Natural Resources and the New Frontier: Constructing Modern China's Borderlands by Judd C. Kinzley
By Judd C. Kinzley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. Pp. 272. Paperback $35.
By the time Judd Kinzley's new book was first published in June 2018, China had already dramatically escalated an aggressive effort to secure the restive Muslim population in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the far west of country. Cameras with facial recognition technology and checkpoints policed virtually every street corner. A more old-fashioned totalitarian move led to the imprisonment of over a million ethnic Uighurs in re-education camps. Kinzley's timely book provides an explanation for how and why the Chinese state arrived at these draconian measures. Using a wide array of archival sources from China, Taiwan, the Russian Federation, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Kinzley argues for a layered model of state formation in China's border regions, with broad applications to the borderlands of the Global South. By focusing on how the push to exploit natural resources altered the cultural geography of the region, Kinzley makes an innovative intervention in modern Chinese history and the creation of its borderlands.
The "layered state" model holds enormous explanatory power. In the case of Xinjiang, the layered state was first created in the late nineteenth century when a weakened Qing state had to counter multiple foreign powers eager for access to the region's natural resources. For the imperial state from the Han Dynasty (206 bce to 220 ad) to the Qing (1644–1911), agricultural reclamation had long been one of the linchpins of frontier policy. To enact the bountiful visions of plenty which successive officials heralded as the promise of reclamation, however, required capital-intensive investment in irrigation networks and infrastructure. By the end of the nineteenth century, a cash-strapped Qing state, saddled by escalating domestic turmoil and indemnity payments from losing a series of conflicts to foreign powers, could no longer afford yearly support payments. Desperate local officials turned to the region's mineral wealth as a way to generate much needed income. But opening mines also required state investment—and [End Page 1114] just about the only state actors willing to pay were across the border in Russia. Kinzley argues that a series of contingencies in the search for mineral wealth and ways to make the land pay etched uneven development and infrastructure investment into the geography of the region.
When the Qing empire collapsed in 1911, Xinjiang's ties to China frayed further as financial support from the central government dried up. The Republican-era governor Sheng Shicai paid lip-service to the Nationalist government in Nanjing, but with no funding forthcoming, had little choice but to turn to the Russians for aid to put down local rebellions and bolster his military, paid for by the province's resources. Late nineteenth-century Russian interest in the region and a series of surveys by Russian geologists informed Soviet investment during the Republican era, which often relied on these earlier surveys. Soviet attention peaked during the wartime years in the early 1940s, when Xinjiang's isolation from the rest of world became an asset for Soviet industries and military on the retreat from German invasion. Earlier interest in the region's varied products from wool, gold, to oil, turned to tungsten, beryllium, and other rare metals essential for industry and armament production. In the 1950s a newly established Chinese Communist regime continued similar patterns of development based on the foundations of resource extraction established in the earlier regimes.
Whereas the Russians initially focused their surveying expeditions to northern Xinjiang for its proximity to the border and Russian rail lines, cash-strapped Chinese regimes saw these same areas as safe bets. Given the exorbitant expense of fielding large teams of surveyors to remote areas of the borderlands, it was far cheaper and less risky to rely on locations with an established pattern of development.
The successive waves of interest in resource extraction in the region, from the late Qing to the Republican and the People's Republic of China, each based on earlier infrastructural and equipment investments, created enduring and uneven layers of development. In Xinjiang, these layers focused on the northern and predominately ethnically Han areas, skipping over the majority Uyghur southern regions. Kinzley acknowledges that his narrative contains few Uyghur perspectives and focus largely on Han Chinese and Russian voices—the archival sources, just like development in the region, favored particular locations and particular peoples who led resource extraction plans. From 1990, this pattern of development led to growing inequalities and finally the boiling over of ethnic tensions. [End Page 1115]
Shellen Wu is associate professor of history and chair of the Asian Studies program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.