Skip to main content Accessibility help

Demographic Engineering and International Conflict: Evidence from China and the Former USSR

  • Lachlan McNamee and Anna Zhang

When and where do states coercively alter their internal demography? We build a theory that predicts under what conditions states alter the demographic “facts on the ground” by resettling and expelling ethno-national populations. We predict that, under particular scope conditions, states will employ demographic engineering to shore up control over (1) nonnatural frontiers, and (2) areas populated by ethnic minorities who are co-ethnics with elites in a hostile power. We then substantiate our predictions using new subnational data from both China and the USSR. Causally identifying the spatially differential effect of international conflict on demographic engineering via a difference-in-differences design, we find that the Sino-Soviet split (1959–1982) led to a disproportionate increase in the expulsion of ethnic Russians and resettlement of ethnic Han in Chinese border areas lacking a natural border with the USSR, and that resettlement was targeted at areas populated by ethnic Russians. On the Soviet side, we similarly find that the Sino-Soviet split led to a significant increase in expulsion of Chinese and the resettlement of Russians in border areas, and that resettlement was targeted at areas populated by more Chinese. We develop the nascent field of political demography by advancing our theoretical and empirical understanding of when, where, and to whom states seek to effect demographic change. By demonstrating that both ethnic group concentration and dispersion across borders are endogenous to international conflict, our results complicate a large and influential literature linking ethnic demography to conflict.

Hide All

We thank Avi Acharya, Claire Adida, Michael Albertus, Lisa Blaydes, Songying Fang, Jim Fearon, Jackelyn Hwang, David Laitin, Hans Lueders, Scott Newman, Jean Oi, Jonathan Rodden, Aliya Saperstein, Ken Scheve, Ken Schultz, Mike Tomz, Jeremy Weinstein, and participants in the 2017 Midwest Political Science Association conference, the 2017 Australian Quantitative Political Science Conference, the Stanford China Social Sciences Workshop, Stanford International Relations Workshop, Stanford Migration Ethnicity Race and Nation Workshop, the Higher School of Economics, the 2018 Pacific International Politics Conference, 2018 International Political Science Association Annual Meeting, and the 2018 Peace Science Studies Annual Meeting for valuable comments. Many thanks also to three anonymous reviewers and to the editors of IO for their comments which greatly improved the paper.

