Malthusian trap in Xinjiang

By He Qinglian on March 9, 2014
Source Article in Chinese: 新疆问题:中国马尔萨斯陷阱的发散效应

Following the March 1 incident in Kunming, there was a marked rift in public opinion on the matter. While people in mainland China almost unanimously lashed out at the terrorism of Xinjiang Independent advocates, more Chinese came to understand that the incident was an inevitable outcome of the protracted repressive stability maintenance measures the Communist authority employed in Xinjiang.

Origin of the Xinjiang problem: migration to reinforce control in the border regions

The origin of ethnic clashes in Xinjiang lies in large-scale immigration that continues through the years. The rapid population growth resulted in severe resource-population imbalance in Xinjiang, and the collapse of the traditional production and way of life of Uyghurs. Some believe that this is due to the inability of the Uyghur community to transform from the conventional handicraft society into an industrial one. This belief has obviously not taken into account the regional feature of the place the Uyghurs live. The oasis civilization of the Uyghur people means they live in scattered tribes, and society like this is destined not to be able to evolve into a modern industrial one.

The idea to move people to Xinjiang can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, according to historical records by the Communist Party of China (CPC), it was a suggestion made by Josef Stalin. When Liu Shaoqi visited the Soviet Union between June and August 1949, Stalin said to him that China should move people to Xinjiang, and raised the ratio of Han Chinese to 30%. Later on, the Chinese government set up regiments and corps in Xinjiang to accommodate soldiers. In addition, it mobilized a great number of youth to move there to assist in the “socialist construction”.

The other factor that the CPC would not like to speak much about is that the idea of moving people to Xinjiang can also be attributed to the policy of “reinforcing border control with migrants” implemented during the Han and Tang dynasties.

During the heydays of these two dynasties, Protectorates General and regiments were established in the border regions. In addition, people were relocated from inland China to the Western regions under the purposes of reinforcing the borders and strengthening the centripetal forces of the border regions toward the central government.

That the CPC government is unwilling to speak much about this is probably because it does not want to be seen as employing “feudal governance measures”.

“Malthusian trap” spreads to Xinjiang

The drastic increase of the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang has completely upset the fragile population-resources balance of the region.

According the official data of the Chinese government, the population in Xinjiang in 1949 was 4.33 million, 3.29 million of which was ethnic nyghurs, accounting for 76% of the population there; the number of Han Chinese was 290,000, which stood at about 5% of the population.

In 1964, the population in Xinjiang drastically increased to 7.27 million, of which the Uyghurs made up 4 million or 55% of the total population there, and the number of Han Chinese was 2.32 million, or 32% of the entire population in the region.

In 1982, the population in Xinjiang was 13.08 million, with 5.96 million Uyghurs who made up 45.8% of the total population and 5.28 million Han Chinese, accounting for 40% of the region's total.

By 2010, the population in Xinjiang was 21.81 million, with the number of ethnic Uyghurs at 10.07 million, or 46.2% and Han Chinese at 8.75 million, or 40.5% of the total population there.

People in Xinjiang rely mainly on melted snow water and not rain water for their life water and for growing their crops. As a result, the settlements and farmland there exist alongside rivers, and the region's capacity to support life is limited. As the population in Xinjiang surged rapidly, the inevitable outcomes would be excessive exploitation of the resources there and large-scale desertification. The ecological deterioration at the Tarim Basin epitomizes the overall desertification of Xinjiang.

Drastic increase of population in Xinjiang

According to official data, in the 1950s, the number of lakes bigger than 5 km2 in Xinjiang was 52, and the lake area was 9700 km2.

In the 1970s, the lake area in Xinjiang shrank to below 4000 km2; the Manas Lake gradually turned into a desert; the Bosten Lake was reduced to a salt lake; a large amount of vegetation surrounding the Ulungur Lake withered; and Ebinur Lake turned into a second Lop Nur. The drying of lakes signifies the decline of the oasis civilization. In Xinjiang, the desertified area expanded to 800,000 km2, making up 60% of all desert areain China. This led to serious decline in traditional agriculture and animal husbandry, a large number of people became out of work.

The massive influx of Han Chinese to Xinjiang resulted in the region falling into a vicious cycle. The greater the number of Han Chinese migrants in Xinjiang, the more intense the population-resources conflicts there would be, and the clashes between Han Chinese and Uyghurs also escalate.

Beijing once saw itself as a government above ethnic groups, and formed with Uyghurs and Han Chinese a triangular relationship, placing itself on top as the arbiter. This relationship, however, is gradually torn. The July 5 incident in 2009 was just a major outbreak of the tension between the Chinese government (Han Chinese people) and the Uyghurs that has accumulated over the years.

It could be said that in China, the region where Han Chinese is the majority has long been caught in the

Malthusian trap, and after 1949, Xinjiang was forced to become an end receiver of the “Malthusian catastrophe” in inland China; the region's oasis civilization regressed and declined as a result.

Can the Xinjiang problem be solved?

