of Red River’s downtown strip, which contains department stores, hotels, and the long-distance bus station. Some, like Orchid Valley, have seen rapid growth in rural accommodation, restaurants, entertainment venues, and other instantiations of the tourism industry. Other villages, however, have been excluded from this growth. A few weeks after my initial visit to Orchid Valley, I visited a peasant farmer named Dao Li on the other side of town in a village called Pingzhai:

Dao Li’s home in the village of Pingzhai, about two kilometres south-southwest of Orchid Valley, has stood for nearly a century. The structure was home to her grandparents, parents, and now to her, her second husband, and her children. Dao Li, a 38-year-old Huayao Dai woman, is now preparing for the home’s demolition. The home shows its age: the walls are exposed brick, the walls dirt, the second floor held up by wooden beams. Parts of the roof over the outer rooms of the house have collapsed, revealing the sunny sky overhead. The village around her home is equally humble; even the chickens are a little rougher around the edges than those in Orchid Valley. Dao is one of the poorest people I have spoken to in China, and perhaps anywhere. She tells us the income she generates from subsistence farming and other source[s] totals around 4,000 [CNY] (just shy of USD 600) per year. (Author’s field note, July 2018)

24Many of the homes in Pingzhai were in a similar condition. While Pingzhai was roughly as far away from downtown Red River as was Orchid Valley, almost none of its households had been able to collect subsidies for rural accommodation offerings or other small businesses. Pingzhai is relatively close to a paper mill—Red River’s only industrial employer—and the odour is pervasive when the winds blow southwest. Pingzhai also lies at the intersection of the roads that lead up to the natural tourism destinations of the mountains—a waterfall, a mountain pass, and several scenic vistas. Ironically, this proximity to these other tourist destinations undercuts Pingzhai’s tourist potential by increasing traffic and undermining its ‘rural’ character. Contrasting families like Bai Taitai’s (from Orchid Valley) and Dao Li’s (in Pingzhai) highlights the inequalities created by the transition to culturally extractive tourism. Bai and her family live in a large, new home and enjoy a consistent passive income from their allotment of farmland and their guesthouse. Dao, by contrast, lost out on these very same opportunities: her farmland allotment was on poor soil and the local government expressed little interest in developing tourism for Pingzhai.

25By and large, the expansion of the tourism industry in Red River funded by iron mining revenues has led to the evolution (rather than the replacement) of the extractivist form of governance. Central to this analysis is recognition that while the type of resources being moved has shifted from iron to culture, the underlying patterns of exploitation inherent in extractivism (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2017) are still present.

5. Ossifying and Flattening Culture

26Bai Dage is an affable restauranter in his mid-30s. He is a heavy drinker, often entertaining guests and luminaries at his village restaurant well into the evening with bottles of baijiu shared in front of a KTV machine. The restaurant consists of a rectangular dining pavilion with waist-high cinderblock walls and a corrugated metal roof; adjacent to the dining room is an open-air kitchen that overlooks a poultry pen containing chickens, geese, ducks, and an occasional turkey. The restaurant sits beside a four-lane road at the top of a gentle terraced hill leading down to Orchid Valley, the village he administers on behalf of the Party. Between the road and dining pavilion Bai has dug a quarter-acre fish pond that provides the staple protein for his restaurant. The fields are dotted with slim papaya trees; in the cool of the morning neighbours let out a water buffalo, which lazily chews through the weeds of a yet-to-be-planted rice paddy.

27I often—on my walks out of the village and into town before the heat of the late morning sun rolled in—found Bai sitting on a stool in the dining area. My route involved a shortcut over a cinderblock retaining wall that divides the fish pond from a stand of dragon fruit vines; at the end of the wall pedestrian guests duck under a young papaya tree and step into the dining room. On a typical late June morning, the shirtless, wiry Bai grimaced and laughed his way through the day’s hangover, looking out through his aviator sunglasses over the dragon fruit vines and rice paddy that took up most of the hill between him and the village. I start my research for the day sitting across from Bai and chat with him about the vegetables he needs to buy at the market today. Over the previous few days I had accompanied Bai on the quick motorcycle taxi ride into Red River, the nearby town, and followed him as he scouted out the best deal for ‘collard greens’, mangos, mint, pork, and whatever else he planned to serve that day. ‘Why don’t I go into town today with your list? I want to practice my Dai’, I offer. Bai laughs gently—I’m not ready yet.

