Frontiering the Chinese “West”: a Closer Look

(N.B. This post elaborates on a portion of the preceding essay about China’s problems with defining borders and border-supporting macro-policies. That essay includes a section on “The West”, or rather the East-West corridor running from E. Inner Mongolia to Qinghai. But in trying to finish it up, I realized that the peculiar problems of the Uighur Nationality in Xinjiang and the struggle with/against desert encroachment were too complex for treatment within that one essay. This post revisits those issues in deeper focus, with a concentration (to the extent feasible) on the mix of often cross-contradictory policies and results for Xinjiang alone.)

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The unifying characteristic of border control policy in the “West” (as defined above) and especially in Xinjiang is the state’s unbreakable attachment to economic autarky. In seeming defiance of the rules of economic growth/modernization, PRC economic plans for the northwest as a whole remain loyal to the idea of self-sufficiency at least in the core nutrition matrix of rice-wheat-maize. Unlike, say, the key SE coastal provinces, where frontier access has translated into a furious pace of division of labor and SEZ based, exports-driven urbanization — and thus declines of food self-sufficiency that leave such provinces (Fujian, Huangdong, and Zhejiang) open to actual or threatened blockade or harassment (worst of all from within)– Xinjiang’s PLA-influenced (-led?) overlords have refused to let the logic of diversification and trade interfere with a paternalistically phrased commitment to dietary self-sufficiency. The stipulated norm in fact for all the 5 “northwest” provinces is 400 kg/pc/pa, or (in terms of the three major non-/minimally traded cereals – rice, wheat, and maize – 800-1,000 cal/per day/per person. It is as if the inhabitants – because largely non-Chinese or religiously “heterodox” – cannot be entrusted with freedom of crop choice. As “children” they would (and indeed once did, per opium-poppy planting) sooner or later fall prey to the modern day equivalent of the tulip mania of 18th century Holland, which, once deploded, would leave them starving, not to mention beggared. But also – and here is a better reason, because the semi-tabooed issue of desert expansion and sand drift do indeed increasingly threaten surface transport – both road and rail – and thus demand that trade economics exploit pipelines (over which food cannot move) rather than the modern day equivalent of caravan transport.

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