Whether you consider land as won or lost depends on your point of view. In America, whites exult at how the West was won, Indians mourn at how it was lost. In our travels through the western part of Inner Mongolia we saw how the Mongols were literally losing ground before the influx of land-hungry Chinese.
In the years since then, there have been some changes in Chinese policy owing to the establishment of the new regime in 1949. For one thing, the Mongols, along with other minority peoples, have been exempted from the one-child policy that has been applied to the the major part of the population, those called “Han Chinese,” so named from the great Han dynasty of 206 B.C. to A.D. 220. For another, the Mongols’ demand that their tribal lands be merged into a single unit has been at least partially met by the de-gerrymandering of the old provinces and the establishment of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. However, the boundaries are still drawn so that Chinese far outnumber Mongols there. While the population of Inner Mongolia has increased fivefold, the Mongols themselves have increased by only 50 percent. Today they comprise only 2.5 million out of a total population of 20 million.
The more things change. …
While trekking west of the Temple of the Larks [in 1935], we noted a pattern of Chinese penetration that differed somewhat from what we had encountered in the region directly north of Guihua [‘return to civilization’, now called Hohhot, which the Mongols used to call Koko Khoto ‘the Blue City’]. There the Chinese had taken over large tracts of land and settled close together in villages similar to those that dotted the farmland of North China. From these villages the peasants went out in all directions to till their plots of land.
In the area where grassland merged into gobi [‘gravel desert’], however, Chinese families lived separate from each other, a pattern more closely approximating that of the United States in the frontier days. We encountered these isolated farmsteads only at long intervals in the course of our daily marches.
Another point of difference was that some of these farmsteads doubled as trading posts. Many of the families settled in this region did some supplementary buying and selling. They either acted on their own or served as agents of the trading houses based in Guihua and Baotou. It also happened that some Chinese who started out primarily as traders took to farming and sheep-raising as sidelines. The goods sold at these trading posts were supplied by caravans belonging to the parent companies with which they were affiliated. Supplies were dropped off by caravans on their outward journey to the Black River. On the return trip the caravans picked up the items that had been acquired by barter with the Mongols.
For all these little trading posts it seemed to be a pretty miserable existence. Only the Mongol princes who permitted the alienation of tribal lands, and the Chinese authorities who promoted the whole business, made any real profit out of it all. The worst losers were ordinary Mongols, who bought and sold at prices largely set by the Chinese and saw their best-watered land being taken over by these immigrants.
Daily Archives: 23 June 2004
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Joshua Kurlantzick reviews several books about China’s “unsettled west”:
After 1949, Beijing’s brutal pacification of Xinjiang — a vast province in western China — was almost completely ignored in the West for the next 40 years. Unlike other groups persecuted by China (such as the Tibetans), Xinjiang’s Muslim inhabitants, the Uighurs, have had no charismatic, English-speaking spokesperson or unified exile organization; the Uighurs’ few prominent exiles lived in Turkey, and they spent most of their time squabbling among themselves. Xinjiang thus rarely made it onto the agenda of foreign governments, and with the region largely closed to foreigners, few academics or human rights groups could study it.
Within the past decade, however, news from Xinjiang has started to seep out. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was suddenly confronted with newly independent neighbors in Central Asia — states with close ethnic ties to the Turkic Uighurs. Uighurs began traveling to these Central Asian states, Pakistan, the Middle East, and even the United States, often returning to Xinjiang more determined than ever to fight for independence. Worried about growing Uighur separatism, Beijing tightened its control of Xinjiang, turning the region into the death-penalty capital of the world….
The idea of Xinjiang as a contiguous entity is relatively new. As Tyler’s book colorfully captures, from the premodern era until the mid-eighteenth century, Xinjiang was either ruled from afar by Central Asian empires or not ruled at all. Its vast, barren deserts made it difficult to conquer: in the early twentieth century, the well-traveled British archaeologist Aural Stein visited Xinjiang and was overwhelmed by its inhospitality, marveling at its “desolate wilderness, bearing everywhere the impress of death.” When Chinese rulers did manage to conquer Xinjiang, they found maintaining large armies there nearly impossible. In 104 BC, Emperor Wudi sent 60,000 men to conquer the West; only 10,000 came back alive.
Tyler brings the region’s premodern history to life, skillfully employing individual anecdotes to illustrate its wild past, including the introduction of Sufi Islam in the tenth century and the later development of the Silk Road trade route, which passed through Xinjiang. The other two books, which are drier but fact-filled, fill in Tyler’s overly broad narrative with rich detail and more nuanced assessment.