Linsey Ly
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Spectral cities and rare earth mining in the North China Plain

Seeking to make sense of a place that is at once disappearing and coming into being, this chapter narrates how the various geological, political, environmental and material landscapes captured in a satellite image of the Bayan Obo Mining Complex in Inner Mongolia have been obliterated, resurrected and transformed by the engineering of official state futures and accumulation of Chinese state capital. I seek to tell a story about how palimpsest landscapes that proliferate with disappeared lakes, expanding desert systems and haunted cities can tell us something more about non-Western public spheres marked by market socialism, the aftermath of Sino-Soviet collaboration and post-atomic nuclear histories. These sites, with their monumental futures, trace precarity’s forms: disappearance, absence and the immaterial. These processes, these uncanny uncertainties of presence, link official state futures with its promises of infinite economic development to the endlessly deferred, absent and recursive futures that have shaped China’s long twentieth century. Earthly and political rhythms demand new vocabularies for futures that end, recycle, endure and recur again. Shifting earth, mobile deserts and rivers reversed rework the chronopolitics of the grand futures of state-sponsored economic development, where people exist in the grim anticipatory state of the not-yet-buried.

Resource imaginaries and rare earth frontiers

I am inside the Kangbashi New District Urban Planning and Exhibition Hall. Before me, there is a full-scale architectural model of the very city we are standing in, precise to a startling degree of accuracy. In the miniaturized version of the museum on the 3D map that houses this microcosmic rendering of the city, I half expect to see a replication of myself taking notes, a simulacrum world within another world. Built in the mid-1980s at the height of Deng-era economic reform and the pursuit of a ‘socialist market economy’, Kangbashi is among China's first prototypes in an experimental urban planning strategy of prefabricating futurist metropolises. These would eventually accumulate to produce the phenomenon of modern ghost cities: fully realized modernist cosmopolises, profoundly absent of inhabitants. Under the conditions of what I call spectral urbanism, these new cities provide a large-scale stage for the Communist Party of China's (CPC) repeated campaigns to modernize the nation by rendering the future into being. In each modern ghost city, an urban exhibition hall houses these reformulations of past, present and future, broadcasting to audiences how the new city is a blueprint of the nation's ‘prosperous and harmonious future’.

Figure 12.1 Composite image of a rare earths mining complex in Baotou, Inner Mongolia.

During the revolutionary years of Maoist politics between 1949 and 1976, urbanism became the expression of a goal to transform society through centralized planning, a science of social design and organization that would link Marxian theory with practice, where cities became the stage for actual enactments of socialist modernity and the measure of its progress. An array of survey materials with population projections, land-density statistics and GDP graphs suggests that the future is not only knowable but quantifiable.

Maps, photos and satellite images are similarly used as forms of empirical visual evidence because they can be said to provide a kind of visual testimony that attests to the facticity of a thing, its actually existing reality in the world. As evidentiary artefacts, visual texts often record, document or capture what is visibly present within the frame of perception. But ‘evidence’ does more than just tell it like it is, as the chapter by Kushinski (Chapter 3) on the livestreaming of efforts to cap the Deepwater Horizon blowout makes clear. The technologies that produce these kinds of objects and anchor attendant claims about what can be known about the world have long been used as tools for the deployment of imperial imaginaries and empire building, particularly when in service of military campaigns, claims to territorial sovereignty and nation-state consolidation. In the case of this composite image (Figure 12.1) of a rare earth mining complex in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, rare earths are also fundamental to almost every aspect of the commodity chain involved in the recording, production and circulation of this satellite image. What Ferry and Limbert (2019) call ‘resource imaginaries’ are caught up in particular temporalities: ways of imagining the past, present and future that shape the ways we use, produce, name, allocate and manage resources and the affective states they often invoke, whether it is hope, despondency, resignation or competition. In this sense, substances as abundant as rare earth minerals that are framed as scarce are not just found or discovered, but in fact emerge through practices of making and imagining resources. The role of photographic evidence and visual surveillance in staking these claims has far-reaching implications for how social actors understand the relationship between territory, state sovereignty and resource commodities.

