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China’s Great Leap West

Friday, Jul 2, 2010
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In a mere quarter century the People’s Republic of China has risen from poverty and isolation into the 21st century’s emergent superpower. This stunning transformation from an agrarian experiment for the Proletariat Revolutionary to a surging frontier for Hydrocarbon Man has altered the traditional balance of power in the quest for what remains of the world’s oil, coal and gas.

With a population of 1.3 billion, which is expected to grow well into the 21st century, China is enlarging its cities and building new urban centers, expanding its manufacturing capacity, investing in a national highway system, building cars and encouraging car ownership. China does not have sufficient domestic energy reserves to support this growth, so the state has embarked upon a multi- dimensional strategy, which include a vast development campaign entitled “Xi bu dai fa”,or, “Opening and development of the Western Regions”, to develop Xinjiang and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which together comprise one half of China’s land mass. The Great Leap West will also provide access to newly discovered oil reserves in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries.

The Disaster of the Great Leap Forward

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949 after the Communist armies defeated the nationalist Kuomintang party and Generalissimo Chiang Kai -shek took flight to Taiwan. The China that the Communist leader Mao Zedong inherited was desperately impoverished and corrupt, crippled by two centuries of decay in the late Manchu period.

The 1911 revolution of Dr. Sun Yat Sen introduced new ideologies of governance into China, but corruption prevailed over reform. The Japanese occupation in World War 2, first of Manchuria and then costal and central China, was swift and brutal, and left many cities in chaos. The peasantry, and the majority of China’s citizens, supported the Communists. Stirred by the utopian promise of Marxist ideology, and the urgent need for modernization and reform, the communists moved swiftly to adopt the collectivization policies of the Soviet Union.

Historians can only speculate as to whether any accurate information about Stalin’s terror-famine of the 1930′s the first disaster of collectivized farming, was ever known to the new Chinese government. Nevertheless, in I958 Mao launched his second Five Year Plan, an ambitious modernization drive called the Great Leap Forward, based on imported Soviet science.

The Great Leap Forward was a planning disaster wherein an estimated 40 to 80 million people perished in a state sponsored famine, a human tragedy comparable to the terror-famines of Stalin. “The History and Sociology of Genocide” by Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn,(Yale University Press, 1990, pp.300), detailed how private property was outlawed, peasants and city dwellers were forced to melt their cooking and faming utensils in collective kilns, which resulted in mass starvation and death, a catastrophe that went virtually unreported in the western press at the time.

From 1966 until Mao’s death in 1976, Chinese society was further embroiled in the Cultural Revolution, the final chapter of Mao’s legacy, wherein millions of citizens, condemned as “bourgeoisie rightists”, were exiled, imprisoned or murdered. After Mao’s death in 1976 Deng Xiaoping returned to power after many years of exile in a labor camp, and steered China away from Soviet style collectivization and towards a new policy which Deng himself called “socialist market economics” and which came to be popularly known as “Dengism”. Dengism allowed fiscal decentralization, a diversified banking system, the creation of a stock market and opening China to foreign investment and trade, which created the most rapid economic growth in modern history. In 2005 China was ranked as the second largest economy in world, just below the United States and above Japan, China’s two largest trading partners.

China’s Growth Tilts the Balance of Power

China’s population has also doubled in the past quarter century, and is now at 1.3 billion, making China the world’s most populous nation, after India, China’s neighbor, where human population also doubled in the same period. This growth in population occurred simultaneously with the policy shift to a market economy and capital investments in technology and infrastructure, education, transportation, medicine and research.

