Frontiering the Chinese “West”: a Closer Look

Page 3

Historical Analogues and Counter-Analogues: (1) the American Trans-Mississippi “West”, 1847-2020

The next question or set of questions that need to be raised about Xinjiang and its adjacent co-ecologies is a comparative one. Extrapolating from US and (harder to document) Czarist>Soviet>Putin Russian experience in highly similar mega-territories, is there a discarded alternative of obvious advantage, or is the (more or less) autarkic model of a self-sufficient “West” not in fact a close cousin to the framework that (albeit with much less pre-clarification and rigidity) governed the development and backward integration of the prairie-desert-coastal “oasis” terrain of the trans-Mississippian “West”?
It might perhaps seem a priori nonsensical to even raise the possibility of homology, since the espoused ideology of US economic expansion has seemed ever to build on laissez faire and productivity advantage (or rather, claims thereof). But counter-factual or at least heterodoxically empirical reexamination suggests that, as argued above, the heritage of terrain, climate, and mode of colonization that guide the uptake and integration of “the West” dictate a set of highly similar developmental priorities that are very hard to bypass or disclaim.

To schematize an “order-of-things” in the US experience of “opening” its West after the 1847 annexations of Mexican America may seem to be a kind of post facto over-imposition, but it is worth laying out if only to stimulate comparative thought.

1. Pastoral economics was the first developmental wave to sweep across the expanse in question. Meat on-the-hoof then (much later) pre-frozen for rail transport made the first and next stages possible.
2. “Prairie” agriculture – the extensive and un-reinforced exploitation of rich but thin topsoils for huge-scale cereals and soybean production- filled in the gaps left from herd agriculture, but proved much more fragile because of its eco-degradation, though of course this realization came only much after the initial damage had been wrought.
3. A third wave of development was triggered by the development of “orchard” (oasis-orchard included) truck-farming along or beyond desertifying Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges, reliant on the inauguration of long-haul rail and refrigeration.
4. Extractive industries – surface timber and gold then (more durably) underground mining (first of metals then of petroleums and coal) facilitated ultimately by environmentally precarious hydro-power capacity filled in the vacuum left by the recession or retrogression of the first 3 waves.
5. A final wave of “natural advantage” economics came into play with the advent of NAFTA and related cross-border labor markets, which made a reverse colony of the West, as non-English speaking low wage labor zone (inclusive of cross-border “outsourcing” southward). This final stage might be conceptually grasped as the extension of Asian “coolie” labor into Hawaiian sugar-farming, then Californian orchard harvesting (first Japanese, then Mexican), but its spillover ended the relative autarky or autonomy of the “West” once and for all as this “trans-desert” labor pool moved relentlessly back into the “pre-West”‘ss non-industrial sector(s).
6. Since some transition time in the 1990s, input (fossil fuel, fertilizer, electric power) intensive “non-organic” farming – esp. of wide-acreage wheat, corn, and soy – the “core” of prairie-belt farming – has begun to show irrefutable signs of non-sustainability: yields and probably total land under the plow have been sporadically contracting. It is this peaking out that has made the issue of Genetically Modified (foodstuff) seed so controversial, since the lag-time between inaugural use and the resulting losses (how much and when) from genetic de-diversification are unknowns. What mix comes next is anybody’s guess, but the old game of more and wider planting is essentially played out, and with it the “Western option” that enjoyed almost sacred mythological stature as late as the Carter Years.


N.B. Much of the analysis of the China data and indeed of the model (declining feasibility of self-sufficiency) that follows has been inspired and/or quantified by a seminal May 2014 review of China’s food self-sufficiency economics, Zhun Xu, Wei Zhang and Minqi Li, “China’s Grain Production: A Decade of Consecutive Growth or Stagnation?” (online Monthly Review, May 1, 2014,


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