State-building in western China continues apace

This NYT article is a case study in the difficulties that even a strong state faces in projecting power over sparsely populated areas.


In what amounts to one of the most ambitious attempts made at social engineering, the Chinese government is in the final stages of a 15-year-old campaign to settle the millions of pastoralists who once roamed China’s vast borderlands. By year’s end, Beijing claims it will have moved the remaining 1.2 million herders into towns that provide access to schools, electricity and modern health care.  …

The government has spent $3.45 billion on the most recent relocation, but most of the newly settled nomads have not fared well. Residents of cities like Beijing and Shanghai on average earn twice as much as counterparts in Tibet and Xinjiang, the western expanse that abuts Central Asia. Government figures show that the disparities have widened in recent years.

Rights advocates say the relocations are often accomplished through coercion, leaving former nomads adrift in grim, isolated hamlets. In Inner Mongolia and Tibet, protests by displaced herders occur almost weekly, prompting increasingly harsh crackdowns by security forces.

The political dimensions of the campaign are apparent.

Experts say the relocation efforts often have another goal, largely absent from official policy pronouncements: greater Communist Party control over people who have long roamed on the margins of Chinese society.  …

A map shows why the Communist Party has long sought to tame the pastoralists. Rangelands cover more than 40 percent of China, from Xinjiang in the far west to the expansive steppe of Inner Mongolia in the north. The lands have been the traditional home to Uighurs, Kazakhs, Manchus and an array of other ethnic minorities who have bristled at Beijing’s heavy-handed rule. …

“These areas have always been hard to know and hard to govern by outsiders, seen as places of banditry or guerrilla warfare and home to peoples who long resisted integration,” said Charlene E. Makley, an anthropologist at Reed College, in Oregon, who studies Tibetan communities in China. “But now the government feels it has the will and the resources to bring these people into the fold.”

A good reminder that The Art of Not Being Governed should should be higher on my reading list.

2 thoughts on “State-building in western China continues apace

  1. And “Society Against the State” by Pierre Clastres! (on my reading list, thought I’d share just in case – he was a big influence on Scott’s work)


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