Tangents: the Aral Sea, Bingtuan, and the ‘Hei Bai’ Economy

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BOOKS. I’ve been burning through a big stack of sources here (plus the many more online journals on my sources page), and have been more or less overwhelmed by the sheer scale of my research question.

I need a clear(er) guiding question, and some type of environmental policy, or perhaps economic framework to structure all my information. More than anything, I need to start writing in earnest.

The relationship between water resource management in Xinjiang, economic development, and political stability is tightly interwoven and dynamic. The situation in Xinjiang is a higher-stakes version of the problems of water scarcity, and instability caused by pollution and unchecked environmental growth that is taking place across China. In Xinjiang, there is less water (and its glacial origins are shrinking fast), an incredible amount of mismanagement, with an estimated 60% of water in certain parts of the Tarim basin evaporating before it gets to irrigate fields in the first place, a growing population (population growth coming from Han migration) and more political instability along with the problem of mounting Han-Uyghur ethnic tension.

Misc. thoughts/ tangents from this week:

1. There are two types of land ownership in Xinjiang: 1) State, and 2) Collective. State land can be divided up into two categories, 1a) that which is owned by the bingtuan (兵团), Xinjiang’s para-military agricultural organization which has its roots in the Maoist thought and forcible relocation, and 1b) that which is classified as ‘wasteland’, essentially anything that isn’t irrigated cropland including grassland, and forest. Collective land is owned by the village, in theory. Identifying land and water rights as well as what happens when private companies and State Owned Enterprises move in is quite tricky, and are deeply related to why and how water mismanagement occurs.

2. The ‘Hei Bai Economy’. Hei Bai translates to Black and White, which refers to the two pillars of the Xinjiang Economy: cotton, and oil (though quite a bit of coal comes from Xinjiang as well).

3. The Aral Sea, Cotton, and other massive water mismanagement by the former U.S.S.R and the communist government.


The Aral Sea in 1989, and 2008 

Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aral_Sea

The Aral Sea lies between Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, and has been steadily shrunk by predominantly Cotton irrigation projects by the Soviet Union.


Xinjiang has its very own dried-up-because-of-irrigation lake Lop Nur: 

Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lop_Nur#mediaviewer/File:Basin_of_Lop_Nur_90.25E,_40.10N,_Kum_Tagh_and_Astin_Tagh.jpg

“Lop Nor, once the second-largest saltwater lake in China, was effectively soaked up by trillions of cotton buds. In the late 1950s, two-meter-long fish swam in its waters. By 2006, even the smallest species were struggling to survive in what had become a trickle in the desert close to the military’s main nuclear testing ground. With it went the Tarim tiger, the large-headed fish, huge numbers of Bactrian camels, and a greenbelt of poplar forests. 21 With the tree barrier gone, the Taklamakan and Kum Tagh deserts joined up, forcing bingtuan units to abandon their barracks and fields. They arrived in the 1960s to “defeat the desert.” They left in the nineties, having surrendered more land to the sands than when they arrived. 22”

Jonathan Watts, When A Billion Chinese Jump 

4. This gem from The River Runs Black by Elizabeth C. Economy:

“While continuing to cloak its behavior in claims of social justice, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has become largely devoid of ideological content, serving primarily as a patronage machine committed to rapid economic development.”

and this one from When A Billion Chinese Jump, by Jonathan Watts, in reference to Han and Bingtuan members in Xinjiang during early communist rule.

“The state rallied the pioneers with a call for the idealism and patriotism found in other countries during call-ups for national service during wartime. But those sent to strengthen the border areas ended up using shovels and tractors more than guns and tanks. They converted an area the size of Israel to farmland by irrigating arid plains or requisitioning land from Uighurs. 16 In the Taklamakan desert, grain yields reportedly quadrupled in four years, from 1.5 million kilograms in 1966 to 6.5 million kilograms by 1970. The results were proclaimed as a triumph of revolutionary will, but the environmental cost was enormous. For countless centuries , runoff from the snow-capped mountains gave Xinjiang one of the highest water-to-people ratios in China. This kept oases lush with Euphrates poplars, tamarisk, and calligonum. But the settlers diverted the rivers for cash crops, particularly in the 1990s when cotton, along with oil, made up the two halves of Xinjiang’s “black-and-white economy.” 17

5. A free textbook on Uyghur language here. Though a bit dense and linguistic wordy, I haven’t come across anything more accessible yet.

6. The persistent legacy of environmental exploitation handed down from the dynastic and early communist era so well laid out in Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War Against Nature, and the current effects in The River Runs Black and When A Billion Chinese Jump. 

7. The creation of the ethnic label “Uyghur” in early communist rule, formation of the XUAR and claims of nationalism on both sides (Han and Uyghur).

On a lighter note I’ve got to do a bit of exploring around Boston. My favorite so far is the kinetic sculptures by Arthur Ganson in the MIT Museum, and this charming and oddly sad artichoke petal that walks around and around a wheel.


Image source: http://pietmondriaan.com/2010/06/21/arthur-ganson/

The header image is a satellite image of Lop Nur, found here



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