Infrastructure, Civilization, and the Politics of Memory in a Sino-Tibetan City

Authors: Andrew Grant*, University of Colorado At Boulder
Topics: China, Cultural Geography, Urban Geography
Keywords: china, infrastructure, memory, place
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Maryland C, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Infrastructure, in its capacity to evoke the technological sublime and breathe life into unilinear developmental models, is a political technique that in contemporary China operates at the level of civilizational achievement. This paper focuses on the role of infrastructural and urban redevelopment in 21st century redevelopment of Xining, the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau. The expansion and transformation of Old Xining has obliterated older urban geographies and given birth to towering new urban districts. Urban authorities act as editors, bulldozing some sites, resuscitated others, and reimagining regional culture to speak to a harmonious past civilizationally unified with China. I argue that memory work being conducted within the built environment has a two-fold effect: it represses the evocation of histories from certain sites and it conjures spectacular futures based in past imaginings. These effects work to depoliticize to what civilization Xining belongs as well as delimit its possible futures. This paper illuminates the various Chinese, Islamic, and Tibetan chronotopes by focusing on the materiality of walls, the development of ecological civilization green corridors, and the hyperbuilding of skyscraping urban centers. Ultimately, China’s BRI projects find historical and practical antecedent within the urbanization projects of China’s frontier places. The editorial and infrastructural processes found in Xining City speak to a trend in contemporary China to use infrastructure and construction to propel Asian societies into a future redolent of a mythical civilizational past.

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