China’s wild west

Xinjiang is booming with development—while its Uighurs simmer with anger

China's wild west

China’s Xinjiang region, in the deserts and mountains of the country’s far northwest, could be two parallel universes. One is on the receiving end of a flood of foreign investment, home to swiftly multiplying oil derricks and gleaming office towers. This is the image the Chinese government wants to spring to mind when foreigners think of Xinjiang, the “wild west” whose economy Beijing is trying to bring level with the more prosperous areas of the country. The other, home to about eight million Uighurs, functions in a different language and boasts wholly foreign religion, culture and food. To a visitor it’s like another country entirely. And that’s what has Beijing worried.

In August, the region was rocked by violent attacks in the west that killed at least 33 people. The unrest, which the Chinese government has blamed on Uighur separatist groups, humiliated the government and shook China’s ostensibly shatterproof national security leading up to the Beijing Olympics. In Xinjiang, the aftermath is still palpable. It’s translated into heightened security measures—omnipresent guards and checkpoints, among other things—and tightened restrictions on religious practice for the Muslim Uighurs, one of China’s 50-plus ethnic minorities that are separated from the Han majority by language and a deep-seated, mutual distrust.

“In their eyes, all Uighurs are terrorists,” says Guli, a 22-year-old Uighur student attending university in the region’s capital, Urumqi. Her name is a pseudonym—indeed, she doesn’t even discuss such matters with her friends—because she’s afraid of repercussions for her family and is convinced the government has spies looking out for separatist sentiment. “People are very afraid. If you say something, you will be in prison,” she says. “People getting together, they will never talk politics. We don’t know if the friend next to me is a spy.”

That feeling is especially true in Guli’s hometown of Yining, a far western Xinjiang city near the Kazakh border. There, in 1997, separatist riots killed dozens of people and wounded many more, resulting in a security crackdown and a city that’s still visibly divided. On one side of the well-policed bus station is the older area that houses most of the city’s Uighur population; on the other side is a more modern, glitzy area. This is where the influx of new—primarily Han—residents have come from what Guli calls “Inner China,” taking advantage of the region’s investment opportunities. “Ten years ago, you couldn’t see one Chinese person in 10. Now you can’t see one Uighur in 10 Chinese,” she says.

China’s central government has been promoting development in the region. It has been transferring billions of yuan to Xinjiang annually, has launched numerous ambitious infrastructure projects, and is lessening restrictions on private business in the region. But attacks on buses and police convoys don’t exactly inspire investor confidence. Bright red banners reading “For the stability of this area, we should grow our economy” hang in cities and villages next to posters cautioning residents to watch out for terrorist groups.

Part of Beijing’s push for stability is a crackdown on religious devotion among the Uighurs. During the month-long observance of Ramadan, especially, Uighur officials were discouraged from public shows of religiosity. It isn’t clear whether these measures are temporary, says Dru Gladney, an anthropology professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who has studied China’s Uighurs. “I think a lot of people were hoping that after the Olympics it would be lessened. But so far it hasn’t happened and people are kind of wondering if these are kind of permanent restrictions.”

In the meantime, he said, the Chinese government is going to great lengths to portray Xinjiang as a safe and stable place for tourism and foreign investment. “People would argue there’s a trickle-down effect—lifestyles have improved, certainly literacy rates have improved,” Gladney says. “Other people think the Uighurs have not benefited as much as the Han population. In the oil industry there are very, very few Uighurs. Economic indicators seem to indicate Uighur income is generally lower than the general population. Mortality rates are higher.”

At 7 p.m. Beijing time—5 p.m. “Xinjiang time,” the unofficial time zone locals use in a region thousands of kilometres west of the capital—workers clad in brightly coloured coveralls flood the streets of Shanshan, returning from the oil fields surrounding the desert city. It’s just one example of the boom brought by the government’s promotion of rapid expansion in oil and natural gas exploration and extraction in the region.

