通道 tongdao

passage, passageway, channel

Trail at the Yunnan-Myanmar border through which goods are traded and smuggled between the two countries. An illicit “tongdao” as described by Tengchong officials. Photo by Alessandro Rippa, 2016.

keywords for infrastructure and media

by Alessandro Rippa

posted July 22, 2019

Over the past few years I have been spending quite some time in the Chinese border town of Tengchong, Yunnan Province, located only a short drive from Myanmar’s Kachin State. I have been working, for the most part, on issues of infrastructure development in connection to informal cross-border trade in amber, jade, and timber. As part of this research I recorded several interviews with local merchants and Tengchong officials, detailing the history of cross-border trade in the area since the 1990s. Upon writing up and coding these interviews, one word kept coming up: tongdao 通道, which usually translates as passage, passageway, or channel.

What surprised me was not the use of the word per se. Upon talking with Party officials about trans-national trade and new roads the word tongdao is likely to be heard. In fact, I was well aware at the time that the term is often used in academic contexts to refer to particular trade routes and channels of exchange. One frequently mentioned in the context of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI,  yidaiyilu 一带一路) is the Silk Road (sichouzhilu 丝绸之路) as a particular kind of “exchange passage” (jiaoliu tongdao 交流通道).

For instance, at a conference on “Silk Road and Urban Development in Western China” that I attended at Shaanxi Normal University, in the city of Xi’an, in the summer of 2016, virtually every paper delivered by a Chinese academic referred at some point to tongdao in order to describe either the old, “traditional” Silk Road, or Xi Jinping’s plan to revive it through the BRI (which, back then, was still rendered in English as “One Belt, One Road,” or “OBOR”). I still remember that, at some point during the conference, the word was so frequently mentioned that I opened my dictionary app to check if tongdao had some particular meaning I was not aware of. Yet all that the dictionary could offer was in line with what I remembered: “thoroughfare; passageway; passage; (communication) channel.” Was its use on the rise, and was it for some specific reason, semantic or political?

In the weeks and months to come I kept my eyes open for references to the word tongdao in the Chinese press – and I started to see it appear rather frequently, always in connection with the BRI. A quick search on the popular Baidu search engine for “一带一路通道 (One Belt One Road tongdao),” for instance, provided over 76 million results (as of June 2019), with many government-run webpages figuring prominently on the list. The result is particularly interesting if compared with that of another expression that, in the western press at least, has been given much more attention: “corridor,” or “economic corridor,” which in Chinese translates as “zoulang (走廊)” or “jingji zoulang (经济走廊).” A Baidu search for “一带一路走廊 (One Belt One Road corridor)” does, at the time of writing (June 2019), provide “only” 15 million hits. The same search in October 2017 yielded the following results: 13 million hits for 一带一路通道 and 5 million hits for 一带一路走廊 5 millions. A lot had been written about tongado over the past two years.

Tim Oakes suggested another usage of the word in the context of Guizhou, that of “tongdao wenhua 通道文化”, or “tongdao culture.” As he elaborated, according to Guizhou scholars, the province has traditionally been characterized by multiple influences and by its particular role as passage for different cultural and political institutions. In particular, after running through various military campaigns and forced openings foisted upon the region over centuries – all of which confirmed the strategic centrality of what might otherwise be thought of as marginal territory – scholars began to conclude that if Guizhou has a cultural identity at all, it must be a tongdao wenhua:  “The most revealing feature of this culture is that it is unfixed; it is dynamic. Cultures from all over have mixed here throughout history. All have left their mark like layers of sediment. But none have created their own full economic system, none have emerged into a core regional culture” (Long 2003: 144, translated by Tim Oakes).

Kunming Airport. Photo by Tim Oakes, 2019.

Other usages of the word tongdao that are somewhat in line with the idea of “passage” and “channel” highlighted above can be found in mundane spaces, such as airports and train stations, where tongdao indicates fast routes through security. Rather than a passage of exchange, in this context tongdao identifies a smooth connection that avoids friction. It also, implicitly, sorts people into different categories and ascribes different mobilities to them. At Kunming airport, for instance, the sign “yidaiyilu tongdao (一带一路通道),” or Belt and Road tongdao, marks the lane for non-Chinese citizens at passport control.

Darren Byler, an expert on securitization and technology in Xinjiang, pointed to yet another usage of the word tongdao in the context of security checkpoints in Xinjiang. A Shenzhen-based company is even advertising a state-of-the-art security gate with the name “Xinjiang tongdao.” Here the idea of a “frictionless” passage of exchange seems brought to a paradoxical end: rather than allowing “free” movement, tongdao becomes a technology of surveillance which slows down particular flows, rather than enabling them. Still, it evokes a very material image of a channel — something through which people need to get beyond in order to reach a particular destination. 

This was not, however, the way in which tongdao was used in the course of my interviews in Tengchong in 2017 and 2018. Tongdao, here, was not used to describe the grand vision of trans-continental economic passageways, but rather to indicate the persisting routes of illicit traffic that crisscross the Yunnan-Myanmar borderlands. Tongdao, more specifically, was used to indicate something that was unregulated. It referred to something that could not be brought under any established regulatory framework due to the very topography of the area, its thick vegetation, and the number of settlements in close proximity to the border: such tongdao, crossing this particular terrain, could not be possibly controlled.

As a local official put it while discussing transiting through one of Tengchong’s main official border crossings (kou’an 口岸): “people can go through the kou’an, but all around there are many tongdao, where nobody checks anything.”

The word tongdao thus seems to cut across some of the ambiguities surrounding what divides the legal from the illegal, the licit from the illicit, and the moral from the immoral. It indicates both a narrow way that channelizes and monitors movement (as in the “Xinjiang tongdao” and the airport fast lanes). But, as it was used in Tengchong, tongdao also captures multi-directional movement, a space through which different people move in different directions. In the context of Guizhou, tongdao wenhua hints precisely at this dynamism underpinning the irreducibility of Guizhou identity to any specific tradition.

In the era of the Belt and Road Initiative, and also of facial recognition technology and prison camps in Xinjiang, tongdao and its multiple usages represent a firm reminder that connections are continuously made and unmade, that connectivity is not available to everyone, and that any passage can easily turn into a chokepoint. Tongdao, in this regard, might be an apt way to capture the spirit and the bumpiness of China’s new Silk Road.


龙 志毅 Long Zhiyi, ed., 叩响贵州历史之门:纪念贵州建省590周年 Kouxiang Guizhou Lishi zhi Men: Jinian Guizhou Jiansheng 590 Zhounian [Knocking on the Door of Guizhou History: Commemorating the 590th Anniversary of the Founding of Guizhou Province] (Guiyang: Guizhou Renmin Chubanshe, 2003).

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