In June this year Ian Johnson published a major report in the New York Times on China’s plans to urbanize 250 million citizens over the next decade or so. This drive continues the decades-long story of China’s conversion from an 80 per cent rural society into an 80 per cent urban society, a migration that probably constitutes one of the most significant stories in human history, when considered from the perspective of the numbers of people involved and its relative speed.
A major issue that Johnson raises in his analysis is the question of how this will change China’s traditional character, and also the traditional rural focus of China’s communist party.
This will decisively change the character of China, where the Communist Party insisted for decades that most peasants, even those working in cities, remain tied to their tiny plots of land to ensure political and economic stability.
This insistence is reflected in China’s hukou system whereby rural migrants to China’s cities remain officially residents of their home towns, unable to access many of the subsidized benefits such as health care and education that cities offer to their official residents. For me, the question raised by this policy is why? Why is it desirable for so many people to be moved from rural areas to new cities? In Johnson’s analysis, one key reason is economic:
Now, the party has shifted priorities, mainly to find a new source of growth for a slowing economy that depends increasingly on a consuming class of city dwellers.
But other factors are also key. One of the most important of these is that the push for urbanization is occurring in China’s relatively underdeveloped west. This western focus involves environmental and ethnic factors that have not played a substantial role in the urbanization of China’s eastern provinces.
The ethnic factor here is that China’s western provinces are dominated by its minority nationalities, including those that constitute challenges for China’s central government, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang. In fact the strategic and environmental significance of China’s west means that the so-called minorities really constitute a majority. This is a key point that Dan Smyer Yu writes in the introduction to our new book, Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China:
From the geographical perspective, the “minorities” of China occupy over 65 per cent of China’s total territory. In this regard, the “minorities” could be seen as the “majority” of the nation. In addition, if we view from the perspective of China’s current modernization program, it is not difficult to recognize the “minorities” as China’s strategic “majority” because of the fact that most domestic natural resources come from the “minority region.”
One contentious issue in the push towards urbanization has been the question of settling China’s nomadic peoples. In a recent blog post, Urbanizing China’s Ethnic Minorities, Andrew Stokols writes
While China’s efforts to forcibly relocate farmers to new cities does not target ethnic minority areas specifically, the policy has unique consequences because such populations are even less prepared for the move to urban life than their Han counterparts. In border regions of China: in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Gansu provinces for example, efforts to urbanize nomadic peoples are proving difficult and controversial.
New research from Qi Jinyu, which we are publishing in our book, examines one reason for the drive to urbanize nomadic herders that should not be underestimated: environmental security. The Qinghai-Tibet plateau serves as the source region for China’s three major river systems, the Yangzi, the Yellow River and the Lancang / Mekong. China’s eastern provinces depend on these rivers for water and energy, and in the case of the Mekong, this also applies to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. (India similarly relies on water from the Himalayas, as noted in this Guardian article on the China and India “Water Grab.”) As a result, China has embarked upon a policy of “ecological migration.” This policy contains two key elements:
- designate key areas as environmental protection zones;
- relocate nomadic families away from these areas and settle them in towns.
In the case documented by Qi Jinyu in our book, urbanization is being carried out for the sake of environmental protection. He writes:
[Researchers, the media and government officials] argued that the Tibetans’ increasing population and consequent over-grazing caused the degeneration, desertification, and the shrinkage of lakes of the grasslands.
According to Qi’s research, however, it is far from clear that the minority peoples actually had anything to do with the deteriorating quality of the water in this key areas. Instead, it seems more likely that the Tibetan nomads were scapegoats. Nonetheless, we can say that in this case, the urbanization of China’s western “majority” was not simply an economic issue, but also involved the issue of water security and domestic energy sustainability. In this case, it would seem that the cost in terms of worsened ethnic relations was deemed relatively small in the face of the massive environmental significance of the region to the livelihood of the billion people who live downstream.