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How to gauge China’s development in its ethnic minority regions? Watch it light up from space

Compared to China’s highly developed cities, the western regions are still dark at night. NASA

How to gauge China’s development in its ethnic minority regions? Watch it light up from space

China’s ethnic “problems” get a lot of attention from the outside world. Whatever their political leanings, Westerners can find something interesting to read about China’s treatment of its ethnic minorities, whether on the plight of the Tibetans or rising tensions between the Chinese state and the Uighurs of Xinjiang. China is increasingly being talked about as part of the global “war” against Islamist extremism, or as an anti-multicultural regime that mistreats its ethnic minorities.

Faced with this criticism and pressure, the Chinese government generally claims to be developing and bringing economic prosperity to its supposedly “backward” regions, which have large ethnic minority populations. Since the 2000s, Beijing has been pushing a grand national strategy known as the Western Development Programme. Its primary stated aim is to integrate peripheral regions with the rest of the country, using infrastructure development to help facilitate better movement of goods and people between China’s less developed western regions and its more developed and densely populated eastern “core”.

But while it’s ostensibly focused on creating a more equal development model, this programme is also a nation-building mission. While it aims both to better integrate groups outside the ethnic Han majority into China’s mainstream politics, economy and culture, it also aims to encourage more Han Chinese to migrate to areas heavily populated by ethnic minorities. So some 16 years after it was introduced, how has the programme played out, and how has it affected China’s ethnic question?

As seen from above

In a recent paper, Christopher Paik and I tackled these questions by looking at Chinese census data from 2000 and 2010 alongside night-time satellite images of streetlight illumination. Because the Chinese state enjoys a monopoly on electricity provision, the electric light visible at night is a good indicator of how much development different areas have seen.

By comparing provinces’ demographic changes with the change in their luminosity at night over ten years, we were able to establish that in Western China, the ethnic dimension of development is most salient in the five so-called autonomous regions, areas host to many of China’s 100m-plus ethnic minority people (about 8.5% of China’s population).

In these areas – Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Guangxi and Ningxia – what seems to matter most is how integrated a particular ethnic minority area is with the rest of China. If the Chinese central government considers an area better integrated, the minority populations who live there experience more development; in areas less integrated with the rest of China, the central government is more likely to channel development efforts towards the west’s Han Chinese populations in hopes of connecting them more closely with the rest of the country.



So whereas increases in ethnic minority concentration are generally associated with increases in development in the western provinces, this relationship does not hold in the autonomous provinces, which have benefited less from the Western Development Programme. Still predominantly inhabited by ethnic minorities, they remain less integrated with the rest of China than other western areas.

The old town of Kashgar, the western edge of Xinjiang Autonomous Region. EPA/How Hwee Young

We also found that the overall relationship between development and the concentration of minorities isn’t consistent among the different autonomous provinces. In Tibet, the correlation is negative: counties whose Tibetan population is outpacing the Han population have experienced less development. But the opposite is true in Inner Mongolia, where counties whose ethnic Mongol population is growing have benefited from more economic development, not less.

Why the inconsistency? One explanation is that Inner Mongolia was China’s first official ethnic minority region, established in 1947; thanks to a steady influx of Han Chinese, ethnic Mongolians now make up less than than 20% of its population. The Chinese government considers the region much better integrated than Tibet, which was only established as an autonomous region in 1965, and where Han Chinese still make up less than 10% of the population.

What this all suggests is that in an authoritarian system such as China, economic development is deeply shot through with the imperative to exert political control. The Chinese government doesn’t treat all its ethnic minority groups in the same way: the more “loyal” a group is to the Chinese state and the more integrated it is into the culture and economy, the better its members will be treated. This does not bode well for the rebellious Tibetans or Uighurs, who continue to challenge the Chinese government’s plans for their homelands.