28Bai has done well for himself. He occupies a formal position as leader of his village—a secular, political role that puts him in constant contact with the powers that be in town and, occasionally, in the county government. But he is also heir to the village’s religious authority—his father had previously served as a spiritual leader, but abdicated upon his son’s appointment to avoid any appearance of dynastic aspirations. Bai talked often about faith in the village and what it meant to him, his family, his son—the most concise answer he ever gave on matters of belief was, ‘You don’t believe in it, until you have to’. Parents die and need to be cared for on their journey to the next place, children get sick and the doctor’s medicine does not work fast enough. Bai’s candid acknowledgement of the instrumentality of his faith reflects the need to adopt the ‘modern’ outlook necessary for his secular role while still maintaining a core sense of ethnic identity.

29Bai’s dual sources of authority were not without their tensions, especially when it came time to believe in the local religion. A tragic murder in town was one such time; he told us a story about the magic and politics required to set this right. The following field note retells the story:

After a local beima’s grandson murdered her son-in-law, the people of the village began to experience problems with his ghost bothering them. There’s an additional type of spiritual leader called the yamou, men who provide services similar to Taoist priests (exorcisms, spells, etc.). In his role as village chief, Dage asked a yamou from outside the village—one that is more powerful than the local yamou—to help. The village collectively spent [CNY] 20,000 […] [around USD 2,800] for a ward/spell to settle all of the village’s spiritual affairs at once.

Dage plays an active role in this story [both] because he is […] the formal, elected leader of the village and because he is a bit sceptical about the power that the traditional spiritual leaders have here. He was given the ward in the form of a printed written formula of some sort. The spell would be cast/carried about by one of the village longtous, but the longtou is illiterate so Dage had to practice reading the spell to convey it to him. He recounts the following experience:

He was practicing the spell but did not read it completely. After casually reading parts of it he heard a voice and saw a large spirit—he describes it as some mixture of a large tree and a giant—which told him to turn around. As soon as he did he found himself in the middle of his fishpond. A friend, who had been in the bathroom at the time, came out and found him treading water. (Author’s field note, July 2018)

30This story captures the liminal position Bai finds himself in often—the Communist party leader and son of a priest, anxious about the village’s spiritual health but also about ceding too much control to a magician, finds himself punished by forces he does not understand because he is trying to straddle two worlds. This tension is emblematic of the challenges of participating in culture forms caught up in changing conditions of modernity (van Gennep, 2004), and Bai finds himself navigating collisions of modernisation and culture throughout his community.

31As a concept, culture is, of course, immensely complex both conceptually and practically. Tourists, as consumers of culture, often have narrower expectations in mind. Urry and Larsen (2011, 1119) describe the performance of service in the tourism industry as a ‘bodily performance that needs to please, seduce or entertain, especially visually’. The subsidised cultural industry in Red River ossifies certain cultural practices in time for the enjoyment of tourists from China’s urban cores. The elements of spiritual life that were so integral to the lived experiences of Huayao Dai residents, particularly middle-aged and older residents, were difficult to commodify. Tourists instead prefer to see easily accessible, and unchanging, forms of culture that adhere to prior notions of what minority life looks like on society’s margins (Cohen, 1988; De Haes and Archer, 2017).

