Academic journal article China Perspectives

Peripheral Urbanism: Making History on China's Northwest Frontier

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Peripheral Urbanism: Making History on China's Northwest Frontier

Article excerpt

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The argument of this article is that the urbanisation of rural, regional, and peripheral China has aims that include the modification of discourse and the retelling of history, as well as the modification of space and the remaking of everyday habits. The Chinese narrative of urbanisation is intimately connected with the broader narratives of modernisation, development, and "civilisation." On the periphery of the Chinese state, this narrative of urbanisation concurrently seeks to maintain stability and to advance cultural and economic integration with the core regions of China. In other words, urbanisation has both tangible and intangible objectives, which are interwoven, interdependent, and inherently political.

I present my case by outlining some of the social and spatial transformations of Korla, a small but relatively well-offcity located on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang, western China. Korla is the administrative centre for oil and gas exploitation in the Tarim Basin (South Xinjiang), has a 70% Han population, and is the fastest-developing urban region in Xinjiang.

Two large state institutions have been most influential in shaping the city of Korla, both socially and spatially - the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, called bingtuan for short in Chinese, (1) and China National Petroleum Corporation's (CNPC) Tarim oil company (known as Tazhi). (2) The bingtuan is associated with agriculture, low-paid, work and "behindness." Viewed from the metropole in eastern China, the bingtuan epitomises Xinjiang's image as a "behind" (luohou ... ) and empty region. In direct contrast, the oil company is associated with China's political and economic elite, with the country's modernisation and with modernity per se.

Although Korla attained the bureaucratic status of a city in 1979, urban development really began to take offonly with the expansion of oil and gas production in the Tarim Basin in the mid-1990s. The presence of the oil company means that the educational and consumption levels of the upper socio-economic class in Korla are high by national standards. Similarly, Korla's urban space exhibits politico-aesthetic sensibilities that can be found in aspirational cities across China - broad and long boulevards, tall signature buildings, artificial watercourses, and government headquarters as a spatial focus. As such, Korla presents itself as "ahead" in a place that is "behind" - an outpost of metropolitan civility.

Demographics is a key element of this story. The Han in Korla today have come to the region in a series of waves since 1949, two main ones being the state-sponsored migration to work on the bingtuan through the 1950s, and the economically-motivated self-sponsored migration that began in the early 1990s, concurrent with the rapid growth of the Tarim oil company. South Xinjiang is otherwise populated predominantly by Turkic Uyghurs, and there is an underlying tension between Uyghur and Han in Xinjiang that occasionally flares up into violence.

In the ethnically-infused battle for hearts and minds that plays out constantly in Xinjiang, history and urban development (3) are front-line weapons. The citizens of Korla are expected to "know their place" in official history and in the hierarchy of modernity. The local official history is particularly concerned with Han Chinese settlement in Korla and with Xinjiang's relationship to the core regions of China. This history, as will be seen, is presented not just verbally but also in institutional, spatial, and monumental forms in Korla. It will also be seen how, in the process of urbanisation, the perspectives and the daily lived habits of the population get shaped and remade. It is through the remaking of habits that an empty "wasteland" becomes civilised, and a place with "neither culture nor history" gets shaped into one with both.

History and its making

Early urbanisation in Korla

Korla's initial urbanisation derived from the bingtuan. …

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