In Ruili’s Jiegao Jade Wholesale Market, the price of jade can swing wildly.
One reason is plain hustling. Jade wholesalers who have carved out a living along Yunnan’s border with Myanmar (also known as Burma) aren’t above fleecing someone who doesn’t know their rocks.
Haggling, of course, is part of the game. Inspect the goods carefully. If the seller thinks you’re a novice in the trade, the starting price might jump from 60 to 60,000 yuan (US$9 to US$9,100).
The other reason is a bit more sinister, in a macro sense.
Myanmar’s jade industry is concentrated in Hpakant, a town in the resource-rich northern state of Kachin, the source of some of the world’s best jade.
It is a place where remote mining operations bring wealth and opportunity—but only to the few who are at the apex of the pyramid.
Jade miners work in extremely dangerous conditions, within an industry that sees practically no regulation and mine ownership is masked.
The lack of safety measures is a perpetual issue. Last November, a landslide killed 90 people at a Kachin jade mine.
Combine all of that with the ceaseless ethnic strife between the 8,000-strong Kachin Independence Army and the largely Bamar central government—the jade industry generates sizable revenue for both sides in the conflict—and Hpakant becomes a huge blind spot where business and thuggery exist side by side.
Some say that Myanmar is running out of jade. Other merchants murmur that the generals and ministers involved in the jade trade are hoarding rocks to manipulate prices.
Whether any of that is true is anyone’s guess, but the uncertainty of supply impacts wholesale prices, which in turn causes major ripples in the retail jade markets of China and Hong Kong.
In the final three quarters of 2013, Myanmar’s Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development reported US$920 million in the nation’s jade export earnings, but a special report by Reuters provided a conservative estimation that the country’s jade trade is worth billions of US dollars.
A report published by Global Witness, an advocacy group, said the country generated US$31 billion worth of jade in 2014. That is about half the GDP of the entire country. However, practically none of that money ends up in state coffers or is spent on the citizens.
The best jade mines in Myanmar are controlled by the elite class, and the miners are often drug addicts. Yaba, a cheap form of meth, whips up their systems to work long hours in harsh conditions. In shooting alleys, heroin numbs the pain in their bodies after extended shifts.
Most of the country’s jade is hauled or trucked into China and ends up on the black market, where it is cut, carved, polished, and then sold as prime jewelry.
Every dollar and yuan spent on Myanmar jade, no matter where it is bought, funds an extremely ugly industry, one so entangled with the drug trade that syringes are used in place of spare change.
Shops selling Myanmar jade are all over Hong Kong, and receive no shortage of foot traffic.
But if you happen to be in one of those stores, and you happen to see a piece that you like, and you happen to pick it up and try it on and decide that it looks good on you, think about this: Is owning that green stone really worth lining the pockets of men who have devastated a nation’s economy, who strip public land for their personal gain?
Is it worth pushing a needle into the raised vein of a peasant whose only recourse is to please cruel men?
Myanmar jade might look harmless. It doesn’t have the same blood stains as ivory or rhino horn. Beyond the polished surfaces that have captivated Chinese imaginations for centuries, the path on which jade travels from mine to market is nothing less than painful and brutal.
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