Rare earths are not only implicated in every step of producing this satellite image of a large-scale mining complex; they are fundamental to the ‘green’ technologies at the heart of liberal environmental justice narratives that ultimately centre on the reproduction of mineral capital. Rare earths are essential for the permanent magnets that allow wind turbines to operate. Royal Dutch Shell has taken considerable stakes in wind energy providers, describing itself to investors in 2018 as an ‘energy transition company’. Since 2020, BP has signed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the supply of wind turbine technology to emerge from General Electric. The production of these green technology commodities forms the most developed and comprehensive response to the call to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and curb carbon emissions in an effort to address climate change. Yet, in their reliance on rare earth extraction and processing, such ‘green’ technologies are sustained by the very pollution and environmental degradation that they seek to address, whereby a global division of toxic labour has emerged that relegates the devastating cost of manufacturing rare earth commodities to China's industrial heartland. These frontier zones are caught up in the confrontation of urban development and rare earths mining.

Even as they are essential to technologies such as the engineering and manufacture of wind turbines associated with the pursuit of sustainable futures in line with the 2015 Paris climate targets, the extraction, production and surplus waste of rare earth commodities drive us ever closer to ecological disaster and life-systems collapse in the areas where they are mined and processed.

Viewed in the national imaginary as China's cultural and geographic periphery, Inner Mongolia is a provincial-level autonomous region that has long been viewed as a frontier zone for the extraction of natural resources. The high environmental cost of mineral ore, processing rare earth metals and storing the toxic waste produced by these extractive industries is often positioned in public discourse as a strategic necessity legitimized by the benefits of modernization, securing China's position in the global economic order. Turning Inner Mongolia into a frontier zone that can be mined for rare earths, despite the certainty of long-term life-systems collapse, is linked to the ‘politics of sacrifice’ essential to settler-colonial imaginaries. These optics demonstrate how states must view land as ‘empty’ territories ‘absent of life’ so that the extraction of resources can take place, often at the expense of already existing human, animal and plant life. Territories that are largely considered ‘wasteland’ do not exist outside of these optics. As Anna Tsing has observed, ‘frontiers are created so they can be blasted away’. Inner Mongolia must be positioned as a sacrifice zone, in order to be subjected to policies of constant political, material and economic revision by the state's latest notion of the national future. This push to modernize, urbanize, develop and ‘catch up’ with other developed nations was throughout the twentieth century anchored to a future-oriented imaginary. This deferred vision or ideal of what Chinese society can be is always located in another temporal field, the yet-to-be, that legitimizes the costs and sacrifices of the present.

From the period of Sino-Soviet collaboration to high Maoist socialism, the practice of realizing these visions of progress at the margins of the collective imaginary has shaped the landscape, peoples and body politic of Inner Mongolia into different versions of state futures, not relegated to history. Here, at the so-called edges of the nation, the state often concentrates its most stringent economic development plans, placing this ‘frontier zone’ at the centre of national policy and planning. These long-term modernization programmes have lately resurrected elements of a Sino-imperial colonialist imaginary, sustaining forms of territorial and temporal displacement that draw on the views of previous imperial governance. These fundamental contradictions of contemporary life in China in the aftermath of neoliberal economic reform make visible the violence of global circuits of capital as they are routed through racial fault lines previously inscribed through settler colonialism. 1 Racialized antagonisms are exacerbated by state-funded resettlement in the autonomous region, resurrecting notions of sociocultural and biological difference between Han Chinese, ethnic Mongol and other Indigenous groups, in struggles over primordial claims to the use-value of broken earth.

The satellite image in Figure 12.1 depicts mining operations in an outlying border province in China's contested northern territories. Throughout the twentieth century, this region was continuously remade in successive stages of governance, from imperial Japan to the period of Sino-Soviet collaboration. As Julie Klinger (2017) notes in her work, frontiers are not found but made. Subject to constant revision, the land here and its peoples have provided a stage for the deployment of state futures, from the imperial aspirations of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo to the promissory optimism of agrarian collectivization under Mao, mass famine following the Great Leap Forward and environmental degradation in the wake of industrialization that secured China's economic rise after the period of market liberalization. The material remains of these imaginaries, traces of which sediment in the land and in collective memory, in abandoned infrastructures and repurposed cities, form stratigraphic layers that variously submerge, settle and now rupture forth, unearthed through the extractive regimes and mining practices driving the People's Republic of China's economic policies. While the satellite image makes the mine and its topographical features visible, it also makes present the processes of displacement, violence and profound absence that have been central to the development of contemporary China. Now, as the CPC looks to pull its unruly margins within the centrifugal influence of the state once again, there is a temporal uncertainty that threatens to unsettle these futural orientations.

The use of racial ordering that builds upon these hierarchies of difference is thus indelibly linked to the violence of buried mineral capital. Mineral capital names the subterranean pursuit, discovery and extraction of value in the Earth's subsoils, the way these socio-material entanglements shape and are shaped by the emergent landscapes they finance – in this case urban, ecological and temporal. In this way, entire subterranean and urban life-worlds are simultaneously made possible by the opening of rare earths mines, which are in turn bound to the surface environments of which they are a part. Beliefs about the use-value of increasingly compromised land from the perspective of the various governmental orders that have laid claim to this contest draw on the unsettled pasts of colonial violence, national identity and extractive regimes that resurrect frontier narratives as the basis for claims to sovereignty.

Ghost cities and mineral capital in China's frontier zones

Here, at the end of the world, frontiers are rendered figuratively absent and literally rended of life. Mythologized as the birthplace of Han civilization, Inner Mongolia's environments are now officially recognized as potent sites of extraction, a strategic resource frontier where mineral capital's potentiality and value are laced through the soil in mineral deposits now claimed by the state as a form of national patrimony. Under a neoliberal capitalist reordering of space, ethnic Mongols and other Indigenous minorities with a priori claims to the land are dehumanized through a settler-colonial imaginary, operating vis-à-vis racializing discourses, that transforms them from sovereign to colonial subjects. The subterranean obliteration of the Earth through large-scale mining practices cannot take place without also annihilating surface landscapes and livelihoods, disjoining toponyms from the places they named just decades before. I argue that the spectacular scale – the spectacle – of this form of destruction, the immense expenditure of productive violence necessary to the circulation and accumulation of mineral capital, is always already haunted by its own spectral precondition: an economy of death and excess.

The metonymy between the present absence of a tabula rasa frontier, the blasted landscapes of mining zones and the empty high-rises of the modern ghost city makes visible what is there and not there. What is distinctive about the project of internal neocolonialism of China's modernity is the way urban development patterns and mining industries both work in tandem and yet produce contradictory futures.

Chinese capitalism and imperial ruins

The relationship between imperialism and ruination that is expressed in the concept of ‘modern ruins’ has been taken up by scholars such as Laura Ann Stoler and Anna Tsing to show the persistence of the colonial past in the present, that the project of colonialism which modernity had relegated to the confines of history is alive and thrives in the forms of global capital and the profound inequalities of life and resources that it produces. This notion of the afterlife of empire refuses linear narratives of progressivist history, yet remains embedded in notions of a temporal past. Visual artists have also grappled with how to make sense of an imperial past that will not stay in the past but impresses itself on the present through scarred landscapes and the persistence of racialized forms of exploitation, as discussed by Styve (Chapter 21). Part of what makes this satellite image of Baotou compelling is that it is constituted by so many visions, versions and attempts to project futures, to effect transformation in society, to enact modernity: from the grand social engineering endeavours of Sino-Soviet collaboration, the Japanese Imperial Army's puppet state, failed revolutionary promises of high Maoist socialism and, more recently, the disfiguring force of market socialism. To varying degrees, the materiality of the Earth and the mineral ore mined here has played a part in each instantiation of these regimes and forms of governance.

This rendering of the Earth's topographical features can be read as both a representational image and a text. Even in their claims to objective empiricism, in the use of photographs as a form of evidence seeking to substantiate, record or document, as representational and evidentiary artefacts, there is always a particular narrative being constructed, even if that narrative is about a self-referential claim to authority. Political domination and public dissent are premised on speculation about the afterlife and futures of the image. How is the Chinese state both regressive and experimental in its use of the image to enact the real? How are sight, the image and the privileged status of the visual anchored to forms of positivist thinking?

