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    Twilight on the Mekong

    Chinese cargo shippers once dominated Southeast Asia’s rivers. Can they find their way back?

    Zhang Desheng was stuck — again.

    The owner of a 350-ton cargo ship, Zhang has spent the last 22 years moving goods up and down the Mekong River from the southwestern Yunnan province in China to Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, and back again. As recently as 2014, orders were plentiful enough that he might make the round trip several times a month; beginning in 2015, however, he noticed a sharp drop in demand. Now he says he’s lucky if he receives a handful a year.

    Last fall, one of those jobs took him to the small port town of Chiang Saen in northern Thailand. There, he unloaded his cargo and got in line behind more than a dozen other large Chinese cargo ships in town, all waiting for their next order.

    Such delays are simply a part of life for the dwindling number of Chinese ship captains on Southeast Asia’s largest river. They and their crews pass these lengthy port calls gambling, often playing mahjong all day and deep into the night. There simply isn’t anything else to do.

    After the construction of new cross-border road and rail networks connecting China with the rest of the region, demand for cargo shipping along the Mekong fell sharply. While some hope for a return to the boom years of the 2000s — when the river offered a rare and extremely lucrative alternative to a migrant’s life toiling in factories along China’s coast — most seem resigned to its decline. For Zhang and his peers, the question isn’t whether they can turn their fortunes around, but whether they should jump ship before it’s too late.

    A rising tide

    Boats are typically not the first thing that come to mind when one thinks of the highlands of Southeast Asia. But rivers like the Mekong, the Salween (known in China as the Nu), and their tributaries have connected communities across the region since long before the emergence of today’s national borders.

    It wasn’t until the early 1990s, however, that large modern cargo ships appeared upstream. Following the end of the Cold War, the four countries along the river’s upper reaches — China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand — began exploring new avenues of economic cooperation. At the time, there was little in the way of road or rail infrastructure in the region, but water transport was convenient and cheap, and the river soon became the preferred route for international trade.

    In 2000, representatives from the four countries signed an agreement officially designating a 703-kilometer section of the Mekong from Simao Port in China to Luang Prabang in Laos open to commercial shipping. Fruit and vegetables, such as apples, garlic, and potatoes, as well as clothing, daily necessities, machinery, electrical equipment, and building materials, were exported from China to Southeast Asia along the river, while dried longan fruit, oil, rubber, timber, and minerals traveled in the opposite direction.

    This booming cross-border trade soon attracted experienced boat hands from the upper reaches of the Yangtze River Basin to relocate to Yunnan. The new arrivals had experience navigating rivers in mountainous areas, most having learned the ropes from their fathers or at maritime schools. Qualified sailors and crew members were snapped up by state-owned shipping companies in border prefectures like Simao or Xishuangbanna, and they eventually brought their families and fellow villagers to join them. Although most of these latecomers arrived without the skills to work onboard ships, they found jobs as dock workers or sailors before slowly moving up the chain to become captains or shipowners in their own right.

    As early as 2000, captains and first officers working on the Mekong River could earn between 3,000 and 5,000 yuan (then between $360 and $600) in salary and commissions — significantly higher than the salaries of teachers and civil servants at the time and more than double what they would have made working on the Yangtze River. Xiao Ai, a first mate from the mountains around Xuanwei in northern Yunnan province, relocated to Kunming after middle school and took a job working construction. In 2001, when he was 18 years old, his cousin convinced him to try his luck at Jinghong Port, near the border between Yunnan and Myanmar, where he found work loading and unloading goods. Eventually he became a sailor and started earning much more than he had on construction sites.

    “The basic monthly wage at that time was 500 yuan,” Xiao explained. “The chief mate helped me get 600 yuan, and later, I got more than 700 yuan, plus commissions. We only got 14 or 15 yuan a day pouring concrete in Kunming (Yunnan’s provincial capital).”

    “Little Hong Kong” on the Mekong

    Guanlei is the first port of call for most northbound ships entering China from the Mekong. Located right on the border, this once sleepy village was transformed into a bustling port town beginning in the early 1990s. In 2001, work on a new concrete pier was started, and by 2005 it had largely supplanted Jinghong as the primary shipping hub for China’s Mekong trade.

    Trade along the river grew rapidly over the course of the 2000s, with cargo ships making constant journeys up and down its waterways. The shipping boom was good to Guanlei; residents remember lines of trucks stretching for miles outside the port as cargo owners anxiously searched for boats to transport their goods to Thailand.

    “Guanlei Port used to be a bustling place, like a little Hong Kong,” said Ai Guang, an ethnic Dai businessman who grew up in the town. “The streets would be empty during the day but absolutely packed at night.”

    Ai’s strongest memories of those years are of the smell: “So many longan fruits and apples were being shipped that the fragrance covered the whole of Guanlei. The roads weren’t great, and the goods would be stuck in the port for days. The smell was amazing.”

    Beginning in the 2010s, shipping along the Mekong declined in favor of new overland routes. In 2013, the Kunming-Bangkok Expressway opened, dealing a major blow to boat traffic. Cargo being transported by water needs to be loaded and unloaded at least six times — onto and then off of trucks, then ships and trucks again — resulting in relatively high costs for shippers.

    After the expressway connecting Kunming and Bangkok opened, fruit, vegetables, and other fragile goods moved to the overland route, which was two to three times faster than shipping by boat. In 2016, Mohan Port, where the expressway crosses out of Yunnan and into Laos and Thailand, saw 2.77 million tons of goods pass through its checkpoints, almost 30 times the volume of Guanlei Port, which handled 97,300 tons.