Those Han Chinese netizens who sympathize the situation of the Uyghurs are all aware that repressive stability maintenance would only intensify the conflict between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang, and they are also discussing about the ways to solve the problem.

Some of them hold the view that Han Chinese should move back to inland China; in so doing, the conflict between the two ethnic groups can be reduced from the root.

This suggestion, if could be implemented, would of course be a drastic solution that might solve the problem from its root. However, this suggestion can never be put to practice. It is outright unacceptable from both the viewpoints of Han Chinese who settled in Xinjiang and the government in Beijing. The government rejects this suggestion for two reasons.

First, realistically, Han Chinese migrants in Xinjiang are to the authorities the reliable force in the region, or stability maintenance tool. The stability maintenance system would collapse if migrant Han Chinese are moved out of Xinjiang. The move could even affect the confidence of local Han Chinese, the situation could spiral out of control. And more importantly, the Beijing government could not find a place to accommodate the 8 million Han Chinese migrants if they move back from Xinjiang.

When the CPC government seized the country from the Nationalist government, it also inherited a large number of jobless wanderers. These wanderers formed the main body of the CPC army. After the end of the civil war in 1949, the CPC retained part of its million-strong army, sent some to the battlefield in Korea, and relocated some other to Xinjiang under the supervision of Wang Zhen.

In dealing with the jobless people in big cities and small towns across the country, the Chinese government adopted the method of "increasing the number of people on payroll by lowering wages" and temporarily addressed the issue of redundant population.

However, the Chinese population grew too rapidly; the economic sector in cities couldn't provide enough jobs. So, by the end of the 1950s, the authorities had to resort to forcing young people from politically incorrect background to go to the border region or the rural area. During the Cultural Revolution period, this policy became across the board in nature, and most young people in urban area had to go to the rural area. Through this measure, about 30 million educated young people were driven from cities.

From the end of the 1950s throughout the 1970s, the great wilderness of Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and the north of Heilongjiang had been the places to which the Chinese government relocated redundant population of inland China.

It's been 30 years since the implementation of the Reform and Opening Up policy, China supported its rapid economic growth by severe overdraft on resources, which resulted in serious damage to the environment, causing many places to be unfit for human habitation and gave rise to a massive number of ecological refugees.

In 2005, Pan Yue said in an interview that there were 186 million ecological refugees, and that Guangdong, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Liaoning, Zhejiang, Fujian, Heilongjiang, and Hainan—places most capable of taking in extra population—could accept a maximum of 30 million people only, leaving the remaining 150 million ecological refugees with no place to go. Hence, the Chinese government could not relocate Han Chinese out of Xinjiang; instead, it has to use the region as the main area to accommodate ecological refugees from places such as Gansu, and Qinghai.

Han Chinese people in Xinjiang could not possibly move back to inland China. In the 1990s, the first generation of people who supported the construction of Socialism in Xinjiang gradually reached the age for retirement, most of their sons and daughters studied at universities in inland China and they wished to stay and work there after they finished their education.

However, the Chinese government stipulated that these people with registration in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and other minorities region go back to where they came from, other places were prohibited from employing these university graduates.

For the majority of second generation Han Chinese in Xinjiang, the region is the place they are born and bred and it is their only home. They have nowhere to go and they could not make a living anywhere else.

Another viewpoint is that the people in Xinjiang be allowed to practice self-determination according to their respective races, let them vote to decide whether or not Xinjiang should be independent, and Han Chinese, outsider of the region, should be excluded. Allegedly the legal basis of this view is the the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) that was passed on December 14, 1960).

There are considerable difficulties in putting this suggestion to practice.

First of all, this involves voter eligibility. A vote that excludes Han Chinese would not be accepted.

Second, Uyghurs don't stand a chance to win if all ethnic groups take part in the vote.

At present, there are 10.07 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Han Chinese, 8.75 million, and the number of people of other ethnic groups combined is fewer than 3 million.

If the region is allowed to vote, even if all Uyghurs unanimously agree to seek independence, the Chinese government could still win by a slight majority if it promises to offer benefits to other minorities.

And the reason that the Chinese government does not allow “national self-determination” in Xinjiang is because of Tibet, Hong Kong, and Inner Mongolia. Such a precedent must not be set.

To sum up, my conclusion is that, the people of China, with Han Chinese as its main body, are exploiting resources in an unsustainable way that would spell disaster for planet Earth. The barren mountains, darkened water, and dirty air in inland China caused by the 30 years of economic reform are evidence of this observation. Wherever this development model is in practice, there a Malthusian trap would be.

If China begins its democratization process in a given year, only some of the existing problems such as political franchise, freedom of speech and freedom of movement may be resolved. Other problems like employment, population-resources conflict, tension between Han Chinese and natives in ethnic minorities regions would not be solved just by achieving democratization.

So long as the people of China continue their current ways of resource consumption and fertility model (for instance, in rural China, many households are giving birth to more children than two). The problem they cause would not only be nightmare for China, but would also affect the world.