The Price of Peace and Modernization: Ethnic Minorities, Nationalism, and Food Sovereignty in China

Authors: Li Zhang*, China Agricultural University / Cornell University
Topics: Ethnic Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, China
Keywords: China, ethnicity, nationalism, modernization, food, development, peace, conflict, gender
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Palladian, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

China’s economic boom relies on urban-biased industrialization and migration, widening the urban-rural socio-economic gap. In response to this growing inequality, the Chinese government created policies to harmonize development across the country, targeting especially remote rural areas where ethnic minorities predominate. Yet discourses of nationalist development and modernization that replaced the pursuit of socialism still chafe against the autonomy of ethnic minorities considered “backward” and in need of assimilation. While this process reignited a new spate of self-immolation and other protests by some Tibetans, and violent resistance by some Uighurs from Xinjiang, China’s southwest borderlands are relatively peaceful, and pilot central government models for ethnic minority development and modernization. How were the Zhuang, Yao, and other ethnic minorities there appeased? And what are the costs of this peace and modernization? Drawing on Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and ethnographic fieldwork between 2014 and 2017, I analyze this process through the case study of an ethnic minority county in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Although peaceful assimilation has proceeded effectively, modernization ultimately amounts to merely superficial improvements and shallow notions of prosperity and well-being. Meanwhile, ethnic minority cultures are lost, along with valuable sustainable agricultural knowledge/practices and ecological resources. Still, bottom-up, female-led efforts springboard from educational and cultural initiatives to deeper social and economic endeavors to reclaim food sovereignty and environmental protection, if not ethnic autonomy. Despite important differences in religion and geopolitics between Guangxi and western China, this movement illustrates possible avenues for peaceful reclamations of minority ethnic identity and sustainable livelihoods elsewhere.

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