Argument

Mean and Green

How China uses the environment as an excuse to transplant minority groups. 

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Across China’s vast northern wilderness, a pattern is repeating itself: Ethnic minority nomads are being systematically and often forcefully relocated into settled communities as part of a process known as "ecological migration." The government’s ostensible goal is to preserve fragile ecosystems, but often that’s a convenient cover for policies that perpetuate inequality among the country’s 55 official minority groups.

Since its inception in 2005, a project to restore damaged Himalayan grassland in the Sanjiangyuan region has been a major set piece in the Chinese government’s attempts to halt widespread environmental devastation. Beyond the much-trumpeted "scientific" techniques involved, the project’s main methodology has been devastatingly simple: removing people from the equation.

Paying the price of alleged environmental success at Sanjiangyuan are some 60,000 Tibetan herdspeople, whom the government abruptly deposited in distant towns and cities to counteract the supposed effects of overgrazing. Today, shoddily built communities, lack of employment opportunities, and a string of broken government promises have all but snuffed out the optimism felt by many of these transplanted Tibetans at what they saw as a chance for a better life.

Internationally, "ecological" or "environmental" migrants have become the focus of increasing concern as the effects of climate change threaten to displace tens of millions of vulnerable people worldwide. But in China, "ecological migration" isn’t just a phenomenon; it’s a policy.

First adopted in 2002, current policies aim, according to the national economic ministry, to relocate "people from ecologically fragile regions or those with an important ecological role to other areas, with the aim of achieving regulated economic and social development of population, resources and the environment."

Although it now tends to appear couched in more environmentalist rhetoric, the policy’s wording highlights the Chinese government’s long-running obsession with "improving" its minorities. Appraisals of completed relocations focus not so much on their ecological impact as the success of the "townification" of those involved.

Although they undoubtedly have environmental goals, the way these projects are implemented calls to mind the civilizing programs of China’s colonial era, a period that Beijing still regularly makes time to condemn.

However, not all targets of this policy are nomads. And as a recent scheme to protect the drought-stricken Minqin oasis in China’s western Gansu province has shown, different standards apply when those to be "ecologically" resettled are members of the country’s majority Han population.

Back in the 1950s, thousands of Han flooded into western China as part of Mao Zedong’s plan to "open up the west." Converting vast stretches of desert into productive farmland, they were hailed as revolutionary heroes. But success was fleeting; by the beginning of this century, the dunes were encroaching once more.

In domestic Chinese politics, efforts to save Minqin have become something of a cause célèbre. In 2007, teams of scientists were dispatched to the area at the personal behest of state premier and former Gansu provincial governor Wen Jiabao to develop a strategy for restoring its environmental balance.

Their findings were stark. The area’s inhabitants were placing unsustainable pressure on the land. Unless runaway water extraction was curbed, the entire oasis would be swallowed by desert in a matter of years. Researchers proposed trimming the area’s population to match its water resources.

So far, the authorities have been oddly reluctant to resort to their usual drag-and-drop approach. The measures in place to cut the population currently involve a range of incentivised options for voluntary relocation, with mandatory moves a still-unused weapon of last resort. Last year, around 8,000 individuals shipped out on their own initiative, lured by the prospect of government compensation packages.

In environmental terms, the plight of Minqin is at least as desperate as that of Sanjiangyuan. Why, then, were the locals not given marching orders?

The simple reason is that the government does not treat Minqin’s Han residents as it does the Tibetan herders because doing so would risk sparking what is known in Chinese bureaucratic language as a "mass incident" (riot). With the political legitimacy of high-profile figures attached to the project, this is, of course, a no-go.

Whether this approach resulted from conscious consideration of the ethnic dimension involved or just a realistic assessment of the situation is irrelevant. The fact remains that so long as it senses it can get away with it, China’s government will continue to treat its ethnic minorities like second-class citizens. Unless there’s a radical rethink of this relationship, the resentment that fueled this summer’s riots in Xinjiang will continue to fester, waiting for a fresh vent.

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