From Sent-down Youth to Scaled-up Town

Spatial Transformations and Early Socialist Legacies on the Inner Mongolian Steppe

in Inner Asia
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In recent years pastoral regions of western China have been subjected to significant spatial transformation in the name of economic development and environmental protection. Scholarly accounts of these regions have often focused on the state’s efforts to sedentarise herding households; this article, however, examines the significance of the administrative recategorisation of a pastoral district and the relocation of its centre, in line with the state’s policy of creating towns in rural areas. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Alasha, in the west of Inner Mongolia, I show how this particular transformation involved the combination of elements from two distinct spatial formations which characterised state territorialisation in this part of China in the early socialist period: the pastoral district or commune, and the military-agricultural colony. While much recent literature has highlighted the enduring legacy of pre-socialist spatiality in the face of the modern state’s projects of spatial reconfiguration, this article attends to the ways in which the spatial transformations of the early socialist period continue to reverberate today. I show how, for local ethnic Mongolians, the meanings inscribed upon the landscape during this period, and the infrastructural orientations which were established then, today sit awkwardly with official visions of an urban future.



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  • Map of northern China showing area under discussion.
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  • Map showing Olonbulag and the surrounding region (with post-1999 administrative boundaries).
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