32Instead, performances and elements of material culture that are easier to sell take precedence. One impact of this shift is the reification of gender inequalities, particularly in terms of occupational sorting. The streets of downtown Red River’s are punctuated with statues of lithe and colourful young women in traditional Dai garb. The pedestal of each statue bears a short paragraph describing some aspect of Huayao Dai material and performance culture: traditional sewing methods, dances, musical traditions. The village of Orchid Valley has benefited from the construction of a large amphitheatre and outdoor restaurant. Groups of tourists sit at large banquet tables and watch as young Dai women dance to a soundtrack of songs (in Mandarin) that narrate Dai creation myths. The role of gender in stratifying opportunities in the emergent culture industry was made apparent in a conversation with a local cadre in the cultural management bureau. Dao Xiaomei, a native of Red River and a Huayao Dai woman in her early thirties, spoke about the specific opportunities available to young adults in the area:

The conversation continues to focus on the outlook for […] young Dai men and women. Their faith is split between acknowledging the importance of their elder’s faith (which they view as superstition) and a more modern trust in science and contemporary medical practices.

At this point, Dao Xiaomei becomes a more central part of the conversation. She recounts several anecdotal experiences she has had moving between traditional and modern practices when raising her child, and opens the conversation to a broader discussion about discrimination and pride in ethnic identity. It wasn’t long ago, she says, that ethnic minority groups were subject to heavy discrimination. ‘Why aren’t you Han?’ she recalls being asked. Pride in her Dai identity is easier and stronger now, and Dao views a goal of her job to [be to] encourage and protect that pride. She relates how she used to be too embarrassed to wear traditional Dai clothing even outside of her own home; she now wears them to trips to Beijing and Shanghai. The Dai have gained the ability to take pride in traditional embroidery and fashions.

I ask about what men take pride in—and the answer is less clear. The men are more heavily engaged in agriculture, mining, and other heavy labour, and much of their free time (she reminds us) is taken [up] by alcohol. Sexism is apparently a serious issue in the area. This is apparent from what we have inferred about education in Gasa. Though Dao Xiaomei’s Mandarin is articulate and intelligently spoken, very few adult women have been able to speak well enough to communicate with us. It is mostly the men that have received extensive education in Mandarin.

It seems that the economy is the source of this gender stratification and [the] corresponding difference in cultural engagement. Men are enticed by the high incomes offered by mining, construction, and other manual labour sectors; women are more likely to engage in [the] commercialisation of culture, such as dance performance and embroidery work. ‘Culture’ has become synonymous with ‘cultural products’. (Author’s field note, Jun 2017)

33The gendered nature of cultural development was stratified by age; while material and performance culture provided employment opportunities for young women, the shift away from spirituality was impacting a key source of employment and status for older women. The beimas and other traditional religious figures were increasingly marginalised, as tourists exercised an outsize influence on the ways in which culture was performed. Dances and songs could be scripted for an audience; religious rituals could not. Tensions in the gendered nature of cultural development in Red River featured prominently even in official marketing for the region, as evidence by the county government’s English language web page about Red River:

‘Judge a man by the land he farms on, and the girl by the embroidery she makes’, a local saying circulates among the Huayao Dai ethnic people in Xinping County, where most girls at the age of six or seven begin to learn how to stitch.

For Huayao Dai ladies, embroidering has become a way to pursue beauty, a way to perfect themselves and also a way to express what they most likely think romantic.

Dai ethnic communities of [Red River] are such places where you can see young girls getting together here and there, devoting themselves to the years-old hereditary craft. (Yunnan Provincial Tourism Administration, 2018)

34The patterns that Dao Xiaomei noted in reflecting on her own experiences are made explicit by the government’s tourism office: Red River was a place where outsiders could come watch women sew and dance, and leave with fond memories and embroidered souvenirs. The goal of such tourism, beyond economic enrichment and development, was the development and cultivation of urban citizens. Extracting ‘authentic’ experiences from people serves as a means of inspiring new forms of modernity among contemporary urban Chinese residents (Cohen, 1988; Walsh and Swain, 2004).

