Frontiering the Chinese “West”: a Closer Look

Page 4 Agro-planting Profile of Xinjiang: Unsustainably High Cereals Production, a second “Dustbowl”?

Xinjiang is perhaps an extreme, even non-representative, case, but it is the first and possibly still the only, administrative unit in the “West” to formalize not just a supply self-sufficiency in food grains but a “safety” buffer surplus, a policy called 区内平衡、略有节余. Official yield figures are so inconsistent and volatile – not mention masked over by constant cross-shifting of units and periods and confusion between gross and net yield- that there is little more (at present) to be gleaned from them, other than intent. But if it is for that reason a two-fold outlier (in claims and in promises), that exceptionality reflects the very obvious concern with Moslem minority population density, which was still (2000) – at about 20 millions, or 45% (vs Han 40.6% and Kazakh 6.7%) – making this the last and only admin. unit (apart of course from Tibet (the TAR) where Han colonization has still not undercut an indigene minority (matrix).

Some Indicators of Over-aggressive “prairie-land cereals” land-use planning (not mention actuation) can be gleaned from the following transform of the official numbers, however overcooked they may be.

Land overuse in West

The first attention-grabber is or ought to be the term “latent” (potential) arable” 潜存可垦种植地面, a geo-sat era statistic that draws upon sat-image data and geo-modelling to hypothesize a kind of grand conceptual reserve, very much akin to that used in assessing the (maximum) potential of an oil or gas field , or for that matter of any mining resource. Details about the modelling are either unrevealed or too arcane for the “layman” to use for testing or recalculating, but at the very minimum, the constraint imaginable as removable is existing or feared soil erosion, principally loss of topsoil to or through desertification. Pretty obviously, the reflation thereby proposed banks most heavily on longterm gains in irrigation (surface or underground), whose cost or feasibility is NOT factored into the end-yield statistic. (At least in terms transparent to the peruser). What DOES emerge from these rarified estimates is that those in charge of very long term agro-planning are compelled to operate within a forecasting or modelling universe where food self-sufficiency will always – or almost forever – be an option.

That is no great danger even in the macro-planning world, but becomes so when the Center promulgates its major planning goals on a micro (provincial) level and short term (5-10 year) timeframe. For example, even this crude aggregation for Xinjiang reveals/suggests that extension of cultivated area has hit a major speed bump at 2 million ha. Even without benefit of more finely disaggregated data, it seems fairly clear from yield figures within the same 5-province zone that 300-325 kg/mu is about as far as the soil can be stretched, based essentially on wheat and maize.

The fragility of the grain-expansion drive, or -worse, its unsustainability – its betrayed by the skew towards maize production, which is what accounts for the hard-to-credit yield gains. But, however accurate or overstated the claims for maize super-production, data from 2010 remind us that transfer or extension of wheat producing land into maize is a losing proposition in terms of marginal yield and nutrition benefits. (The opposite obtaining for millet, for which however all-province data sets are unavailable on-line).

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