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

Miners entering a coal mine. Image: Unsplash/Pixabay

This article was originally published by New Security Beat on 13 October, 2015.

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.

First, migrants’ ownership of and employment in many of the companies that exploit natural resources marginalizes local people and threatens their lifestyle and economic subsistence. An unpublished research project I came across in Inner Mongolia funded by a large international foundation that shall remain anonymous to protect the identity of local researchers showed that the majority of Xilingol’s mine workers were from Inner China and even the same hometown as mine owners in some cases.

Resistance to such outsourcing can rise gradually. Initially, local people are often indifferent to large internal migration into “their” territory. “In the first year, migrants are like grandsons; they listen to the locals,” one Mongol respondent told me. “In the second year, they are like friends, and we are equal. But in the third year, they are like grandfathers; they try to control us.”

As tensions rise, companies hire often brutal and generally non-local security guards to protect their assets. This not only escalates the chances for violence but puts migrants on the frontlines of the mining companies’ interactions with locals, as their unofficial face – and muscle.

The Chinese state is reliant on domestic population movements to supply labor for resource exploitation and national development projects. This reduces the government’s ability and willingness to defuse such conflicts when they arise. It also explains why, as my research shows, resource conflicts tainted with migration-related tensions tend to last longer in duration than other resource conflicts.

Beyond the Border

The thorny relationship between internal migration and resource exploitation is not unique to Inner Mongolia.

Since March 2008, Qinghai, Gansu, and other parts of the Greater Tibetan Region have experienced widespread protests and attacks against inter-provincial migrants working in coal mining and diamond excavation. Fujian-born executives of mining companies have become targets of retaliatory attacks by locals, I was told, and road blocks by protestors are becoming so common that companies are now relying on airplanes to transport material out of extraction sites without the awareness of locals.

In Indonesia, notably Riau province, putra daerah or “local sons” have frequently blocked oil operations in an attempt to coerce the government into handing over greater control of oil blocks to the “people of Riau” rather than Jakarta conglomerates – actions that are routinely and violently resisted by corporate security personnel.

The story is as old as time and resonates far and wide, from California to Singapore: Newcomers compete with “locals” over scarce resources and opportunities. Yet in China, Indonesia, and several other large multinational countries, we are seeing two new twists.

First, the migrants are internal rather than international, native to the country but from outside their place of work. This simultaneously makes them local outsiders but national insiders.

Second, such migrants often belong to the country’s largest ethnic group and derive more financial benefits than the local population or have the upper hand when applying for jobs. This siphoning of minority regions’ natural resources by “dominant” migrants adds a particularly sour taste to an already difficult pill to swallow.


Isabelle Côté is an assistant professor of political science at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Canada.

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