6. The Creation of Hierarchy

35A final consequence of the transition from natural resource extraction to culture extraction is the impact of externally funded, core-centric development on local hierarchies. Prior sections of this chapter have described examples of the spatial inequalities inherent in this process: certain villages and townships are chosen as tourist centres, leaving others to persist in mining and farming. They have also noted the impact that reshaping and flattening culture has on gender inequality, as women are encouraged to seek employment in hospitality and young men are pressured to move out for work. While earlier analyses of tourism in China suggested that the valorisation of ethnic culture might lessen tensions in contemporary China (e.g. Sofield and Li, 1998), in practice tourism has seen the creation of new types of inequality embedded in the absolute growth of the region.

36This model of development creates new forms of inequality and stratification within and across these spaces as well. Most notable in the case of Red River has been the rise of increasingly crisp and rigid ethnic hierarchies. While Red River has become the national centre of cultural tourism for the Huayao Dai, the Huayao Dai make up only 40 per cent of the area’s population. A significant portion of the population belong to China’s Han ethnic majority. The economic life of downtown Red River is dominated by Han-owned business:

Later a friend and I attempt to do a survey of a ‘typical’ block off the main street by cataloguing the types of business and facts about their proprietors, but our results are pretty mundane. Our site, a block of New Street, contains on one side (from south to north): an Asus dealer[ship] run by Dai, a pig feed store, a water store, a Dai rice store, a closed insurance business, something under construction, an alley of apartments, a fishing store with a group of drunk Huayao Dai men eating outside (they invite me to drink with them; I decline), a convenience store, a closed salon, a small playground, an old house, another old house set to be demolished—拆 [chai, “demolish”] painted on the wall—and a row of closed warehouse type buildings. The other side of the street is less interesting, mostly newer houses and a couple of convenience stores. In short, the flurry of tourist activity in Red River seems concentrated along a few blocks of the main road; once you go back a few blocks (especially away from the river and towards the mountain) there’s much less activity. (Author’s field note, August 2018)

37Similar, albeit subtle, inequities between Dai and Han families are visible at the downtown market that is held every five days. The market occupies a large pavilion covered with a patchwork of corrugated tin roofing. The pavilion is surrounded by small, permanent shopfronts and restaurants. The interior of the pavilion is filled with rows of tables where vendors set up stalls selling meat, vegetables, tofu, and home goods. The perimeter pavement between the rectangle of tables and the shopfronts is littered with mats on which vendors, mostly elderly women, sell mangos and other fruits. An informal survey of the market during late summer suggests that Han migrants occupy favourable positions and sell the most lucrative products:

  • 1 One jin is approximately 500 grams.

A quick census of the interior stalls (that is, the permanent tables) suggests that 10 per cent of the vendors are obviously Dai women (i.e., wearing the hats or have tattoos or stained teeth). We don’t have a good way to identify Dai men, so a generous estimate would suggest that a [quarter] of these vendors are Dai. On the other hand, all of the women selling vegetables and herbs on mats on the surrounding [pavement] are Dai. I buy some bajiao bananas [CNY 2 RMB/jin1], mangos [CNY 4/jin] and a bunch of mint [CNY 2.5] to take back to Bai Dage’s restaurant. The outermost ring of stores are the permanent storefronts that gird the market; these appear to be owned primarily by outsiders. For instance, we walk past stores selling Guizhou and Zhejiang wares; their respective owners say they are migrants. The handful of bricks-and-mortar stores with Dai employees are modest noodle joints. (Author’s field note, July 2018)