    At present, the primary goods still being shipped by water are heavy construction materials and large machinery for Myanmar and Laos, as well as some basic dry goods. One Chinese official told me in 2021 that cargo traffic through Guanlei Port had decreased sharply in recent years.

    For southwest China’s highly leveraged shipowners, many of whom had upgraded to larger ships just before the boom’s collapse, the consequences of this reduced volume have been disastrous. Cargo ships operating on the Mekong today range from 350 to 500 tons, meaning they’re nearly five times larger than their turn-of-the-millennium counterparts. A single ship can cost upward of 1 million yuan. As orders fell, the turnaround time — time spent in port waiting to load or unload orders — rose, leaving shipowners like Zhang Desheng idle. To cut costs, shipowners now hire fewer crew members, and it’s become standard practice for ships to be undermanned.

    Compounding the issue, Chinese-operated cargo ships face growing competition from across the border in Laos. Following the “Mekong River Massacre” in 2011, in which two Chinese cargo ships were attacked on the Mekong, and all 13 of their crew killed and their bodies dumped in the river, all Chinese cargo ships were barred from the Mekong for months. This left Lao ships as the only option, despite shippers’ concerns about their poor safety records.

    Ships from Laos are generally small, slender, low-cost vessels that offer cheap shipping prices and make a profit on smaller orders, reducing turnaround times — all of which insulates their owners from some of the problems facing their Chinese counterparts.

    These traits also allow them to venture further up the Mekong than larger ships. An official with China’s maritime regulator who has visited shipyards in Laos explained to me that the number of Lao cargo ships increased from around a dozen to more than 400 between 2011 and 2017. “At its peak, Lao shippers were going down the river and towing back tourist boats, removing the seats, and using them to transport cargo,” he said.

    Shifting currents

    Given the industry’s decline, it’s perhaps not surprising that many captains and shipowners have resigned themselves to irrelevance. “In the past, whenever a ship arrived in Thailand, the cargo owner would treat the captain well and show him a good time,” said one captain I interviewed. “Now, they act like we’re nothing.”

    These attitudes have trickled down to the crew. In the past, new crew members could expect to learn how to operate their boats before moving up the ranks to first mate, then captain, and finally shipowner. That dream now seems increasingly remote.

    Zhang, the captain, says that young people from the nearby provinces of Sichuan and Guizhou have stopped coming to the Mekong in search of work. The few young first mates left are all second-generation boatsmen following in their fathers’ footsteps; the rest of the crews are drawn from aging locals.

    The young people who remain want to find other work, but feel apprehensive about leaving the only career they’ve ever had. When I first asked Liu Zhengyang, a 31-year-old first mate, what kept him in the industry, he said his job was too good to quit, even if the future seemed bleak. “It’s complacency and not wanting to change; they’re the most important reasons,” he said. “If I left the ships, I don’t know what I’d do. Working on a ship, I can easily get 8,000 or 9,000 yuan (a month). If I went ashore, what could I do to earn 8,000 or 9,000 yuan? I don’t have much education, and I’m not well-spoken. Working on a construction site, that’s 400 or 500 yuan a day — I can’t do it, it’s too tiring. I also can’t work in an office. All I can do is muddle along on the river.”

    The boatsmen’s earning power rarely translates into financial stability. Few crew members are able to save money. Their relationships with family are often distant due to the long stints they spend away from home; their only participation in family affairs may come through sending money home and phone calls. Living within small groups for such a long time and being far from home, crew members often aren’t up to date on the latest goings-on, and some struggle to adapt to life “on shore.”

    It was the suspension of shipping brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic that finally forced the issue for many of the captains and crewmembers I interviewed. Over the past few years, at least five or six of Zhang’s acquaintances have decided to leave the shipping industry. One experienced captain went to work in the hydropower-rich Jinsha River basin; another young captain now runs a speedboat for a major Chinese-backed company in Laos.

    Others have gotten jobs in the transportation or construction industries. During the pandemic, Liu Zhengyang worked as a security guard looking after two of his boss’s ships, which earned him 3,000 yuan ($420) a month. He explained that his boss had promoted him to first mate, so he felt obliged to stay. After the shipping resumed, however, he decided to leave and took a job at an electronics factory a few months later in his hometown in Sichuan. While he wasn’t used to life on the factory floor, he felt he had to try and fit in in order to make a living.

    In 2005, when shipping was at its most prosperous, there were more than 1,000 crew members and over 100 registered cargo ships operating in the Mekong region. Last year, an official with the Guanlei Maritime Safety Administration told me that only 150 to 200 Chinese crew are based in Guanlei Port. Their prospects were bolstered when, in 2023, a local customs agency helped arrange a shipment of engineering and construction equipment by river for clean energy projects in Myanmar. Last October, 50 domestically produced new energy vehicles were exported to Myanmar by ship, marking the first time they had left China along the Mekong. These developments have helped restore the confidence of shipowners, crews, and cargo owners, but it remains unclear to what extent Chinese shipping can truly recover along the river.

    For his part, Zhang plans to stick it out. During the pandemic, he spent three years separated from his family, and he cannot imagine life ashore. “I worked in Xishuangbanna for 17 years, made some money, and then invested several hundred thousand yuan here,” he said. “Having to give up my boat would be the death of me.”

    To protect the identities of her research participants, the author has given them all pseudonyms. 

    Translator: David Ball; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen; editor: Cai Yiwen.

    (Header image: Ships sail along the Mekong River, 2018. Courtesy of the author)