“Grazing our animals wasn’t a problem for thousands of years yet suddenly they say it is.”
Range-lands cover more than 40 percent of China, from Xinjiang in the far west to the expansive steppe of Inner Mongolia in the north. The lands have been the traditional home to Uighurs, Kazakhs, Manchus and an array of other ethnic minorities who have bristled at Beijing’s heavy-handed rule. For the Han Chinese majority, the people of the grasslands are a source of fascination and fear. China’s most significant periods of foreign subjugation came at the hands of nomadic invaders, including Kublai Khan, whose Mongolian horseback warriors ruled China for almost a century beginning in 1271.
“These areas have always been hard to know and hard to govern by outsiders, seen as places of banditry or guerrilla warfare and home to peoples who long resisted integration,” said Charlene E. Makley, an anthropologist at Reed College, in Oregon, who studies Tibetan communities in China. “But now the government feels it has the will and the resources to bring these people into the fold.”
The Chinese government is in the final stages of a 15-year-old campaign to settle the millions of pastoralists who once roamed China’s vast borderlands. By year’s end, Beijing claims it will have moved the remaining 1.2 million herders into towns. The policies, based partly on the official view that grazing harms grasslands, are increasingly contentious. The “Ecological Relocation” program, started in 2003, has focused on reclaiming the region’s fraying grasslands by decreasing animal grazing. In all, the government says it has moved more than 500,000 nomads and a million animals off ecologically fragile pastureland in Qinghai Province. Ecologists in China and abroad say the scientific foundations of nomad resettlement are dubious. Chinese scientists whose research once provided the official rationale for relocation have become increasingly critical of the government. Some, like Li Wenjun, a professor of environmental management at Peking University, have found that resettling large numbers of pastoralists into towns exacerbates poverty and worsens water scarcity. She has said that traditional grazing practices benefit the land. “We argue that a system of food production such as the nomadic pastoralism that was sustainable for centuries using very little water is the best choice,” according to a recent article she wrote in the journal Land Use Policy.
“The idea that herders destroy the grasslands is just an excuse to displace people that the Chinese government thinks have a backward way of life,” said Enghebatu Togochog, the director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, based in New York. “They promise good jobs and nice houses, but only later do the herders discover these things are untrue.”
In Xilinhot, a coal-rich swath of Inner Mongolia, resettled nomads, many illiterate, say they were deceived into signing contracts they barely understood. Barred from grazing lands and lacking skills for employment in the steel mill, many Xin Kang youths have left to find work elsewhere in China. “This is not a place fit for human beings,” Tsokhochir said.
Anthropologists who have studied government-built relocation centers have documented chronic unemployment, alcoholism and the fraying of millenniums-old traditions. Although policies vary from place to place, displaced herders on average pay about 30 percent of the cost of their new government-built homes, according to official figures. Most are given living subsidies, with a condition that recipients quit their nomadic ways. Many of the new homes in Madoi lack toilets or running water. Residents complain of cracked walls, leaky roofs and unfinished sidewalks. But the anger also reflects their loss of independence, the demands of a cash economy and a belief that they were displaced with false assurances that they would one day be allowed to return.
Chinese economists, citing a yawning income gap between the booming eastern provinces and impoverished far west, say government planners have yet to achieve their stated goal of boosting incomes among former pastoralists. Residents of cities like Beijing and Shanghai on average earn twice as much as counterparts in Tibet and Xinjiang, the western expanse that abuts Central Asia. Government figures show that the disparities have widened in recent years.
Experts say the relocation efforts often have another goal, largely absent from official policy pronouncements: greater Communist Party control over people who have long roamed on the margins of Chinese society.
Nicholas Bequelin, the director of the East Asia division of Amnesty International, said the struggle between farmers and pastoralists is not new, but that the Chinese government had taken it to a new level. “These relocation campaigns are almost Stalinist in their range and ambition, without any regard for what the people in these communities want,” he said. “In a matter of years, the government is wiping out entire indigenous cultures.”
Although efforts to tame the borderlands began soon after Mao Zedong took power in 1949, they accelerated in 2000 with a modernization campaign, “Go West,” that sought to rapidly transform Xinjiang and Tibetan-populated areas through enormous infrastructure investment, nomad relocations and Han Chinese migration.
Jarmila Ptackova, an anthropologist at the Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic who studies Tibetan resettlement communities, said the government’s relocation programs had improved access to medical care and education but many people resent the speed and coercive aspects of the relocations. “All of these things have been decided without their participation,” she said.
Such grievances play a role in social unrest, especially in Inner Mongolia and Tibet. Since 2009, more than 140 Tibetans, two dozen of them nomads, have self-immolated to protest intrusive policies, among them restrictions on religious practices and mining on environmentally delicate land. Over the past few years, the authorities in Inner Mongolia have arrested scores of former herders, including 17 last month in Tongliao municipality who were protesting the confiscation of 10,000 acres. This year, dozens of people from Xin Kang village, some carrying banners that read “We want to return home” and “We want survival,” marched on government offices and clashed with riot police, according to the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center.