Hide All
An, Tai-sung. 1973. The Sino-Soviet Territorial Dispute. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press.
Arellano, Manuel. 1987. Computing Robust Standard Errors for Within-groups Estimators. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics 49 (4):431–34.
Balcells, Laia, and Steele, Abbey. 2016. Warfare, Political Identities, and Displacement in Spain and Colombia. Political Geography 51:1529.
Banister, Judith. 1991. China's Changing Population. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Banister, Judith. 2001. Impacts of Migration to China's Border Regions. In Demography and National Security, edited by Weiner, Myron and Russell, Sharon Stanton, 256302. New York: Berghahn Books.
Blaydes, Lisa. 2018. State of Repression: Iraq Under Saddam Hussein. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Bleuer, Christian. 2012. State-building, Migration and Economic Development on the Frontiers of Northern Afghanistan and Southern Tajikistan. Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (1):6979.
Bookman, Milica Zarkovic. 1997. The Demographic Struggle for Power: The Political Economy of Demographic Engineering in the Modern World. Abingdon, UK: Taylor and Francis.
Buhaug, Halvard, and Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede. 2008. Contagion or Confusion? Why Conflicts Cluster in Space. International Studies Quarterly 52 (2):215–33.
Bulutgil, H. Zeynep. 2016. The Roots of Ethnic Cleansing in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Carter, David B. 2010. The Strategy of Territorial Conflict. American Journal of Political Science 54 (4):969–87.
Carter, David B., and Poast, Paul. 2015. Why Do States Build Walls? Political Economy, Security, and Border Stability. Journal of Conflict Resolution 61 (2):239–70.
Cederman, Lars-Erik, Buhaug, Halvard, and Rød, Jan Ketil. 2009. Ethno-nationalist Dyads and Civil War: A GIS Based Analysis. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (4):496525.
Cederman, Lars-Erik, Girardin, Luc, and Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede. 2009. Ethnonationalist Triads Assessing the Influence of Kin Groups on Civil Wars. World Politics 61 (3):403–37.
Chen, Jian. 2006. The Tibetan Rebellion of 1959 and China's Changing Relations with India and the Soviet Union. Journal of Cold War Studies 8 (3):54101.
Chen, Jian. 2010. Mao's China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Cornell, Svante E. 2002. Autonomy As a Source of Conflict: Caucasian Conflicts in Theoretical Perspective. World Politics 54 (2):245–76.
Darden, Keith, and Mylonas, Harris. 2016. Threats to Territorial Integrity, National Mass Schooling, and Linguistic Commonality. Comparative Political Studies 49 (11):1446–79.
Downes, Alexander B. 2008. Targeting Civilians in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Fall, Juliet J. 2010. Artificial States? On the Enduring Geographical Myth of Natural Borders. Political Geography 29 (3):140–47.
Fan, C. Cindy. 2007. China on the Move: Migration, the State, and the Household. New York: Routledge.
Fearon, James D., and Laitin, David D.. 2011. Sons of the Soil, Migrants, and Civil War. World Development 39 (2):199211.
Fravel, M. Taylor. 2008. Strong Borders, Secure Nation : Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ginsburgs, George. 1978. The Sino-Soviet Territorial Dispute, 1949–64. New York: Praeger.
Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede, Salehyan, Idean, and Schultz, Kenneth. 2008. Fighting at Home, Fighting Abroad: How Civil Wars Lead to Interstate Disputes. Journal of Conflict Resolution 52 (4):479506.
Goemans, H.E., and Schultz, Kenneth A.. 2016. The Politics of Territorial Disputes: A Geospatial Approach Applied to Africa. International Organization 71 (1):3164.
Goemans, Hein. 2006. Bounded Communities: Territoriality, Territorial Attachment, and Conflict. In Territoriality and Conflict in an Era of Globalization, edited by Kahler, Miles and Walter, Barbara F., 2561. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Goldstone, Jack A., Kaufmann, Eric P., and Toft, Monica Duffy. 2012. Political Demography: How Population Changes Are Reshaping International Security and National Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
Greenhill, Kelly M. 2008. Strategic Engineered Migration as a Weapon of War. Civil Wars 10 (1):621.
Hägerdal, Nils. 2017. Ethnic Cleansing and the Politics of Restraint: Violence and Coexistence in the Lebanese Civil War. Journal of Conflict Resolution 63 (1):5984.
Haklai, Oded, and Loizides, Neophytos. 2015. Settlers and Conflict Over Contested Territories. In Settlers in Contested Lands: Territorial Disputes and Ethnic Conflicts, edited by Haklai, Oded and Loizides, Neophytos, 116. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Han, Enze, and Mylonas, Harris. 2014. Interstate Relations, Perceptions, and Power Balance: Explaining China's Policies Toward Ethnic Groups, 1949–1965. Security Studies 23 (1):148–81.
Hazarika, Sanjoy. 2001. A Question of Outsiders: Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan. In Demography and National Security, edited by Weiner, Myron and Russell, Sharon Stanton, 228–55. New York: Berghahn Books.
Herbst, Jeffrey. 1990. War and the State in Africa. International Security 14 (4):117–39.
Honaker, James, King, Gary, and Blackwell, Matthew. 2011. Amelia II: A Program for Missing Data. Journal of Statistical Software 45 (7):147.
Horowitz, Donald L. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Watch, Human Rights. 2000. Burma/Bangladesh: Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Huth, Paul K. 1998. Standing Your Ground: Territorial Disputes and International Conflict. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Kalyvas, Stathis N. 2006. The Logic of Violence in Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Keegan, John. 1993. A History of Warfare. New York: Knopf.
Kitamura, Shuhei, and Lagerlöf, Nils-Petter. 2015. Natural Borders. Seminar Paper 773. Stockholm: Institute for International Economic Studies.
