China’s economic boom had largely left the west behind. