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ZHU, Qian. 2022. River-sand Mining: An Ethnography of Resource Conflict in China. Leiden: Brill.

Jing Vivian Zhan
p. 70-71

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1China is a resource-rich country hosting a large variety of mineral resources, and the extractive industries play important roles in the local economy of many regions. But the environmental, economic, and particularly sociopolitical impacts of the extractive industries have received limited attention from scholarly circles. Against this backdrop, River-sand Mining: An Ethnography of Resource Conflict in China is a much-needed study on the sociopolitical impacts of mineral extraction in contemporary China. Among the more than 200 types of minerals actively explored in China, this book focuses on river sand, a commonly seen mineral that is widely used in construction projects. Taking an ethnographical approach and based on extensive field research in multiple localities of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the author provides a panoramic view of the political ecology of river-sand mining in local China and rich empirical details about the motives and behaviours of various stakeholders involved in the mining business, including the legal and illegal miners, indigenous villagers, local government officials, etc.

2The book contains eight chapters. Except for the introduction and conclusion chapters and the second chapter, which introduces the research design and data sources, the other five empirical chapters are organised around some major aspects and stakeholders of the river-sand business. Chapter Three discusses the commodification of river sand and the ecological consequences of river-sand mining, which explains why river-sand mining has become a lucrative business in recent decades and how it has given rise to frequent resource conflicts in the mining areas. This chapter sets the background for the analysis in the following chapters. Chapter Four further offers the Chinese government’s project-based development and massive infrastructural construction as an explanation for why sand has become a widely sought-after commodity and has seen rising prices that have attracted legal and illegal miners into the business. Despite some interesting anecdotes about rural infrastructural construction, this chapter is only loosely connected with the rest of the book. Chapter Five introduces the national laws and regulations governing river-sand mining and describes the fragmented bureaucratic management below the provincial level, which explains the prevalent illegal mining and corruption in the towns and villages in Guangxi. Given the problematic legal and administrative structure, Chapters Six and Seven zoom in on local citizens and analyse the negative environmental, economic, and sociopolitical impacts of river-sand mining on rural communities. They provide first-hand information on how the livelihood of indigenous villagers has been adversely affected by the chaotic extraction and how villagers try to resist the mining activities through contentions, petitions to the government, protests on social media, and religious beliefs. These two chapters present a vivid picture of the causes and patterns of the resource conflicts aroused by river-sand mining.

3As a native of the research site, the author shows strong devotion to the Zhuang people and communities under this study. She examines the mining areas and villagers both as a researcher and as a member of the community, which allows her to collect abundant insider information and keenly observe many details that other researchers may not pay attention to. The unique perspective enables this research to cover almost every important aspect of the river-sand mining business, ranging from the legal and administrative framework, market conditions, and daily operations of mining activities, to the impacts on and interactions with local citizens. Although it is a case study on one type of mineral extraction in southwest China, it depicts a rich picture of the political ecology of small mining businesses in local China. For people interested in understanding the extractive industries and their environmental and sociopolitical implications in China and beyond, the book provides plenty of interesting and useful information.

4That being said, the author could have made better use of the rich empirical details to conduct more in-depth analyses and connect with wider areas of research. To begin with, the author emphasises the Zhuang people as an ethnic minority with indigenous ecological knowledge in the introduction. But the empirical analysis throughout the book does not lay out how Zhuang people may think or behave differently from Han people or other ethnic groups. What’s unique about the Zhuang people and how ethnicity matters for the subject under discussion could be further explored and potentially contribute to ethnic studies. Second, the author distinguishes among river-sand miners on different dimensions, such as legal vs. illegal miners, local vs. nonlocal miners, and male vs. female miners, which are all interesting distinctions. Whether and how the different types of miners behave differently could be more carefully examined. For instance, compared with nonlocal mining companies who just extract sand from the locality and make money, do local miners care more about the interests of fellow villagers because of their shared identity and longer time horizon for interaction? And do illegal miners more easily get into conflicts with the villagers than legal miners do? These questions would be interesting to scholars studying the political economy of resource extraction. Third, based on field research in multiple villages, the author draws tables showing the characteristics of individual villages. But there is a lack of detailed analysis on how these villages manage river-sand mining and the related social conflicts, protests, corruption, etc. If the author could conduct some comparative case studies across the villages, the book could potentially offer more insights into rural governance in China.

5Overall, this book tells a typical story of what I shall call the local resource curse: whereas the abundant mineral resources make mining businesspeople rich and contribute to the local economy, the extractive activities impose multidimensional negative externalities on the local communities and citizens, such as environmental damage, economic costs, health losses, and social conflicts. Therefore, the uneven distribution of the benefits and costs makes the mining business an unfair game and prone to conflicts between the winners and losers. Meanwhile, this book reveals the gap between national policies regulating the extractive industries and actual implementation on the ground: while there are laws and regulations from top down, local governance is often ineffective, leaving ample space for corruption and local state capture by the mining businesses, often at the expense of local citizens. With these important findings, this book is a welcome addition to the growing research on the impact of mineral resource extraction on local development and governance in contemporary China.

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Bibliographical reference

Jing Vivian Zhan, ZHU, Qian. 2022. River-sand Mining: An Ethnography of Resource Conflict in China. Leiden: Brill.China Perspectives, 2022/04 | 2022, 70-71.

Electronic reference

Jing Vivian Zhan, ZHU, Qian. 2022. River-sand Mining: An Ethnography of Resource Conflict in China. Leiden: Brill.China Perspectives [Online], 2022/04 | 2022, Online since 22 December 2022, connection on 01 April 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jing Vivian Zhan

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