Rural utility to low-carbon industry: Small hydropower and the industrialization of renewable energy in China. Geoforum 95: 59-69.

Abstract: Small-scale renewable energy systems supply electricity in many rural areas of the Global South, and contribute to both rural development and carbon mitigation goals. Yet, despite calls for scaling-up these systems, further expansion is limited by low profits and lack of financing. In China, however, small hydropower (SHP) has grown rapidly from remote plants producing electricity for villagers to one of China’s largest green energy industries. This paper analyzes this transformation from rural utility to green industry, and the profit motivations and political incentives that shape SHP construction and operation. Data were collected from interviews with government officials, SHP investors, plant operators, and farmers in Xinping county, located in Yunnan province in China’s southwest. This study finds that investors and officials are incentivized to build and operate large-scale SHP systems that have a high installed capacity, are situated in multiple-plant cascades, and that attempt to operate year-round, including during the dry season. This can reduce irrigation water access for local farmers and threaten the ecology of local streams. These findings highlight the risks of rapid industrialization of renewable energy in local communities in China and elsewhere. More broadly, this paper suggests that rural development and low-carbon power generation goals are not always mutually reinforcing, and that the aims of industrial renewable energy production should take rural peoples’ needs and contributions into account.


Shades of green energy: Geographies of small hydropower in Yunnan, China and the challenges of over-development. Global Environmental Change 49: 116-128. [with Thomas Hennig]

Abstract: Small hydropower (SHP) has a global reputation as a ‘green’, low-carbon energy source that improves rural livelihoods and contributes to local economic development. In China, SHP has grown rapidly since the early 2000s, particularly in the water-rich provinces in the country’s southwest. However, because SHP plants in China are privately-operated and approved by local governments, there is an incentive to construct large, multiple-cascade systems to generate as much power as possible. In many areas, this has led to over-development of SHP and associated negative environmental and social impacts. In this paper, we identify the factors that shape geographies of SHP over-development, what we refer to as ‘shades’ of green energy. We then analyze the direct and indirect impacts of over-development. We draw on interviews and electricity generation data from six prefectures in Yunnan province, one of the world’s largest hydropower producing regions. We find that prefectures that operate in a semi-autonomous way in electricity management and industrial planning are most prone to over-develop SHP, since they depend on hydropower revenues from electricity generation and local energy-intensive industries. We also find that over-development of SHP causes streamflow reductions and unstable electricity generation, and in some areas, drives an increase in environmentally-destructive mineral processing and reduces irrigation water access.  These findings suggest a need for coordinated river basin planning on small watersheds and a reassessment of the role of SHP in local economic development.


A ‘green’ development model: Transnational model-making in China’s small hydropower training programmes. Area Development and Policy 2 (3): 251-271. 

Abstract: The expansion of Chinese overseas investment and aid over the past decade has triggered concern that China is ‘exporting’ an environmentally destructive development model to other countries. Yet China’s foreign aid also includes training programmes in ‘green’ technologies, such as small hydropower (SHP). This paper analyzes the policies, technologies and ideas around green development that these training programmes promote, and their political and commercial benefits for Chinese actors. It frames training courses and the technology transfer activities that follow as transnational model-making in that they situate SHP as a green model that is an aspect of China’s modernization. This helps to improve China’s developmental reputation and promote its SHP industry and water infrastructure.


Fringe existence: Uyghur entrepreneurs and ethnic relations in urban Xinjiang. In Hillman, B. and Davis, G., eds., Ethnic Conflict and Protest in Tibet and Xinjiang: Unrest in China’s West. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 179-200.

Abstract: In the summer of 2009, tensions between Han and Uyghur residents erupted into violence on the streets of Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Analyses of this outbreak have pointed to economic inequality as a root cause of the violence. In Xinjiang the cities of the industrialized North have experienced rapid urbanization in recent years as both Han and Uyghur migrants arrive seeking employment opportunities. But Uyghurs often find themselves unable to find jobs in the formal private sector and experience segregation in urban labor markets vis-à-vis Han workers. In Urumqi the urban economy is dominated by state owned enterprises and a growing private sector composed largely of Han firms, neither of which hire many Uyghurs. This has created a surplus of Uyghur labor and has exacerbated ethnic tensions, presenting a major impediment to the improvement of ethnic relations following the 2009 violence. 

This chapter demonstrates that an Urumqi “ethnic enclave” of Uyghur businesses is a primary arena of interethnic interaction, tension, and cooperation in Xinjiang. Most Uyghur entrepreneurs, I suggest, cluster in fringe industries and markets where they have a cultural advantage, and they rely almost exclusively on networks with fellow Uyghurs to obtain resources and capital. This restricts their ability to compete with Han firms and stifles long-term growth. I show, however, that the few Uyghur entrepreneurs who have managed to expand their businesses—to “break out” of the ethnic enclave— have built relationships with Han firms and government officials. These entrepreneurs view interethnic cooperation and state support as crucial to the growth of their businesses and to the development of the Uyghur private sector as a whole. They also see themselves as a modernizing force in Uyghur society by challenging “backward” practices and traditions and by providing employment for Uyghur workers. In this way successful entrepreneurs promote business development and interethnic cooperation as a path to modernization, one that is not antagonistic toward the Chinese state.

New Uyghur corporate entrepreneurs in Urumqi, China. Central Asian Survey 31 (2), 175-191. [with Michael Webber]

Abstract: Although China's Uyghurs have progressively engaged in informal trade following economic reforms, in recent years a small group of corporate Uyghur entrepreneurs have positioned themselves in more formal industries where they hold a cultural advantage. However, we argue that the clustering of firms and a lack of experience and capital limits entrepreneurs' ability to compete with established Han businesses. This restricts Uyghur economic participation more generally, contributing to labour-market inequalities and ethnic tension in cities like Urumqi. The authors conclude that government support for Uyghur entrepreneurs is a crucial step to strengthen economic development and reduce ethnic tension in the region.



Private sector development in Xinjiang, China: A comparison between Uyghur and Han. Espace Populations Sociétés 2009/3, 407-418.

Abstract: Private sector development has been sluggish in China’s west, where ethnic minorities make up a sizeable part of the population. In the northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the state maintains a steady presence in the small but growing private sector, largely populated by Han-owned firms and entrepreneurs. The Uyghurs, one of fourteen recognised ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, primarily reside in the poorer agricultural south where the private sector has made few inroads. Not surprisingly, Uyghurs have little presence in the private sector beyond informal trade. This has considerable implications for ethnic relations in a region already threatened by rising Uyghur-Han tensions. Massive ethnic riots in Urumqi in July 2009, sparked by protests by urban Uyghurs, exemplify the significant economic gap between ethnic groups. This paper addresses this disparity in the private sector by investigating two related issues : private sector concentration in Xinjiang’s urban north and levels of participation between Han and Uyghur. It concludes that growth and integration of Uyghur entrepreneurs into the urban private sector forms a crucial step in maintaining ethnic stability in the region.