Little Hu and the Mining of the Grasslands

As the 2012 leadership transition looms, The Economist profiles a man tipped to come out ahead in 2022: Hu Chunhua, whose current position as Party secretary of Inner Mongolia parallels Hu (no relation) Jintao’s equivalent role in Tibet from 1988-92. Inner Mongolia provides a disproportionate share of China’s coal and GDP growth, but the conflict between mining-led economic development and traditional ways of life has fuelled unrest. “Little Hu” has so far handled this with some success.

When Mr Hu took up his post in 2009, it might have seemed a cushy assignment. Inner Mongolia’s backward economy was booming thanks to demand for its minerals, ranging from copper to rare earths, but especially its coal. Its ethnic Mongols were far less rebellious than the unruly Tibetans upon whom Hu Jintao imposed martial law in 1989 when he was Tibet’s party chief (Hu Chunhua, who is described in official hagiographies as a fluent Tibetan speaker, was there at the time, too, as a junior official). Inner Mongolia has long been a majority ethnic-Han province, with Mongols making up less than 20% of its 24.7m people (several hundred thousand of them are herders). In May 2011, however, Mongols in Xilin Gol, a sparsely populated prefecture about the size of Britain, rattled Mr Hu by staging the region’s biggest protests in 20 years.

[…] To the herders, mining brings few obvious benefits. Over the past decade, thanks largely to the rush for resources, Inner Mongolia has recorded the fastest GDP growth of any Chinese province (17% annually on average between 2001 and 2011—see chart). But mine workers are mostly hired from elsewhere, says Sun Xueli of the Inner Mongolia Academy of Social Sciences. Herders also find it hard to find jobs in Inner Mongolia’s prospering cities. Their mother tongue, Mongolian, is unintelligible to most Hans. Some hotels in Hohhot forbid staff from using it, says a Mongol academic.

Government efforts to protect the grasslands from over-grazing are not making the herders’ lives any easier. Even as money-spinning mines have proliferated, restrictions have been imposed on grazing. Over the past decade the government has moved more than a quarter of Xilin Gol’s herders off poor-quality grassland into agricultural or urban jobs. But the policy is resented by some Mongols as an attempt to eliminate herding, which they say the government regards as backward.

Efforts to settle nomadic herders in the name of grassland protection are euphemistically described as “ecological migration”. But a Mongolian rapper sang last year, “Overgrazing is a myth and a lie/ We have grazed animals here thousands of years/ Why has the desertification started since only a few decades ago?” Traditional grazing had become part of the grassland ecosystem, and preventing it has promoted not natural restoration but further degradation. At Human Rights in China, Tenzin Norbu of the Central Tibetan Administration (or “Government in Exile”) argues that both the social and ecological effects of the similar policies enacted in Tibet have been devastating, and that their real purpose is to clear the way for further mining.

In 2003, a grassland rehabilitation policy was implemented throughout China’s grasslands and in pastoral areas. In Chinese, the Restore Grassland Policy is called tuimu huanco(退牧还草), which means “closing pastures to restore grasslands.” The key measure of this policy is the relocation of herders from the grasslands to state-built housing, a measure that has been intensified in recent years. The land lease certificates guaranteeing nomads long term land tenure have been nullified. Instantly, all of the herders’ skills, risk management strategies, environmental services, traditional knowledge, and biodiversity conservation practices were made superfluous. The harshest measures have been enforced in Golok and Yushu prefectures, in the area China considers to be the source of its great rivers. There, in Chinese view, the downstream water supply is threatened by rangeland degradation caused by destructive nomads. In this large area, nomads are frequently “villagized” in new concrete settlements called “line villages” that are far from their customary grazing land, and they are required to sell their livestock.

