Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang by Tom Cliff

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Paperback, 280 pages
Publisher: The University of Chicago Press (June 2016)
ISBN: 9780226360133
Language: English 
Selected by Tank

The tension between Uyghur and Han Chinese people in the Xinjiang region of China – the former long-term residents, the latter recent settlers – has been an important subject of scholarly attention in recent years. Accounts, however, have tended to focus on state actions and the oppression – and subsequent resistance – of the Uyghur populations. Anthropologist Tom Cliff’s excellent ethnographic study of the motivations and ambitions of Han settlers offers a much-needed corrective.



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Left, Tom Cliff, “Looking to the future: Han on the outskirts of the city”, 2009. Right, Tom Cliff, “Uyghur Muslims offering the afternoon prayer [Asr]”, 2009  

Water and oil are the liquid foundations of empires past and empires present. Karl Wittfogel famously coined the term “hydraulic empires” in reference to the feudal formations in which the centre commanded the coercive power to mobilise the population, through corvée or slave labour, to build extensive networks of transportation canals and irrigation channels. Control over water, in a rather different sense, was also the basis of expansionist European colonial empires from the Spanish and Portuguese to the British. These empires relied on their naval prowess – exporting their early modern technologies of power (bureaucracy, culture, and gunpowder-based armaments) into a spatial context where these technologies conferred an insuperable advantage over the “natives”. In Xinjiang, the bingtuan1 established the irrigated basis on which extensive Han settlement beyond the oases could be sustained – thus transforming, throughout most of the region, the frontier of control into a frontier of settlement. 
Water remains important, but oil now flows through the channels of the imperial landscape. Many wars and invasive manoeuvres of the recent past have been motivated by the desire for oil. Oil also fuels and lubricates the global economy and supports and maintains the global status quo. Oil pipelines trace the linkages between political blocs, simultaneously blurring and affirming their boundaries and loyalties. Xinjiang is both an oil and gas-producing base, and an essential transit point for hydrocarbons extracted in Central Asia and consumed in China’s eastern metropolises. Despite being a domestic company, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is increasingly involved in off-shore investment and oil-field development, as well as being the majority player within the People’s Republic of China. CNPC is the Tarim Oilfield Company’s parent. The trope of “oil and water” thus references the liquids that motivate and enable Han activities in Xinjiang, the oil company and the bingtuan (as the formal institutions most closely associated with these respective liquids), and more generally, the resources that have played and are playing the key roles in the expansion and maintenance of imperial formations. Last but certainly not least, “oil and water” metaphorically expresses the diverse experiences of Han people in Xinjiang. 

[1] Established in 1954 the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, known as bingtuan or XPCC for short, is an economic and paramilitary organisation.