[Marxism] China Fences In Its Nomads, and an Ancient Life Withers
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 12 10:03:39 MDT 2015
(Fascinating. The Chinese government is forcing nomads into shitty
settlements supposedly in order to protect the environment. I can only
wonder if this fits in to John Bellamy Foster's analysis that the
Chinese CP has gone Green.)
NY Times, July 12 2015
China Fences In Its Nomads, and an Ancient Life Withers
By ANDREW JACOBS
MADOI, China — If modern material comforts are the measure of success,
then Gere, a 59-year-old former yak-and-sheep herder in China’s western
Qinghai Province, should be a happy man.
In the two years since the Chinese government forced him to sell his
livestock and move into a squat concrete house here on the windswept
Tibetan plateau, Gere and his family have acquired a washing machine, a
refrigerator and a color television that beams Mandarin-language
historical dramas into their whitewashed living room.
But Gere, who like many Tibetans uses a single name, is filled with
regret. Like hundreds of thousands of pastoralists across China who have
been relocated into bleak townships over the past decade, he is jobless,
deeply indebted and dependent on shrinking government subsidies to buy
the milk, meat and wool he once obtained from his flocks.
“We don’t go hungry, but we have lost the life that our ancestors
practiced for thousands of years,” he said.
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.
Official news accounts of the relocation rapturously depict former
nomads as grateful for salvation from primitive lives. “In merely five
years, herders in Qinghai who for generations roved in search of water
and grass, have transcended a millennium’s distance and taken enormous
strides toward modernity,” said a front-page article in the state-run
Farmers’ Daily. “The Communist Party’s preferential policies for herders
are like the warm spring breeze that brightens the grassland in green
and reaches into the herders’ hearts.”
But the policies, based partly on the official view that grazing harms
grasslands, are increasingly contentious. Ecologists in China and abroad
say the scientific foundations of nomad resettlement are dubious.
Anthropologists who have studied government-built relocation centers
have documented chronic unemployment, alcoholism and the fraying of
Chinese economists, citing a yawning income gap between the booming
eastern provinces and impoverished far west, say government planners
have yet to achieve their stated goal of boosting incomes among former
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 idea that herders destroy the grasslands is just an excuse to
displace people that the Chinese government thinks have a backward way
of life,” said Enghebatu Togochog, the director of the Southern
Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, based in New York. “They
promise good jobs and nice houses, but only later do the herders
discover these things are untrue.”
In Xilinhot, a coal-rich swath of Inner Mongolia, resettled nomads, many
illiterate, say they were deceived into signing contracts they barely
understood. Among them is Tsokhochir, 63, whose wife and three daughters
were among the first 100 families to move into Xin Kang village, a
collection of forlorn brick houses in the shadow of two power plants and
a belching steel factory that blankets them in soot.
In 2003, he says, officials forced him to sell his 20 horses and 300
sheep, and they provided him with loans to buy two milk cows imported
from Australia. The family’s herd has since grown to 13, but Tsokhochir
says falling milk prices and costly store-bought feed means they barely
An ethnic Mongolian with a deeply tanned face, Tsokhochir turns
emotional as he recites grievances while his wife looks away. Ill-suited
for the Mongolian steppe’s punishing winters, the cows frequently catch
pneumonia and their teats freeze. Frequent dust storms leave their
mouths filled with grit. The government’s promised feed subsidies never
Barred from grazing lands and lacking skills for employment in the steel
mill, many Xin Kang youths have left to find work elsewhere in China.
“This is not a place fit for human beings,” Tsokhochir said.
Not everyone is dissatisfied. Bater, 34, a sheep merchant raised on the
grasslands, lives in one of the new high-rises that line downtown
Xilinhot’s broad avenues. Every month or so he drives 380 miles to see
customers in Beijing, on smooth highways that have replaced pitted
roads. “It used to take a day to travel between my hometown and
Xilinhot, and you might get stuck in a ditch,” he said. “Now it takes 40
minutes.” Talkative, college-educated and fluent in Mandarin, Bater
criticized neighbors who he said want government subsidies but refuse to
embrace the new economy, much of it centered on open-pit coal mines.
He expressed little nostalgia for the Mongolian nomad’s life — foraging
in droughts, sleeping in yurts and cooking on fires of dried dung. “Who
needs horses now when there are cars?” he said, driving through the
bustle of downtown Xilinhot. “Does America still have cowboys?”
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.