38In addition to the Huayao Dai and Han, the Red River area has communities of Hui, Hani, and Yi people. Each of these groups constitutes a minority population in China, which is 95 per cent Han. One consequence of the rapid emergence of a tourist sector devoted explicitly to the Huayao Dai culture is that other ethnic groups have become marginal to the service economy in town. Conversations with members of these groups revealed a certain ambivalence about this feature of local development; they noted that their own attachments to Red River felt contingent or less valid, but they also recognised that opportunities to capitalise on this growth were distinctly limited. Yang Chaode, an Yi man in his 50s, owns a hotel halfway up the mountain between Red River and the mountain range’s natural tourism sites. Despite being born into an Yi family and personally identifying as Yi, the ethnicity marker on his national ID card had recently been changed to ‘Han’. When asked why he had not requested that this error be corrected, he remarked that it was easier to do business in Red River as a legal member of China’s Han majority. Others found that tourists were frequently indifferent to the nuanced differences between ethnic groups in the area, and that it was easier to participate in selling Huayao Dai culture than to try to create a niche marketing a different identity:

There is a small souvenir shop next to the halal restaurant where I took most of my meals during the 2017 phase of my fieldwork. It was a modest storefront, less than 200 square feet with a large door that opened out to the main road running through Red River. Shelves lined both side walls and were stocked with dried tea leaves, red sugar, rice paddy eel traps woven from reeds, and small earthenware cups and tea pots made in one of the surrounding villages. The narrow back wall of the store had a large desk and computer where the proprietor of the store, Bai Yi, spent much of the day playing games. Bai is a Hani woman in her early 40s. She married into the village after growing up in […] Sandy Crest, the next town over. Despite being Hani, all of the wares she sold were associated with Huayao Dai culture. We ask why she—or anyone—isn’t selling souvenirs associated with Hani culture, to which she responds that no one is interested in the Hani here, local tourism is built on the Dai. (Author’s field note, July 2018)

39Entrepreneurs among the Dai community noticed these divisions as well. Dao Shifu, a Dai man in his late 50s, made his living as a pedicab driver. Red River is too small for bus routes or even automobile taxis, so most people get around by walking, driving electric scooters, or by riding in small trailers pulled by motorcycles. Dao lives in a village close to Orchid Valley close to the Yi communities higher up in the mountains. He notes that much of the inequality between different ethnic groups is fundamentally a question of land quality; when everyone in the region was subsistence farming, standards of living were comparable across groups. However, much of the farmland in the valley areas has been consolidated into plantations and leased out, turning the land into a source of passive income:

  • 2 A Chinese unit of area measurement equivalent to approximately 0.066 hectares.

We talk about Qizu. The village is a mixture of Dai and Han; other groups live further up the mountain. He’s lived here is whole life and has several daughters who have married and left the village. We talk a little about land distribution—‘the Yi have the bad land with no water, the Dai and the Han have the good land’. He gets about […] [CNY 1,000] per year for each of his 10 mu2 of land from the government; they’ve planted bamboo on his land to prevent erosion. The village of Qizu isn’t slated to move down the mountain, perhaps because it’s accessible by road and there isn’t a risk of landslides here. Dao Shifu seems to know little about China outside of this region—he hasn’t heard of several Eastern provinces and is amazed that my home state [the US state of Mississippi] is very flat—‘This sounds like good land’. (Author’s field note, July 2017)

40In short, development in Red River had meant change; the flood of outside investment has raised living standards in obvious ways. The highways connecting Red River to the provincial capital, Kunming, have improved every year, and the town now has a modern hospital. However, this development has created forms of inequality that were neither necessary nor expected by the locals hoping to participate in this growth. Inequality among the region’s diverse ethnic groups has been especially marked; the Han majority has occupied much of the new, semi-urban growth area in the town centre, while the Huayao Dai have enjoyed subsidies to build accommodation offerings in the surrounding villages. The Yi, Hui, and Hani, especially those living in more remote mountain villages, have been marginalised or ignored.

41Inequalities along categorical lines like ethnicity serve important purposes; creating and entrenching gender, ethnic, and other categorical divides provides a means by which urban elites can consolidate (and hoard) opportunities and function as gatekeepers (Tilly, 1999). This growing ethnic and racial inequality is a noted feature of internal colonialism-style development (Hechter, 1999), but the increased complexity of Red River’s ethnic dynamics and the valorisation of certain cultural practices have made this inequality a pronounced feature of post-extraction development as well. Indeed, this pattern, in which a single ethnic group is chosen as the ‘winner’ of a development agenda, is common throughout Yunnan (Kolås, 2004; Sofield and Li, 1988). This repositioning and solidification of the ethnic hierarchy further serves the purpose of reinforcing Han supremacy in China’s ethnic landscape (Gladney, 1994; 2004).

