'Silk Road' Plan for Xinjiang Makes for a Rough Tapestry

Following deadly riots in Xinjiang in 2009, the central government announced a plan to develop a “new Silk Road” to link the isolated, impoverished region to surrounding economies in Central Asia and boost the economy and infrastructure. Two years later, the plan is not having the intended effect. From the Wall Street Journal:

The central government plans to invest 2 trillion yuan ($300 billion) on infrastructure in Xinjiang between 2010 and 2015, including six airports, 8,400 kilometers (about 5,200 miles) of railways and 7,155 kilometers of highways. One key element was completed last month when a 488-kilometer rail link was opened between Kashgar and Hotan, where 18 people were killed in mid-July when a crowd of Uighurs stormed a local police station.

To help fund the transformation, Beijing ordered several richer southern and eastern provinces and cities to invest in Xinjiang, and paired Kashgar with the southern megacity of Shenzhen, a former fishing village opposite Hong Kong that became China’s first SEZ in 1980.

Maimaitiming Baikeli, Kashgar’s mayor, cited these plans when asked how the government would respond to the recent violence, which his government has blamed on Uighurs separatists with links to al Qaeda, some of them trained at camps in Pakistan.In so doing, however, he highlighted what many regional experts see as a root cause of the unrest: resentment at the growing numbers of Han migrants.

Mr Baikeli, who is Uighur, said Kashgar’s GDP growth rate would reach 30% by 2015, and its population of 600,000 would reach 1 million by 2030.But asked whether Kashgar’s population would remain 80% Uighur, as it is now, he said: “We can’t decide how many of one ethnic group live here, and how many of another. This will be decided by economic development.”

According to many regional experts, therein lies one fundamental flaw in China’s policies toward Xinjiang as well as its two other large ethnic minority regions, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, which have also been swamped with state-led investment and Han migrants.

A report at Reuters, meanwhile, describes the role of land seizures in sharpening tensions in Xinjiang:

Uighur merchant Obul Kasim carries emotional scars from his confrontation with an unbending government after he failed to save his 100-year-old mud-brick home from demolition, a victim of the urban renewal marching across the historic Silk Road.

When he refused to leave his Kashgar home in the far western region of Xinjiang in 2004, police handcuffed him and took him to the local station. In 2005 and 2007, he travelled to Beijing to seek redress over what he saw as inadequate compensation, but was rounded up by provincial officials both times.

The issues are jarringly familiar.

Kasim’s grievance is probably the most common complaint across China, but the issue takes on new ramifications in Xinjiang, where demolitions are linked by experts to attempts to eliminate the identity of Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority.

August 9, 2011 2:05 PM
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