In China's Wild West, A Black Gold Rush Takes Shape

Situated at the heart of the Xinjiang region, Karamay is rich in oil and increasingly vital to China’s energy strategy. The ‘black gold’ has fueled local development, and transformed this sleepy backwater. But ethnic splits could create conflict.

Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang
Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang
Harold Thibualt

KARAMAY (Xinjiang) – Standing in front of a stopped truck in the desert, two workers in red overalls are pumping water out of an oil slick before installing a new derrick. The landscape is moonlike. Off on the horizon is the city of Karamay, a bona fide boomtown in northwestern China that has multiplied in only a few short years.

"Here everyone works either directly for oil, or in a service connected to it," one of the workers says. Eight or 10 years ago, Karamay, at the heart of the autonomous region of Xinjiang, was a faceless stop on the road to nowhere. Now, it is difficult to find a bank, hotel, or bus that doesn't bear the Petrochina logo. The company's local headquarters lies proudly at the entrance of the city, and is taller than that of the Communist Party. Between 85% and 90% of the city's economy is directly linked to black gold.

Here and there, dripping oil forms puddles on the ground. The story goes that back in the 1940s, an old Uighur man named Salimuhu discovered the mysterious "black oil" that would give this city its name as well as provide heat and light. He hastened to transport the liquid on the back of a donkey. The country's first oil well—managed directly by Beijing—was opened 10 years later.

The growth in Chinese energy consumption has accelerated the movement. On May 12 the economic planning body of the government announced the suspension of Chinese diesel exports and the "strict control" of foreign sales of other refined petroleum products. The National Commission for Development and Reform called on the three large Chinese producers (Petrochina, Sinopec, and China National Oil Offshore Company) to "ensure full operational capacity," in order to "maintain social stability and support economic growth," just as the price of a barrel of oil had reached 100 dollars.

In 1993, China became a net importer of oil, but the country continues to export refined petroleum products to Vietnam, Japan, and Singapore, as well as some Western countries.

This appetite is noticed in the "city of black oil," where oil rigs are pumping as far as the eye can see. In February, Petrochina announced an increase in production for the Karamay oil field, which in just two months has gone from 25,870 tons to 29,000 tons per day. The most important oil field in the west of the country produced nearly 11 million tons of crude oil last year. In 2011, Petrochina began the exploitation of local oil reserves of heavy crude, whose density makes transporting and refining it more expensive.

"Margin of Development"

The reserves found in Xinjiang explain, in part, Beijing's interest in the region, where ethnic tensions between the migrant Hans and Uighurs are lively and even led to bloody riots in Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang) in July 2009. In Karamay, the equation is simpler because three-fourths of the population are migrant Hans, recruited by Petrochina. The Uighurs say they can be hired only if they can speak Mandarin Chinese. Nevertheless, the two communities rarely mix.

Professor Gou Haitao, a researcher at the Chinese University of Petroleum, explains that Xinjiang is crucial for the energy strategy of the country. A pipeline connects the region to Kazakhstan before the imported oil from Central Asia and the oil produced in Xinjiang are delivered to the coastal industrial provinces of the East. Closest to these dynamic coastal zones, the oil fields of the northeast are emptying.

"In the East, the reserves of black gold are declining after decades of exploitation. The petroleum from Xinjiang offers a very real margin of development," says M. Guo. "The high prices of imported oil are a heavy burden, and China has to change its rate of energy consumption, become more efficient, and reach an equilibrium with available oil resources."

In March, Beijing adopted a new five-year plan that will guide its strategic choices until 2016, anticipating a reduction of its historical dependence on carbon, which currently supplies two thirds of its energy needs, by relying more on renewable energy.

It also predicts new investments in oil, notably in inner Mongolia and of course here in Xinjiang.

Photo - D. Perstin

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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