Cross-Currents e-Journal (No. 8)
Bordering China: Modernity and Sustainability
The papers in this issue of Cross-Currents grew out of a Berkeley workshop with the same title. They may not have much in common in terms of genre, discipline, project, or objective. Yet they share an attention to the material aspects of China, both in “China proper” and in the Chinese borderlands, including issues of resources, environment, and ecology in studies of history, politics, society, and economy. The papers, in short, seek to invest a certain agency in environmental factors. They also seek to demonstrate the reward of such an approach. . . .
According to modern ecological theory, ecosystems are fragile combinations of diverse elements, and their resilience—or ability to recover after external shocks—varies as the system develops. Under conditions of low resilience, the system can collapse unpredictably and shift into a new state. Biodiversity in ecosystems, however, helps to maintain resilience. These basic natural principles also help to illuminate the social processes of empires. Like ecosystems, empires expand, grow, and collapse unpredictably when they lose the ability to respond to external shocks. Just as biodiversity increases resilience, imperial formations prosper when they are more cosmopolitan, incorporating diverse cultural elements that foster institutional innovation, and they suffer collapse when they limit participation by outside challengers. The author develops this analogy between ecosystems and imperial formations through a discussion of the Ming and Qing empires, concluding with reflections on the Maoist production system and the current resilience of China today.
Keywords: ecology, empires, environmental history, famine, Ming, Qing, China, Mao, resilience, sustainability, diversity
Upper Humla, an area in northwestern Nepal bordering the Tibet Autonomous Region, has lost much of its prosperity over the past five decades. The region’s recent history has been shaped by modernization efforts and development initiatives on both sides. However, the author argues that, contrary to the common conception that Communist reform in Tibet dismantled the traditional economic foundation of trade-based Himalayan livelihoods, different forces were at work in the case of upper Humla. Three benevolent development initiatives in public health, wildlife conservation, and community forestry triggered the decline. The “second lives” of successful development, rather than the side effects of modernist planning, are responsible for upper Humla’s current predicament.
Keywords: Nepal, Himalaya, trade, Humla, development, wildlife, conservation, tigers, community forestry, salt, iodine deficiency, goiter, public health, modernity, sustainability
Click here to view a short video clip of a group of salt traders from Syaandaa, Humla.
The Five Buddha Districts system prevailed from the 1790s to the 1880s on the frontier between Yunnan, in Southwest China, and the Burmese Kingdom, in the mountainous areas to the west of the Mekong River. Through more than a century of political mobilization, the Lahu communities in this area became an integrated and militarized society, and their culture was reconstructed in the historical context of ethnic conflicts, competition, and cooperation among the Wa, Dai, and Han Chinese settlers. The political elites of the Five Buddha Districts, however, were monks who had escaped the strict orthodoxy of the Qing government to become local chieftains, or rebels, depending on political changes in southern Yunnan. As a centralized polity, the Five Buddha Districts system was attached to the frontier politics of the Qing state before the coming of European colonial powers. The Qing state provided a sociopolitical space for local groups to develop their political ideals between various powerful Dai-Shan chieftains. The negotiation, competition, and cooperation between the Five Buddha leadership and the Qing, Dai chieftains, and neighboring political powers had been thoroughly integrated into the frontier politics of this interdependent society for more than two hundred years. As the history of the Yunnan-Burma frontier formation shows that no mountain space existed to allow the natives to escape from the state through their shifting agriculture, and anarchism was not practiced by the mountain people who were separated from the state, the author argues that a stateless region like James Scott’s “Zomia” did not historically exist in this region.
Keywords: Five Buddha Districts, Yunnan-Burma frontier, Lahu, ethnic creation, Zomia
In 2012, tensions flared between China and the Philippines over plans to drill for oil in the Reed Bank, a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, rekindling fears about the possibility of military conflict over the area’s energy resources. This article shows that international controversy centering on the Reed Bank’s hydrocarbon reserves initially emerged during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when the pursuit of energy resources transformed the islets into a hotly contested area. As in recent years, oil exploration by multinational corporations in conjunction with the Philippines catalyzed international disputes. Vigorous protests from China and other nations that lay claim to territories in the South China Sea prompted the Philippines to assert its own jurisdictional claims. The territorial dispute pushed claimants to the brink of military confrontation in the 1970s, yet armed conflict failed to materialize. By examining the initial round of tensions surrounding oil exploration at Reed Bank, this article situates the current international competition for the South China Sea’s energy resources in historical perspective. Analyzing past disputes and their ultimate resolution offers insights into the dynamics of present tensions, while making it possible to critically engage with arguments predicting future “resource wars” in the South China Sea.
Keywords: South China Sea, Philippines, Reed Bank, Recto Bank, oil exploration