Myanmar soldiers patrol the capital of Kokang in 2015. (AFP)
Kokang. It is a place that most people have never heard of. It is a remote and hilly region bordering China’s Yunnan Province in the restless war-ridden corners of impoverished Myanmar’s northeastern Shan state, a state ruled by ruthless warlords that once produced the world’s best heroin and is still known for its Wild West style drugs, gambling and prostitution.
And yet an important demographic detail lies in this region of 2600 square kilometers. Kokang has an ethnic Han Chinese majority which is the most fecund and fastest growing ethnic Chinese population in the entire world. In fact, Kokang’s birth rates are on par with parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
If you visit Kokang, you feel as if you are in rural China. Most road and shop signages are in Chinese only; people speak Southwestern Mandarin, a dialect similar to Yunnanese; the mobile signal only comes from Chinese telecommunications companies; even the currency of choice is the Chinese RMB. The Burmese kyat is nowhere to be found and cannot be used.
Ethnic Kokang make up 86 percent of the region’s population, which at the 2014 Myanmar Census, conducted with UNPD assistance, stood at 154,912 people. Unlike other Burmese Chinese sub-groups, the Kokang are officially recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups and have representation in the Union’s parliament in faraway Naypyidaw. Schools in Kokang teach in both the Kokang language and Burmese. Many directly employ teachers from China, with or without permits.
So why is Kokang in Southeast Asian Myanmar a haven for fertile ethnically East Asian Chinese people? The history of the place goes back to the early 1600s, when the Ming Dynasty came to an end and China’s majority Han Chinese suddenly became subject to minority Manchu rule. Ming royalties in the south of China successively formed little dynasties of their own but one by one these political forces fell to the marching Qing army. Collectively, they are known as the Southern Ming dynasty.
In 1662 the last Emperor of the Southern Ming Dynasty, Yongli, realized that the only non-conquered place free of the Manchu was the remote corners of Yunnan Province in China’s mountainous Southwest. But even that safe haven could not last and Yongli ended up seeking refuge in what is now Myanmar, which the Manchus did not initially seek to conquer. Yongli did not manage to avoid his fate; the Burmese returned him to the Qing generals who executed him.
And thus the Han Chinese people who loyally followed Emperor Yongli became the forefathers of modern-day ethnic Kokang people. They settled in the region and due to its remoteness, enjoyed self-rule under the local土司， or tribal chief, the Yang family. The reign of the Yangs lasted more than 200 years, even after 1897 when Britain annexed Kokang from the Qing dynasty as part of its formation of its British Burma colony. Kokang became permanently separate from China and the Yang family became British subjects and officials.
That was only the start of Kokang’s history of turmoil. Following World War II, the Yangs lost their power to Luo Hsing-han, a Kokang, who became one of Southeast Asia’s biggest drug lords. Poppy fields popped up everywhere in Kokang, and it was churning out heroin literally on an industrial scale.
In 1969 with the help of the Chinese Communists, a Communist Party of Burma faction under the command of Peng Jiasheng took over the region. Peng would go on to denounce Communism, embrace the gambling industry as the alternative to poppy fields and rule the region with an iron fist until 2009, when the Burmese Army stormed the region.
Peng did not go down without a fight. He fled to China, and in 2015 he came back with a vengeance, attacking Kokang’s capital Laukkaing, causing fierce fights along the Myanmar-China border. Bombs from the fighting hit border towns in China and killed Chinese citizens. An international standoff was sparked and the situation was compared to that of Crimea.
Except Xi Jinping was no Vladimir Putin. He wanted nothing to do with the mess. Despite repeated Burmese Army (Tatmadaw) bombings that hit Chinese territory, the Chinese PLA stayed put.
Not even Peng Jiasheng’s emotionally charged letter plea for help brought a change of heart in Beijing. In an appeal on Chinese New Year in 2015, Peng invoked the centuries of history and the blood ties of the Kokang people with the Chinese, and appealed for assistance to liberate Kokang from the Burmese. Han Chinese nationalists understandably wanted to side with Peng. Many even sent him supplies and money, and fought in his army as mercenaries. But Beijing’s official position never moved an inch. Fighting continues sporadically in Kokang’s mountains to this day, though it has dwindled since 2015.
However, Peng does not need to worry about recruiting fighters as his fellow Kokang people are a fertile bunch. The Kokang, perhaps thanks to their history of conflicts and their remoteness, as well as isolation from the greater Chinese world, has been completely spared the demographic winter that has hit every single other part of the Sinosphere.
As of 2014, according to the Myanmar Census, Kokang (which is called “Laukine District” by the Myanmar government, a nod to the capital Laukkaing) had a Total Fertility Rate of 3.39.
This is on par with countries like Pakistan and Kenya, a fertility rate unheard of anywhere in East Asia, where even replacement fertility of 2.1 has become an impossible dream for most of the region.
A breakdown in the detailed statistics brings even more amazing discoveries. The rural subdivision of Kongyan（红岩） within Kokang has a total fertility rate of 4.65, a sub-Saharan African total fertility rate. Even the urban subdivision of Chinswehaw（清水河）has a TFR close to 3. This is all above the average for Shan State, where Kokang is located, which had a TFR of 2.67 in 2014.
As a result, Kokang’s age 0-14 subgroup makes up 34 percent of its total population, compared to China’s 16 percent and South Korea’s 13 percent. Nearby Yunnan Province of China, which has a similar ethnic profile, had an age 0-14 population percentage of 17.79 percent in 2015.
A further breakdown of these statistics reveals why the birth rate is so high.
Kokang only has an urbanization rate of 18.2 percent, far lower than any East Asian country or territory; Myanmar’s own urbanization rate of 30 percent is far higher. The Kokang people have a literacy rate of around 46 percent, half the level of most East Asian countries. They also have far larger extended families.
But more importantly, Kokang’s separation from China may have brought it conflicts, but it protected it from the Chinese government’s worst excesses from the Cultural Revolution to the draconian population control rules. Indeed, one Chinese commenter on the social media network Weibo was astonished to see that Kokang people had as many children as they wanted and allowed their kids to freely roam the streets. Once you become accustomed to absolute social control, freedom strikes you as abnormal.
Kokang is definitely the ultimate anomaly, the great statistical outlier in all of Sinosphere, both economically and demographically. It may be the most impoverished Chinese majority region outside China, but it is definitely going to have a far brighter demographic future than pretty much anywhere else in East Asia.
It will be interesting to see whether the Kokang will seek to assimilate in an ethnically diverse Myanmar or continue to preserve their unique identity and ethnic culture.
One thing is certain. Peng is definitely not going to be able to count on Xi Jinping to help him take Kokang back. Kokang may be similar to China’s Crimea in terms of history, but don’t expect a Putin-style annexation anytime soon.
William Huang is an avid researcher into China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis. He also aims to raise his voice for the sanctity of life wherever and whenever he can.