Belonging and Ethnicity in China's West: Urbanizing Minorities in Xining City on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau

by Grant, Andrew Nicholas, Ph.D., UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES, 2016, 285 pages; 3743756


China’s twenty-first century economic rise has had a powerful impact on the lives of Tibetans and other ethnic minorities living in its Western Region, the administrative region composed of China’s Inner Asian border provinces. Urbanization in this region is reshaping the lives and livelihoods of erstwhile farmers and pastoralists moving to urban environments. The state hopes to decrease ethnic tension through economic development and the enrollment of all frontier peoples into the national consumer economy. In light of this situation, this dissertation asks: are Tibetans’ lives and livelihoods changing for better or for worse? Focusing on one exemplary city in this region, I argue that despite increased material prosperity, ethnic differences have been exacerbated as perceptions about unequal access to work and ethnic discrimination have proliferated. Urbanization has led to great changes in the economy, the built environment, and communications technology that influence how Tibetans come to belong in the city.

This dissertation uses two approaches to investigate what is behind these changes. First, I use discourse analysis of Chinese public intellectuals and policy changes to show how the Chinese state conceives of the Western Region as a state development project. The imagination of these frontier provinces relies on culturalist narratives of progress and civilization. Concerns about the domestic economy and geopolitics also drive the historical looking backwards and economic looking outwards that shapes contemporary discourse about the frontiers. Moreover, I find that representations of frontier peoples - in historical geography, politics, and in popular culture - often elide the voices of ethnic groups that inhabit China’s Western Regions.

Second, I use ethnography, interviews, and analysis of urban imagery and social media posts to show how Tibetans and Muslims come to live in Xining City, the provincial capital of Qinghai Province located on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The changes occurring in the city are exemplary of the urbanization that is affecting all of China’s minority ethnicities. The frontier economy is changing livelihoods. It also remains unstable and dependent upon policy makers in Beijing. The transition to urban life is pushing Tibetans to envision new relationships with the city, the countryside, and even their own self-identities, as they seek to become urbane citizens and retain their ethnic identity. Tibetans also struggle to place-make, contributing sites of worship and ethnic particularity in an urban environment organized into urban territories that privilege Han Chinese urban landscapes. The Hanness of frontier urbanization contributes to ethnic difference in other ways as well, as revealed in Xining Tibetans’ social media narratives about ethnic stigma and surveillance in the wake of terrorist attacks across China in 2014.

AdviserJohn A. Agnew
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsAsian studies; Geography
Publication Number3743756

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