[…] Joblessness and alcoholism amongst the youth are prevalent in the new settlements—where the elders are often seen reminiscing their past lives and reliving them in their memories, and the younger ones are scavenging to earn a little extra money. From our recent interactions with drogpas and herders who fled into exile in India, and from research conducted inside Tibet, we came to know that the current policy of forced “villagization” is in fact a very strategic move on the part of the state to keep all the mobile pastoral wanderers on a tight leash and to have open access to pastures for extractive industries without facing any resentment. The policy also enables the central government to boast that it has made sizable investments in elevating the lifestyles of local residents. But, as many anthropologist and scholars recognize, development has less to do with external materialistic life than with the freedom to choose and to lead the life that one values and respects. Given the choice of livelihood, we believe that almost all the residents of these newly constructed concrete settlements would prefer to go back to their previous lifestyle without a second thought, even it if meant leaving a two-bedroom house.

In addition to “ecological migration” policies and the encroachment of thirsty mining operations, Inner Mongolian herders face a modern industrial farming system which does not accommodate traditional practices. From Shu Ni at chinadialogue:

Dairy production is split: on one side, the milk of pasture-grazed cattle does not reach industrialised supply chains, but is processed into traditional foods by herders. On the other side, large-scale dairy farms on the edges of cities and on main roads, their cattle fed on fodder and milked robotically, sell milk to big companies.

[…] Despite years of visits to Inner Mongolia, I have never heard of dairy giants purchasing milk from naturally grazed cattle. Some milk does originate in Inner Mongolia, but it comes from cows in dairy farms around the cities, raised on fodder, not grass. Milk from grazing cattle does not reach the industrialised supply chain. The herders continue to go bust and the number of farmers and cows is dwindling. But for the dairy companies, sales are increasing. There is more to this than meets the eye.

Many of Inner Mongolia’s problems are mirrored across the border in the independent Mongolian republic, an independent post-Soviet democracy whose 600,000 square miles contain a population of only 2.7 million. (Inner Mongolia accommodates almost 4 million Mongolians and nearly 21 million others on an area three-quarters the size). Its GDP growth is now the world’s highest, driven mainly by China’s appetite for raw materials. From Dan Levin at The New York Times:

First-world profits are colliding with third-world problems. A series of flock-devastating winters and the lure of mining riches have attracted thousands of herders from the grasslands. They live on the city’s outskirts in crowded yurt slums some locals refer to as Mongolia’s favelas. Unemployment is rampant there; electricity and drinkable water are not. The less fortunate take shelter in the sewers, where they huddle beside hot-water pipes when the temperature plunges to 40 below.

“At the moment people are waiting for the mining wealth to somehow spill over to them,” said Sumati Luvsandendev, director of the Sant Maral Foundation, a nonprofit organization. According to the foundation’s recent polls, 96 percent of Mongolians think corruption is widespread and 80 percent say they believe their country’s oligarchs have too much power.

[…] “Mongolia is at a crossroad,” said Saurabh Sinha, an economist with the United Nations Development Program in Ulan Bator. “Will the government use the mining wealth sustainably and equitably for improving the lives of all its people? Or will it become a Nigeria?”

Attitudes towards ethnic politics are one apparent difference between the two Mongolias. The Economist notes that unrest in Inner Mongolia, at least compared with Tibet or Xinjiang, has remained relatively free from anti-Han and “separatist” overtones. But according to Aubrey Belford at The Global Mail in February (via Max Fisher), the same issues have given rise to a heavily racialised nationalism in the Mongolian republic. Illustrating this is another rapper, Gee:

He begins, in the guttural rolls and pops of the Mongolian language:

“Way better than a chink who perceives the world with his stomach / I’m a Mongol / That’s why you have to bow to me.”

As the crowd sings along, he paints a picture often depicted here – adorned with unvarnished racism – of the proud land of Genghis Khan being gobbled up by voracious Chinese. All around, money is flowing in, but greed, division and miscegenation reign. Until, that is, Mongols unite to throw out the interlopers.

[…] “The whores you bought, the ministers you bought / They’re not Mongols – they’re half-breeds / Mongolia is growing and will not be tricked by the Chinese / The Mongolian era is coming to wipe everything old out of its way”

Everywhere the rise of China is disrupting the old order of things, realigning economies and shaking up politics. But perhaps no country is finding itself as dramatically sucked in by China’s economic magnetism, or as utterly terrified by its growing geopolitical clout.

Wendy Qian contributed to this post.