As China’s population soared, so did opportunities for its energized young citizens, just a generation after their parents and grandparents suffered famine. Today China is a manufacturing giant which now supplies the world, in particular the United States, with consumer products of every variety, from children’s toys to computers. On July 10, 2006, the New York Times reported that China had just posted “record trade surplus with the rest of the world, the largest monthly trade imbalance any country has ever recorded…the surplus in June reached $14.5 billion…this year China overtook Japan to hold the world’s largest foreign currency reserves, now about $875 billion, and is on track to reach reserves of $1 trillion by the end of the year. That figure would represent nearly half of China’s gross domestic product.” On the same date, July 10th, 2006, the International Energy Agency’s executive director Claude Mandill spoke from his Parisian headquarters; “Every two years, China adds as much power generation capacity as the total in France or Canada. The country is now the biggest electricity consumer in the world after the United States and its needs are still growing.”

A quarter century ago, did any economists or Asia hands foresee China’s stunning transformation, over a mere quarter century, from chaos and famine to the world’s second largest economy? Perhaps Napoleon deserves the credit for remarking; “When China wakes, the world will tremble”. China is now the 21st century’s emergent superpower, and is in direct competition with its new trading partners and neighbors for what remains of the world’s oil, coal and gas reserves.

China’s Energy Needs

Tsangpo Hydropower Station

The one resource China lacks is sufficient domestic energy reserves to support its projected growth. During the Mao period China’s industrial growth faltered, and there was sufficient oil, gas and coal for domestic usage. In 1993, China’s growing consumption overtook domestic production (3). While China’s 1.3 billion people at present consume only one half the energy of 290 Americans, China’s population and economy are growing much faster than the United States. Today the PRC has over 200 cities with over one million residents.

In the past decade Chinese oil demand has grown 15% each year to 6.7 million barrels per day, about one third the daily usage in the United States. (Hearing on EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook for 2005, U.S. Senate, 3 Feb, 2005, Testimony of Jeff Logan, Senior Analyst and China Program Manager, IEA). The US Department of Energy predicts that China’s net petroleum demand will continue to grow by 4% a year, to an estimated 12.8 barrels of oil per day while output will remain at 3.4 million barrels, which means China will have to import 9.4 million barrels a day, five times more than it’s present import level. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2004 predicted that by 2030, developing Asia will account for 42% of the increase in energy demand worldwide, that China’s oil imports will soar from less than 2 mb/d today to 10 mb/d, reaching h 75% by 2030.

China is moving northwest through Tibet and Xinjiang into the oil-rich fields of Central Asia, and southwest via oil tanker, towards Sudan, Iran, Venezuela and elsewhere, to capture more oil. As Michael Klare writes; “To quench its growing thirst for petroleum, China will have no choice but to turn to the same sources the United States has; the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea basin, and Africa. And because Beijing is no less concerned about the security of its imports than Washington is, it will likely pursue a similar policy of plying oil-producing regimes with arms, advisors and military technology…China’s growing need for oil is the wildcard in this contest.”

The Great Leap West

To secure resources within its borders and to stabilize access to Central Asia, China has implemented an ambitious new development strategy entitled “Xi bu dai fa”, the “Opening and development of the Western Regions.” A key factor in the resource strategy of the PRC is development of the Western Regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, an area of study often obsfuscated by legend and propaganda. Observers are oftentimes puzzled by China’s especially harsh control over its western territories, its repression of the indigenous peoples of this vast region, the secrecy of operations and the oftentimes perverse language from the Politboro about Tibet’s exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Xinhua, the official news agency of the PRC, has for decades called “a counterrevolutionary splittist with bad intentions who seeks to divide the Motherland”. But an examination of the enormous resources and strategic advantages gained by the capture of Tibet and Xinjinag and a reading of official Chinese statements about the Great Leap West shows the policy that shapes the Politboro’s actions.

A special feature of the PRC in the context of Chinese history is its size. Never before in China’s long history has a central mainland government ruled an empire stretching from the fertile southern coasts, up to Manchuria, across the Gobi desert and beyond. Only the Mongols had once such an empire. After consolidating power in the Middle Kindgom and Manchuria to the north, by 1949, Mao Zedong moved swiftly to annex China’s ancient neighbors on the western highlands, first Xinjiang in 1950 and Tibet in 1951. This doubled China’s landmass. China is now.

