AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 330

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Session 330: Environmental Management and Nation Building in China's Periphery: Historical and Geographical Approaches

Organizer: Afton Clarke-Sather, University of Delaware, USA

Chair: Emily T. Yeh, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA

Discussants: David Pietz, University of Arizona, USA; Emily T. Yeh, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA

While the Chinese state has long perceived its borders as natural as well as political, it is in remaking nature that the state has asserted control of its periphery. Starting with the proposition that peripheries are constituted both temporally and spatially, this panel uses historical and geographical approaches to explore how management of natural resources in China’s borderlands has shaped the character of the state and the nation. Prior scholarship on China’s periphery has focused on ethnic relations and political control. However, little research has addressed the central role that claims to and extraction of natural resources have played in territorializing state power and national identity. Since the 19th century state actors have performed many distinct roles in borderland ecosystems: from protectors of nature, to mediators between populations and the environment, to the primary investors in large scale resource extraction. These interventions have had long-term ecological, economic and political impacts. Yet while local in scope, the relationships embodied in these policies have extended beyond the periphery, reaching imperial, national, and global scales. By bringing together the fields of history and geography, this panel illustrates that far from being the passive setting for the unfolding of broader political and economic battles, control of the environment and natural resources is central to state attempts to assert power in peripheral areas.

Mining and State Building in Xinjiang during the 1940s
Judd C Kinzley, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Mineral exploitation campaigns were a critical, but too often overlooked component of the state building process in China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang. When the warlord governor of the province, Sheng Shicai pledged his full allegiance to Guomindang (GMD) China and purged his Soviet advisors in 1942, he started a violent tug of war for the mineral wealth of this border region. Ironically, this struggle between the Soviet Union and the GMD to incorporate Xinjiang’s oil, uranium, and berrylium into competing national economic plans was a critical factor in laying the foundation for further development of the region in the post-1949 period. During the 1940s, Xinjiang operated as a resource-rich periphery to two different regimes, and in turn was able to benefit from the investment and attention of state agents of economic development from both. The detailed maps drawn by surveying teams, the roads cut deep into mineral rich corners of the province, and the investment in large scale extraction facilities helped transform Xinjiang in the 1940s. This foundation laid by the GMD and the Soviet Union should be seen as a part of a broader state building process with long-lasting implications for the province’s economic interaction with China-proper as well as its own spatial patterns of development. This essay seeks to reincorporate mining and mining extraction into a debate about the state building process in Xinjiang that has long tended to focus exclusively on political integration, military conquest, or else agricultural reclamation.

The Great Green Wall: Forests for the State, Trees for the Nation
Hong Jiang, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

Boasted as the world's largest tree planting program, China’s Great Green Wall (GGW) project (also called North China Afforestation project) suffers from significant ecological failure in over three decades of its implementation. However, the project continues to expand, driven by a political goal of state-building in the context of China's environmental degradation, frontier region development, and global environmental change. This paper issues three key arguments. 1) The GGW has been an ecological mismatch, ineffective in combating desertification or improving wellbeing for the local residents. I draw on evidence from China and afforestation studies elsewhere in this analysis. 2) The GGW has to be understood as a political project of nation building in north and northwest China where ethnic difference, desertification, and underdevelopment have beset the frontier region. As the state boasts an increase in forest cover and a national identity strengthened by tree planting, state power and the regime’s legitimacy have been advanced at the expense of the environment and the local people. 3) In an era of global environmental concerns, China needs to counterbalance the image of a polluted country as it strives to build state power globally. The GGW project, including its claim of carbon sequestration, has been used by the Chinese state to offset China's role as the world's largest emitter of green house gases, showing China as a responsible nation to the global environment.

Fur Politics in the Qing Empire: Defending Lake Khovsgol, 1750-1850
Jonathan Schlesinger, Indiana University-Bloomington, USA

The conservation of fur-bearing animals, and the natural environment which supported them, was a central concern of the Qing court. Conservation was inextricably bound with imperial defense, the economy of the tribute system, and the special ‘way of life’ of frontier subjects. Yet China’s exceptional commercial expansion, and the spread of new fur-fashions, made unprecedented demands on the empire’s resources from the eighteenth century on. This paper offers a case study of environmental politics in the Lake Khovsgol region, a militarized border-zone with Russia, in the years 1750-1850. Based on archival research conducted at the Mongolian National Central Archives, in Ulaanbaatar, and the First Historical Archives, in Beijing, the paper presents new evidence that the first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic decline in the region's fur-bearing animal populations, despite concerted efforts by the state to demarcate and construct a productive and “pristine” frontier. The key institutions, actors, and arguments shaping the local fur trade are introduced and explored in depth.

Drinking Water Security and National Development in Northwest China
Afton Clarke-Sather, University of Delaware, USA

Successful control of water resources has long been seen as a symbol of state power and authority in China. Yet, while large-scale programs of state water development have often drawn attention as symbols of nation building, little research has examined the prosaic effects of everyday state control of water resources in peripheral areas of China. This study examines the role of a drinking water development project in formation of national and state identity in an arid river valley in rural Gansu. As part of the national “rural drinking water security” program, the province has recently begun a large-scale, inter-basin transfer scheme to provide drinking water to rural residents. This modernist project seeks to: demonstrate state power though the use of advanced technology; redefine water resources as being national, rather than local, in their character; and integrate rural citizens into the national fabric through a rhetoric of equality of all citizens in access to drinking water. Yet local residents remain ambivalent to this project. Many are content with their existing drinking water supply: a rainwater harvesting system provided by a previous, though less technologically intensive, state backed project. This ambivalence exists even as this region of Gansu becomes more integrated with the rest of China through linkages of transport, agricultural markets, and migrant labor. In this region of rural Gansu peripheral populations are integrating into the larger nation, but more through market forces than state backed water management.