7. Discussion and Conclusion

42The emerging tourist sector in Red River displays many of the relational and ideological features of natural resource extractivism. Both eras of the region’s recent development trajectory are marked by a core–periphery dynamic reminiscent of internal colonial models of national development and state formation, both in their orientation towards resource extraction and in their treatment of ethnic and racial inequality. Culture—namely, the performable and commodifiable dimensions of culture—is viewed as an unprocessed resource ready for consumption by Han ethnic majority tourists, who in turn return to China’s urban cores enriched and refreshed. The success of such a tourist industry requires that the culture to be extracted remain consumable, predictable, and legible. As a strong, core-centric state acts to create such an industry, the relevant dimensions of culture become flattened and ossified. The process further creates new forms of inequality; differential opportunities emerge along gender and ethnic boundaries. The net result is that while rural spaces experience economic development—Red River has grown and absolute standards of living have risen—underlying structural relationships are largely unchanged from an era marked by reliance on iron extraction. Economic life is directed by powerful, external actors, and sources of wealth in Red River are conceptualised as unprocessed, natural resources that attain value as they leave the region. The fieldwork used in this study, spread out over a three-year period, highlights the trajectory that these developments follow. In this case, that has meant growing opportunities for Han ‘in-migrants’, the professionalisation and standardisation of tourist states, and continued marginalisation of ethnic groups other than the Huayao Dai. The tendency towards ossified or new forms of inequality is not, however, indicative of a complete lack of agency on the part of minoritised or subaltern groups. The growth of a tourism industry has allowed for entrepreneurship, employment in better-paying service sector positions, and other opportunities that lead to higher absolute standards of living. Grappling with the tension between development and widening relative inequality in post-extractive tourist spaces will be an important concern for future work.

43This case suggests several implications for development policy and development studies. A central concern is the role of transitions out of extractivism in creating, solidifying, and legitimising new forms of inequality. These new forms of inequality point to one embodiment of extraction’s afterlife—Gasa is not a post-extractivist economy per se because the emergence of tourism in the region has simply reshaped extractivist logic and allowed it to continue. In situations where powerful state or private sector actors have the capacity to finance and develop a new service industry ex nihilo, the relations embedded in that new industry are likely to reproduce early social patterns: the periphery remains peripheral and stuck in place. Specific policy solutions will be highly context dependent and will require adapting to local state capacity and interests, but in general multinational organisations investing in tourism or cultural development should ensure broad stakeholder participation in planning for transitions out of extractive economies. This case also extends discussions around (post-)extractivism beyond Latin American and other sites seen as especially vulnerable to international financial institutions and neo-liberal policy agendas. While analysis of the specific architectures of development in contemporary China is beyond the scope of this chapter, the Chinese context is certainly far different from cases marked by International Monetary Fund and World Bank intervention. This chapter highlights the need for further work on the near futures of rural development in China, particularly in ethnic minority communities and regions marked by primary resource extraction. The chapter has approached these questions from an ethnographic, grassroots perspective; future work should assess official discourses around development in China.

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1 One jin is approximately 500 grams.

2 A Chinese unit of area measurement equivalent to approximately 0.066 hectares.

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Electronic reference

Ryan Parsons, Logics of Extraction and of the Valorisation of Culture: The Role of Post-extraction Investment in the Creation of Inequality in ChinaInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 16 | 2023, Online since 12 June 2023, connection on 28 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan Parsons is an assistant professor of sociology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. His research explores linkages between geographic and social mobility, ethnic stratification, rural development, and inequality in a range of national and subnational contexts. He holds a PhD in sociology and social policy from Princeton University.

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