In popular folklore Tibet and Xinjiang were for centuries known as “The Western Treasure Houses”. They are the source of many riches; wellspring of the Ganges, Jumna, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Yellow rivers, a vast repository of wildlife, minerals and timber. They can potentially provide living space for Han people migrating from the congested, overpopulated cities of the costal and central regions. And a secure military annexation of these territories gives China a unique strategic advantage in Asia; a continuous border with India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhastan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan (see map).

A New Chapter in the Great Game

The Qing Dynasty maintained a relaxed, oftentimes sporadic military supervision of Xinjiang and Tibet, requiring occasional tribute and taxes from the many warlords in East Turkestan, Tibetan clan leaders, and the Dalai Lama. Before the Hydrocarbon age, sustaining any kind of firm central control over the west was virtually impossible for Central China, given the vast distances, extremes of climate, and the largely nomadic population of many ethnicities, customs and religions. Mao failed to provide wealth and stability for his subjects, but he succeeded in institutionalizing a disciplined military administration of the vast, newly formed nation, and consolidated Beijing’s of control of Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang.

The Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang also connect the Middle Kingdom to the lands of the Silk Road. With a modernized and united China poised on the edge of old Turkestan, a new chapter has opened in the Great Game. The Great Game concept was popularized by British author Rudyard Kipling in his 19th century novel “Kim” about the British Raj in India and the quest for control of the vast lands of Central Asia. Central Asia has always been a prize and a hazard, filed with riches, kings, warlords, nomads, scattered across an enormous and ferocious range of climates. For centuries many of the tribes and dynasties of the region maintained autonomy under a vassal relationship with the Russian Tsars. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union annexed most of Central Asia and even seized and subjugated Mongolia. The USSR imposed strict military control, Russofication and communist ideology on a complex group of people, similar to the Sinofication and communist militarism imposed upon Mongol, Tibetan and Turkic peoples by the PRC. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, five new sovereign nations emerged; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan. Mongolia also won its independence.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization VS. NATO?

In the post Soviet era these new nations have struggled to stabilize their political institutions, liberalize their economies and develop their natural resources. Having observed a growing US presence in the region Russia and the PRC moved to develop closer ties with their neighbors by creating the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). First entitled the Shanghai Five in 1998, the group was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization after the inclusion of Uzbekistan in 2001. The official website for the SCO states; “SCO security cooperation focuses on the fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism. The SCO was among the first international organizations to advocate explicitly the fight against the three evil forces.” Almost all the articles in this elaborate website also point out; “The total area occupied by the SCO member states is about 30 million 189 thousand kilometers, or about three fifth the territory of Eurasia, with a population of 1.455 billion people, or about a quarter of total world population.”

In the early years of Dengism many western investors confidently predicted that capitalism would engender a democratic evolution and liberalization of China’s centralized socialist government. The opening of China to the world and the unloosening of the Chinese people’s entrepreneurial gifts has created a boom which parallels the expansive growth of the United States following the Allied victory in World War 2. But the Chinese Communist Party, which controls the People’s Liberation Army and the State Bank of China, determines policy and administration. And control is more extreme in the “minority regions”, where restive native populations still try to challenge the legitimacy of Han rule over non-Han peoples.

The historical parallel for China’s Western Development Campaign is the development of the American West, a large migration of settlers and the efficient exploitation of resources and growth of industry and technology. For many years, in international gatherings and in official statements, the PRC has vigorously defended itself when questioned about its’ subjugation of Tibet, by pointing out the parallel with America’s 19th century history.

But unlike America in the 19th Century, the Hydrocarbon infrastructure in China cannot expand upon a wilderness; China is old, crowded, depleted. An although China’s western possessions are the poorest in China, continued subjugation is policy, to prevent the non-Han regions from breaking from the center and thus fragmenting the empire.

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