When the Wells Ran Dry: A Treadmill Analysis of Political Capitalism and Environmental Degradation in the Minqin Oasis
University of Kansas
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My dissertation is a case study examining how changes in land tenure and taxation policies created underdevelopment in the region worst affected by desertification in China: the Minqin oasis in the Gansu province. I argue that the tragedy of the commons occurred due to the significant decline in institutional credibility of land tenure in the oasis, driven by central-local tensions embedded in a tax farming system. My dissertation discusses the concepts of political capitalism and its application to the changing roles of the communist state on resource management during the collective and tax reform eras in China. I first examined the environmental history of the oasis, showing the intricate yet repetitive pattern of interactions between the state extraction policy and the ecology of the oasis from the 14th century to the communist collective era. I then used Weber’s analysis of center-periphery relations to dissect the treadmill of production in a politically-oriented capitalist regime. I show that the institutional disarray in the 1980s created a fiscal crisis that pushed the central government to decentralize public goods provisions. Under constant pressure to increase tax revenues, the unitary bureaucracy intensified the collection of unregulated fees and levies from farmers. They also encouraged cash-cropping in massive land reclamation projects by contracting the rights for use of wastelands and the groundwater underneath. Local state agents prohibited the traditional customs of water-sharing among villagers and operated higher tax rates in mutually cultivated areas as compared to privately reclaimed areas. The disruption of productive relations reduced the institutional credibility of land rights among the peasantry and, together with the ever-increasing need to accumulate capital for industrialized farming, created the homo economicus and corporatist state in the ecological catastrophe. In conclusion, I discuss how the case study of Minqin adds to the vibrant literature about the treadmill of accumulation theory in environmental sociology, and the impact of institutional transformation in post-socialist societies on nature is also discussed. The data came from an 18 month-long ethnography, 157 oral history interviews conducted with three generations of peasants living in the Minqin oasis, and 7,237 policy documents gathered from provincial and county record offices in northwestern China. Data gathering was completed in 2013.
- Dissertations 
- Sociology Dissertations and Theses 
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