Kocs, Stephen A. 1995. Territorial Disputes and Interstate War, 1945–1987. Journal of Politics 57 (1):159–75.
Laitin, David D. 1998. Identity in Formation: The Russian-speaking Populations in the Near Abroad. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Lee, Melissa M. 2018. The International Politics of Incomplete Sovereignty: How Hostile Neighbors Weaken the State. International Organization 72 (2):283315.
Li, Chengrui. 1985. The Reliability of China's 1982 Population Census Data. Paper presented at the International Population Conference, June, Florence.
Li, Wenshu. 2017. Goodbye, Lake Changshou. [In Chinese] Available at <>. Accessed 9 January 2018.
Liang, Zai, and White, Michael J.. 1996. Internal Migration in China, 1950–1988. Demography 33 (3):375–84.
Lichtenheld, Adam. 2018. Explaining Population Displacement Strategies in Civil War: A Cross-National Analysis. Available at <> accessed 02/02/19.
Lustick, Ian. 1993. Unsettled States, Disputed Lands: Britain and Ireland, France and Algeria, Israel and the West Bank-Gaza. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Lüthi, Lorenz M. 2010. The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ma, Rong. 2011. Population and Society in Contemporary Tibet. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Mao, Zedong. 1974. Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed: Talks and Letters, 1956–71. London: Penguin.
Martin, Terry. 2001. Stalinist Forced Relocation Policies. In Demography and National Security, edited by Weiner, Myron and Russell, Sharon Stanton, 305–39. New York: Berghahn Books.
McGarry, John. 1998. “Demographic Engineering”: The State-directed Movement of Ethnic Groups As a Technique of Conflict Regulation. Ethnic and Racial Studies 21 (4):613–38.
McNamee, Lachlan. 2018. Mass Resettlement and Political Violence: Evidence from Rwanda. World Politics 70 (4):595644.
Meng, Xin, Qian, Nancy, and Yared, Pierre. 2015. The Institutional Causes of China's Great Famine, 1959–1961. The Review of Economic Studies 82 (4):1568–611.
Morelli, Massimo, and Rohner, Dominic. 2015. Resource Concentration and Civil Wars. Journal of Development Economics 117 (C):3247.
Morland, Paul. 2014. Demographic Engineering: Population Strategies in Ethnic Conflict. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Mylonas, Harris. 2012. The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Natali, Denise. 2015. Settlers and State-building: The Kirkuk Case. In Settlers in Contested Lands: Territorial Disputes and Ethnic Conflicts, edited by Haklai, Oded and Loizides, Neophytos, 114–40. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Posner, Daniel N. 2005. Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Pounds, Norman. 1972. Political Geography. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Robinson, Thomas W. 1972. The Sino-Soviet Border Dispute: Background, Development, and the March 1969 Clashes. American Political Science Review 66 (4):1175–202.
Sahlins, Peter. 1989. Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Salehyan, Idean. 2009. Rebels Without Borders. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Sambanis, Nicholas, Skaperdas, Stergios, and Wohlforth, William C.. 2015. Nation-building Through War. American Political Science Review 109 (2):279–96.
Schultz, Kenneth A. 2017. Mapping Interstate Territorial Conflict: A New Dataset and Applications. Journal of Conflict Resolution 61 (7):1565–90.
Senese, Paul D. 2005. Territory, Contiguity, and International Conflict: Assessing a New Joint Explanation. American Journal of Political Science 49 (4):769–79.
Simmons, Beth A. 2005. Rules Over Real Estate; Trade, Territorial Conflict and International Borders as Institutions. Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (6):823–48.
Steele, Abbey. 2011. Electing Displacement: Political Cleansing in Apartadó, Colombia. Journal of Conflict Resolution 55 (3):423–45.
Teitelbaum, Michael S. 2015. Political Demography: Powerful Trends Under-attended by Demographic Science. Population Studies 69 (S1):S87S95.
Tilly, Charles. 1990. Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990—1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.
Toft, Monica Duffy. 2003. The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Valentino, Benjamin, Huth, Paul, and Balch-Lindsay, Dylan. 2004. “Draining the Sea”: Mass Killing and Guerrilla Warfare. International Organization 58 (2):375407.
Vasquez, John A. 1993. The War Puzzle. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Vasquez, John, and Henehan, Marie T.. 2001. Territorial Disputes and the Probability of War, 1816–1992. Journal of Peace Research 38 (2):123–38.
Weidmann, Nils B. 2009. Geography As Motivation and Opportunity: Group Concentration and Ethnic Conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (4):526–43.
Weiner, Myron, and Russell, Sharon Stanton. 2001. Introduction. In Demography and National Security, edited by Weiner, Myron and Russell, Sharon Stanton, 117. New York: Berghahn Books.
White, Lynn T. 1979. The Road to Urumchi: Approved Institutions in Search of Attainable Goals During Pre-1968 Rustication from Shanghai. The China Quarterly 79:481510.
Xu, Yiqing. 2017. Generalized Synthetic Control Method: Causal Inference with Interactive Fixed Effects Models. Political Analysis 25 (1):5776.
Zhang, Anfu. 2011. The Northwestern Frontier During the Sino-Soviet Military Standoff: Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp to Enhance Military Stock. Contemporary Studies of Chinese History 18 (4):100–28.
Zhukov, Yuri M. 2015. Population Resettlement in War: Theory and Evidence From Soviet Archives. Journal of Conflict Resolution 59 (7):1155–85.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary Material

McNamee and Zhang supplementary material
McNamee and Zhang supplementary material 1

 Unknown (8.9 MB)
8.9 MB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed