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Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit


Joint seminar given by Agnieszka Joniak–Lüthi and Tom White:

"Maintaining Relations: Life with and without Roads in Northwest China" & "The Afterlife of the ‘Coloured Steel Hut’: Infrastructure Projects and Eco-Precarity in a Pastoral Region of China"



Agnieszka Joniak–Lüthi, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Fribourg:

Maintaining Relations: Life with and without Roads in Northwest China

For the past twenty years, China has invested massively in long-distance transport infrastructure connecting eastern provinces and the long-underfunded western and northern border regions. Parallel to this, the scope of China’s infrastructural activities has expanded on an unprecedented scale into the territories of its western neighbours. Since 2013, all these projects at the westward arc have been discursively subsumed under the label of the Silk Road Economic Belt. While China has been intent on such construction efforts, the questions of inevitable material decay, as well as the politics of infrastructure maintenance are virtually absent from the debate.

Though decay and maintenance lack the freshness and appeal of construction, discussing them is crucial for a number of reasons. First, Chinese border regions abound in ruins produced by earlier developmental campaigns: villages to which people never moved, development zones that have not attracted businesses and bombastic museums that do not house any exhibitions. Is this going to be the fate of the currently built infrastructure, too? Second, unlike construction that is a one-time intervention, maintenance implies a prolonged presence, a presence that may cause tensions. Third, it is necessary to discuss maintenance beyond functionalist arguments. Research shows that road construction may not aim at establishing connectivity, and maintenance at upholding such connectivity, both being rather part of larger business dependencies, loyalty entanglements, and political agendas.

Steven Jackson (2015) emphasizes the importance of discussing repair as a way to deconstruct ‘seemingly unassailable systems’ such as market, capital and modernity. In this talk I focus on how normative ideas about infrastructure become entangled in social relations that transform the intentions, often unrecognizably, and where grand strategies disintegrate into situated social practice and local idioms.


Tom White, Mongolia & Inner Asia Studies Unit, University of Cambridge; University of Fribourg:

The Afterlife of the ‘Coloured Steel Hut’: Infrastructure Projects and Eco-Precarity in a Pastoral Region of China

In recent years, pastoral areas of Inner Mongolia have been transformed by two key imperatives of the contemporary Chinese state: rural infrastructure modernization, and grassland conservation in the name of ‘ecological civilization’. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in western Inner Mongolia, this paper explores how contradictions between these imperatives, and the uncertainty they give rise to among herders, are mediated by a particular, recontextualized object: the ‘coloured steel hut’ (caigang fang). 

These structures, found throughout China, normally appear as the materialization of China’s distinctive labour regime, providing temporary accommodation for rural-to-urban migrant workers. However, following the completion in 2017 of an important national highway which traverses western Inner Mongolia, huts which had housed migrant road builders were repurposed by local herders to make piecemeal improvements to their homesteads (e.g. car garages) that were not part of the state’s official vision of rural modernization. While in some cases local officials have ordered their demolition, they have remained popular because herders, fearing resettlement in the city in the name of grassland conservation, are reluctant to make more substantial investments in their rural homes. In other cases, resettled herders whose older, brick-built rural houses had been demolished on the orders of officials, but who were unable to find employment in the city, have been tacitly permitted to return to their pastures, on the condition that they occupy nothing more permanent than a coloured steel hut. 

This paper analyses the hut as a site of unexpected convergence between China’s migrant labour regime, normally associated with its booming cities, and the regime of state environmentalism that characterises the country’s ethnic borderlands. The afterlife of the coloured steel hut also reveals the informal strategies deployed by both herders and local officials in the shadow of grand projects of rural modernization and ecological civilization, as these structures enable improvisatory home-making on the part of herders, while also being deployed by the local state as a technology of temporariness to manage a new eco-precariat. 



In-person seminar taking place at the Mond seminar room (limited number of attendees) and live streamed via zoom – please contact should you wish to attend and for further information.


Tuesday, 8 March, 2022 - 16:30 to 18:00
Event location: 
Mond Building Seminar Room, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RF