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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2014

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Editorial - The Western Chinese Puzzle

On Saturday March 1 of this year, 10 black-clad and masked men and women killed 30 innocent travelers and wounded 120 more outside a provincial rail station in Kunming in southwestern China. Kunming is widely known as a peaceful, multicultured university town with no history of communal violence.

According to Isobel Hilton,1 a widely respected China watcher, the killers were Muslim Uighurs with a long history of disaffection over the migration of Han (eastern) Chinese into the mineral-rich industrializing cities of the northwest, notably Xinjiang:

“Many Xinjiang Uighurs are indeed disaffected; their complaints range from the routine, daily discrimination, to resentment of the state's tight control of their culture and religion. Others react against the increasing pressure of Chinese migration. State-directed colonisation into Xinjiang began in the 1950s, and migration into the province has accelerated since China opened its western borders and ramped up investment in infrastructure. Development has made Xinjiang richer, but the beneficiaries have been Han Chinese, disproportionately, rather than the Xinjiang's Uighurs, Kazaks or Kirgiz.

The Chinese authorities are well aware that this attack comes on the eve of an important political moment—the joint annual meetings of National's People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The government has promised to “strike hard” against terrorism. Uighurs, already the objects of deep suspicion by both the state and the Han majority, will pay a heavy price.

The article by Deng and Bai in this issue raises vital questions about the future direction for China if a sustainable path is sought. The authors provide excellent evidence of the scope for sensitive urbanization in what is still relatively undeveloped western China with its spread-out cities, underinvested infrastructure, and massive scope for desperately needed extraction of exceedingly valuable minerals.

But the region is severely water short. An article in The Economist2 in 2013 discussed how the crisis facing Chinese economic growth due to shortage and pollution of its water resources is affecting future growth in in China generally in a big way:

In 2009 the World Bank put the overall cost of China's water crisis at 2.3% of GDP [gross domestic product], mostly reflecting damage to health. Water shortages also imperil plans to expand energy production, threatening economic growth. China is hoping to follow America into a shale-gas revolution. But each shale-gas well needs 15,000 tonnes of water a year to run. China is also planning to build around 450 new coal-fired power stations, burning 1.2 billion tonnes of coal a year. The stations have to be cooled by water and the coal has to be washed. The grand total is 9 billion tonnes of water. China does not have that much available. According to the World Resources Institute, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., half the new coal-fired plants are to be built in areas of high or extremely high water stress.

Add to this cauldron the increasing serious public health effects of urban air and water pollution in the mighty eastern cities and there is even more potential for “health migration” of family-forming Han populations moving north and west to the fresh air of the dry plains.

Deng and Bai offer a fascinating recipe for what could be plausible pathways to sustainable city settlement in the troubled west. But they also need to consider the ways in which the rest of China may become desperate for clean water and air and “accessible nature.” This may well redirect China's currently plentiful but diminishing financial resources into overcoming the harming consequences of environmental mismanagement through massive programs for sanitation, pollution removal, and nature renewal in the troubled east.

What emerges is a picture of potential chaos. It is unlikely that the Chinese economy can offer recipes for cleanup and restoration on the necessary grand scale to its damaged east and south yet still seek sustainable city evolution to its dry and ethnically troubled west and north. If the kinds of cityscapes of the “old economic order” are to be the “quick fix” solution to rapid economic development in the west, then the epitome of nonsustainability will reveal itself in ill health, in ethnic strife, in cultural destruction, in social injustice, and in environmental destitution, all in the name of urban-based growth.


1. I. Hilton, “China's Muslims will pay a heavy price for the Kunming knife attacks.” The Guardian, March 3 (2014).

2. “All dried up,” The Economist, October 12 (2013).

—Timothy O'Riordan

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