Even as the optic frames of the state which look to large-scale infrastructural projects to produce and reproduce their own monumental modernism, these structures in their grandness can also tend towards a betraying of their contradictions. Surveillance can be thwarted, pressure resisted. Mineral wounds laid bare, veins of toxic water captured in their brilliance. Mineral mines are homes and abodes of accumulation. They connect surface and below-ground, provide an entry point, an articulated joint of metabolism, passage and transference. The injunction to dig, uncover and unearth is always already accompanied by the particular violence of exploration's imperative to know. The role of the state and the use of the God's-eye view to naturalize manufactured landscapes flattens history/sociality/life to a feature of the land, rather than highlighting the vibrations of their vitality, their co-constitution, our interconnectedness.

The history of geological exploration and its role in the deployment of colonial visions of world order has been well documented from the perspective of the British empire, as well as in relation to European adventurers in China (Shen 2014), but it is as critical to understanding the lens through which the CPC views its own colonial subjects. Inner Mongolia is today the centre and origin of the trade in rare earths, commodities considered to be a crucial resource material by the US Geological Survey and European Commission and for the complex of capital interests they represent. This discourse of resource necessity, in tandem with the idea of resource scarcity, legitimizes efforts to repossess large swaths of Inner Mongolia, displacing existing populations of ethnically Indigenous minorities and other subaltern citizens. Inner Mongolia and, in particular, the area surrounding the Bayan Obo Steel and Rare Earths Mining Complex are considered to be frontier spaces in the cultural imaginary of the nation-state, but borderlands do not simply exist, they must be made. Satellite images are so often inculcated in establishing the presumed emptiness of a landscape where the absence of people enables the violent expulsions of settler colonialism and the rending of environments.

As a mineralogical punctuation event in geological processes, the Anthropocene is the name of an empire not yet at its end. Any accounting of the force and trajectory by which the world is continuously fashioned in this necessarily reorganizes ongoing geosocial processes. Geology is a transactional zone in which ideas about ‘Origins’, subjectivity and mattering become entwined with histories of dispossession, displacement and violence. In this thinking about geology as an intensive, extractive praxis and cosmology there is a constant need to question what Tuck and Yang (2012) refer to as settler ‘moves to innocence’; a newly found consciousness that permeates scientific and public discourses buttressed by a wilful unknowing: a conscientious failure to acknowledge the violent repercussions of colonialism, industrialization and capitalist modes of production. Domesticating extraction, and rendering the artefacts of extractive industries as playful features of an ‘everyday’ landscape, as Szeman (Chapter 1) describes, encapsulates the entanglement of extraction, settler colonialism and just such moves to innocence. Naming these forms of violence and their excess is to refuse their status as epiphenomenal events in liberalism's origin narratives wherein the positioning of politics answers the need to justify or explain away the centrality/embeddedness in the taking of life. In the eclipse of modernity, the misguided history lesson of histories is to place the repressive dimensions of coloniality and racialization firmly in the past, while continuing to perpetuate a settler-colonial present. The injunction to settle Western colonial knowledge production and extractive practices while simultaneously domesticating and resettling them into new territories and frontiers – armed with eco-optimism and geoengineering – overcomes coloniality without relinquishing its power continuously generated in the ability to make and imagine the good life: to formulate, implement and speak to/of/from the future.

Further resources

Klinger, J. M. (2017) Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

Lithium Worlds’. (accessed 14 September 2022).

Tsing, A. (2003) ‘Natural resources and capitalist frontiers’. Economic and Political Weekly 38(48): 5100–5106.

Works cited

Ferry, E. and Limbert, F. (2019) Timely Assets: The Politics of Resources and Their Temporalities. Santa Fe: SAR Press.

Klinger, J. M. (2017) Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

Shen, G. Y. (2014) Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K. (2012) ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1–40.


1 On the racial fault lines inscribed by settler colonialism see also Szeman (Chapter 1), Lassiter (Chapter 2), Comyn (Chapter 4), Cordes (Chapter 5), Randell-Moon (Chapter 14) and Nir (Chapter 16).
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The entangled legacies of empire

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