[Marxism] China Fences In Its Nomads, and an Ancient Life Withers

Louis Proyect 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

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 
millenniums-old traditions.

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 
break even.

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 
indigenous cultures.”

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 
animal grazing.

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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