Liu Yong is the director of Dushanzi Petrochemical Co.’s office in Urumqi—a bustling metropolis with more skyscrapers than streetside markets. He says the company, a branch of the state-owned China National Petroleum Co., is witnessing impressive growth, along with numerous other companies in the region. In the small Gobi Desert town of Dushanzi, about 225 km west of Urumqi, the company employs some 20,000 people. It’s building new oil refineries and an ethylene plant, set to be completed in 2010, that will be the biggest in China. Liu envisions more development and infrastructure in the next few years as China strengthens trading ties with its Central Asian neighbours (the Xinjiang government’s trade talks with Kazakhstan in mid-November concluded with vows to co-operate on cross-border trade, which topped US$7 billion in the first nine months of this year).

Lui rattles off the names of foreign countries whose citizens come to work in Urumqi. Foreign tourists throng to Xinjiang as well, he says, but not as many this year. He refers to “incidents” in Xinjiang around the Olympics that have made foreigners more wary about visiting. But he doesn’t think those behind the attacks have much clout. And the prospect of the entire region separating is “impossible,” he says. “Most of the Uighur people, for example in Urumqi, they’re quiet.” The problem is in the south of Xinjiang, he says, where poorer Uighurs have been misled by “wily” talk of independence from Uighur expatriates and their supporters abroad. “This is only a very small group,” he says. “The economy is growing every year. The normal people, their life gets better.”

Liu was born and raised in Xinjiang—his parents moved to the border city of Bole after 1949—and he says second-generation Han like him are as much at home there as the Uighur population. “Our generation is born here, our children are also born here. So we are Xinjiang people, now.”

Hulking oil trucks vie for space with tiny three-wheeled taxis and motorcycles crammed with four-person families in Lianjin, careening between grapevines lining the southern Xinjiang village’s narrow roads. One 50-year-old Uighur grape farmer, who asked to be called Abdurahman, has seen oil derricks spring up among grapevines as exploration goes on, literally, in his neighbours’ backyards.

There are 20 oil pumps in his 5,000-household district; eight of those have been added in the past year. Through the government, oil companies are paying farmers tens of thousands of yuan for the use of their land—huge sums of money, if they can find another source of income. “People here are not satisfied with this, but we have no choice,” he says. Official statistics show the income of people in the area is rising dramatically. But Abdurahman said this doesn’t account for steep inflation for necessities such as fertilizer and wheat, which is outpacing the modestly rising price farmers command for their grapes, cotton or corn. “People living here, their living conditions are the same,” he says. “Some even worse.”

Most of all, Abdurahman is worried about the long-term consequences of this heady exploration for Lianjin’s permanent residents. In addition to taking up valuable arable land, the bobbing derricks use up precious water resources in the desert landscape. Abdurahman’s grape harvest was halved this year, a misfortune he blames in part on oil exploration and extraction, which he thinks is drying out the land. “In 10, 15, 20 years, if this continues, all the farmers will be forced to leave,” he says. “Many people know if this continues, there must be some destruction in this area.”

He has heard rumours that the government plans to move everyone elsewhere if the land becomes untenable for farming. “People talk about it, but nobody knows if it’s true.” Abdurahman says he would move if it meant he could continue to make a living, but mass displacement of the area’s predominantly Uighur population could exacerbate tensions in the already volatile region. Although unilateral relocation of residents has become common in a country where development is paramount, it’s coming up against increased resistance: in late November, more than 70 people were injured and 30 arrested following violent riots opposing a government resettlement plan in neighbouring Gansu province.

In Xinjiang, the government hopes the promise of economic development, combined with the threat of repercussions, will quell any vocal dissent. In October, Beijing released a list of eight alleged terrorists it is seeking in connection with the attacks in August, and it has called on other governments to help quell what it sees as a destabilizing separatist force in its frontier region. (In 2006, Uzbekistan handed over Huseyin Celil, a Chinese-Canadian Uighur later convicted of “separating China” and being a terrorist.)

Guli, for one, doesn’t approve of the attacks in August—she doesn’t think they accomplished anything—but she doesn’t think those responsible are terrorists. Their actions are born out of desperation, she says. “That’s not a terrorist attack. Because, you know, if everyone is checking all the time—when you go out he will check your bag, when you go in, he will check—when the government doesn’t trust you anymore, you will not be happy. The pressure is not just a few months. It’s many, many years. That’s not organized by terrorists. That’s the people who cannot bear it anymore, so they do things.”

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