Nicholas Bequelin, the director of the East Asia division of Amnesty
International, said the struggle between farmers and pastoralists is not
new, but that the Chinese government had taken it to a new level. “These
relocation campaigns are almost Stalinist in their range and ambition,
without any regard for what the people in these communities want,” he
said. “In a matter of years, the government is wiping out entire
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.
For the Han Chinese majority, the people of the grasslands are a source
of fascination and fear. China’s most significant periods of foreign
subjugation came at the hands of nomadic invaders, including Kublai
Khan, whose Mongolian horseback warriors ruled China for almost a
century beginning in 1271.
“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.”
Although efforts to tame the borderlands began soon after Mao Zedong
took power in 1949, they accelerated in 2000 with a modernization
campaign, “Go West,” that sought to rapidly transform Xinjiang and
Tibetan-populated areas through enormous infrastructure investment,
nomad relocations and Han Chinese migration.
The more recent “Ecological Relocation” program, started in 2003, has
focused on reclaiming the region’s fraying grasslands by decreasing
New Madoi Town, where Gere’s family lives, was among the first so-called
Socialist Villages constructed in the Amdo region of Qinghai Province,
an overwhelmingly Tibetan area more than 13,000 feet above sea level. As
resettlement gained momentum a decade ago, the government said that
overgrazing was imperiling the vast watershed that nourishes the Yellow,
Yangtze and the Mekong rivers, China’s most important waterways. In all,
the government says it has moved more than 500,000 nomads and a million
animals off ecologically fragile pastureland in Qinghai Province.
Gere said he had scoffed at government claims that his 160 yaks and 400
sheep were destructive, but he had no choice other than to sell them.
“Only a fool would disobey the government,” he said. “Grazing our
animals wasn’t a problem for thousands of years yet suddenly they say it
Proceeds from the livestock sale and a lump sum of government
compensation did not go far. Most of it went for unpaid grazing and
water taxes, he said, and about $3,200 was spent building the family’s
new two-bedroom home.
Although policies vary from place to place, displaced herders on average
pay about 30 percent of the cost of their new government-built homes,
according to official figures. Most are given living subsidies, with a
condition that recipients quit their nomadic ways. Gere said the
family’s $965 annual stipend — good for five years — was $300 less than
promised. “Once the subsidies stop, I’m not sure what we will do,” he said.
Many of the new homes in Madoi lack toilets or running water. Residents
complain of cracked walls, leaky roofs and unfinished sidewalks. But the
anger also reflects their loss of independence, the demands of a cash
economy and a belief that they were displaced with false assurances that
they would one day be allowed to return.
Jarmila Ptackova, an anthropologist at the Academy of Sciences in the
Czech Republic who studies Tibetan resettlement communities, said the
government’s relocation programs had improved access to medical care and
education. Some entrepreneurial Tibetans had even become wealthy, she
said, but many people resent the speed and coercive aspects of the
relocations. “All of these things have been decided without their
participation,” she said.
Such grievances play a role in social unrest, especially in Inner
Mongolia and Tibet. Since 2009, more than 140 Tibetans, two dozen of
them nomads, have self-immolated to protest intrusive policies, among
them restrictions on religious practices and mining on environmentally
delicate land. The most recent one took place on Thursday, in a city not
far from Madoi.
Over the past few years, the authorities in Inner Mongolia have arrested
scores of former herders, including 17 last month in Tongliao
municipality who were protesting the confiscation of 10,000 acres.
This year, dozens of people from Xin Kang village, some carrying banners
that read “We want to return home” and “We want survival,” marched on
government offices and clashed with riot police, according to the
Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.
Chinese scientists whose research once provided the official rationale
for relocation have become increasingly critical of the government.
Some, like Li Wenjun, a professor of environmental management at Peking
University, have found that resettling large numbers of pastoralists
into towns exacerbates poverty and worsens water scarcity.
Professor Li declined an interview request, citing political
sensitivities. But in published studies, she has said that traditional
grazing practices benefit the land. “We argue that a system of food
production such as the nomadic pastoralism that was sustainable for
centuries using very little water is the best choice,” according to a
recent article she wrote in the journal Land Use Policy.
Gere recently pitched his former home, a black yak-hide tent, on the
side of a highway as a pit stop for Chinese tourists. “We’ll serve milk
tea and yak jerky,” he said hopefully. Then he turned maudlin as he
fiddled with a set of keys tied to his waist.
“We used to carry knives,” he said. “Now we have to carry keys.”
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