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Migratory Labor for Extractive Industries Creating “Sons of Soil” Conflict in China

In May 2011, two weeks before I was scheduled to start research in the region, a Mongol herder named Mergen was hit by a mining truck while protecting his pastureland in Xilingol, Inner Mongolia. He was dragged 140 feet and killed. His death sparked a month of protests.

It was not the first or last time extractive industries have collided with ethnic minorities in northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, an area nearly twice the size of Texas and home to 25 million people, 17 percent of whom are ethnic Mongols. Several studies have shown that natural resources – whether through abundance or scarcity – are sometimes linked to the onset, duration, and intensity of armed conflict. Yet, the identity of those who exploit natural resources has been largely ignored. A closer look at tensions surrounding China’s voracious appetite for nature resources reveals this may be mistake.

From coal in Inner Mongolia to diamond mines in the Greater Tibetan region, the vast majority of workers in China’s extractive industry sector are Han Chinese. When they move into resource-rich minority regions, there’s potential for what’s called a “sons of the soil” conflict with local or indigenous ethnic groups. The migrants increase competition over finite resources and represent a challenge to claims of ownership by locals, who feel unjustly robbed of full economic compensation for the exploitation of “their” resources.

Resource Exploitation, Spontaneous Migration

Tensions in Inner Mongolia illustrate how migration and resource exploitation can interact to increase the opportunity and motivation for conflict.


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For more in-depth analyses of mining-related conflicts such as the Oyu Tolgoi Mining Conflict in Mongolia please consult the ECC-Factbook.