Jade exports to China generating millionaires and concerns in Myanmar

MANDALAY, Myanmar — Surging exports of jade to China have produced a number of millionaires in Myanmar and provoked concerns about the neighboring country’s overwhelming influence on the economy.

Mandalay, the nation’s jade trade center, swarms with Chinese traders looking for good offerings of the green gemstone. Robust demand for jade in China has been driving up the prices of the mineral, making many Myanmar sellers wealthier than would have otherwise been impossible.

The newly rich jade sellers in Myanmar are thankful for China’s strong appetite for the gem. But Myanmar’s rapidly growing jade industry is seen by many as a symbol of Chinese control over the poor Southeast Asian nation’s economic fortunes.

Some 3,000 retailers operate stores at a jewelry market in central Mandalay that throngs with domestic and foreign traders and tourists during the business hours, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Rows of relatively small jade stones and jewelry are displayed at the stores. A woman who has been working at the market five years said bracelets are the most popular jade products.

World beater
Myanmar is the world’s largest producer of jade. For a long time, the government monopolized jade mining and exports. Since the 1990’s, however, private-sector players have been allowed to enter the business gradually.

Mandalay, located close to Kachin State, a rugged region sandwiched between China and India, has become a hub for jade production and trade. Myanmar shoppers chat merrily with sellers while looking leisurely for attractive and affordable items. Chinese traders, on the other hand, silently and hastily scour the market for good buys.

Chinese have prized jade from ancient times. The gemstone is as valuable as diamonds in the country. While holding stones, Chinese traders use penlights to check whether they can potentially be used for high-end jewelry.

They prefer rough stones that can be processed into the types of jewels they like. Top-quality jade with the size of a go board fetches as much as 500 million kyat ($488,000) per piece.

Unit prices for jade have soared more than 100-fold in the past decade, according to a man who moved from a farming village to Mandalay 25 years ago and now sells jade in the city. “All thanks to Chinese.” Jade sellers at the market are enjoying double-digit growth in sales, according to the man.

Chinese buyers account for 80% of his customers. They come to Mandalay mainly from Yunnan Province and Hong Kong and buy rough stones in bulk.

Myanmar’s jade exports in fiscal 2013 tripled from the previous year to some $1 billion, 10% of the country’s overall exports. Of the total, 90% went to China.

Nouveau riche
Swelling demand for jade in China due to the country’s rapid economic growth has created millionaires in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s jade industry developed alongside an expansion of its ties with China during the 2000s. During this period, Western industrial nations had imposed sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation because of its ruling military junta. The isolated government turned to China for investment needed for the cash-strapped country’s economic growth.

The construction of a large dam by China began in northern parts of Myanmar. Chinese businesses started expanding into the country in droves. China’s domination of the jade trade and Myanmar’s economy as a whole, however, has fed into a wider resentment over its exploitation of the Southeast Asian nation’s natural wealth.

Since the start of its democratization in the spring of 2011, Myanmar has been seeking to expand and strengthen its relations with other nations. In Shan State, which is bordered by China to the northeast, a project to build a large jade trade market is underway.

In Mandalay, a massive jade market with a pagoda made of jade and commercial facilities is being built. Small retailers are opposed to the new market project because they want to avoid paying for relocations.

Despite the complaints and resentment of many in Myanmar, the jade trade is likely to keep driving the expansion of the economic ties with China for years to come.


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