Nibbling Around the Edges: China’s Geopolitical Trauma in the 20th Century

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But back to political economy and space. China’s main geopolitical research center – CASS – and network of higher education now have produced something like 5 monographs linking poppy-growing since the late Qing (or earlier) to political fragmentation – that is, the anarchy of “warlord” conflict at ground level. Qinghai, Hexi (Xinjiang), Ningxia, Gansu, and Sichuan. If to this we add Inner Mongolia (Suiyuan, Baotou and Jehol – the latter the site of a Mitsui Bussan poppy plantation since 1931), we have a map that almost perfectly overlaps the quondam E-W expansion or occupation corridor, retreat from which has been a signal of political dis-confidence since the Yuan, more recently since the 19th century.

What had gone wrong?

The most tempting answer is that desert encroachment and (thus) loss of underground irrigation (water) tables made poppy planting ever more favorable as a “survivor” crop (more on this below); or to put it in terms of recent Afghanistan surveys, once established, the poppy tended to drive out other crops – even such relatively high-priced “local specialty” exports” as grapes (!), apples, citrus crops, pomegranates, and almonds, because the latter demand much higher levels of nature-supplementing irrigation from purpose-dug wells or (less often) irrigation canals.


To put it in industrial terms, the per unit (sunk and renewable) capital costs of poppy farming were (still are) far lower than those demanded by other classic “desert” (oasis) crops and/or cotton, this largely due to the very high labor cost of building and expanding the irrigation channels and wells needed to supply water adequate for crop germination. Indeed, Afghanistan’s inability to replace poppy growing is now understood as a function of inadequate state or NGO investment in irrigation, which would have to be huge scale considering the evaporation-replacement needs of marketable cash crops.

Afgh CWR table

Afghanistan in Transition”, Aug. 2012 “Irrigation, Profits, and Alternatives Crops”

Evidence and its analysis are tricky (especially for this writer, who is not an environmentalist), but certainly one long term and perhaps invisible trend that encouraged this retreat would surely have been deforestation and desert encroachment. I have searched in vain for a cash-free accessible monograph on the long term trend, but even using post-1949 scholarship, one can see what amounts to (or seems to…) a rate of desert encroachment that has only gathered steam since PRC policies have come into play.

An exception – an (almost) scholarly level of insights into the problems (i.e. failures) of efforts to even halt, much less reverse, the encroachment of the Ordos desert into and over the Ningxia “badlands” – is to be found at “DEFORESTATION AND DESERTIFICATION IN CHINA” (

A useful place to start is with a current-day (thus already outdated) map of the “Gobi”, a shorthand for the boundary of encroachment southward and westward.

Apart from episodic undermaintenance or abandonment of irrigation systems, whose history ought to illustrate or define a cycle (of which there is little persuasive evidence: Dunhuang, for example, which flourished as an caravan/oasis city in the Tang has for at least 1-2 centuries been fully covered over by drift and dunes, with no sign of relentment), something akin to the dustbowl effect of the US prairies in the 20s-30s seems the best path of analysis.
What is currently condemned as “overgrazing” on or near the Mongolian steppe has been a major contributor: too large a herd of raised-for-slaughter sheep in particular are seen as chomping loose or bare the thin layer of prairie-grass topsoil, allowing it to be ever more readily picked up by the West (?) winds that speed across the largely unbuffered steppe eastward of the Pamir “shadow”.

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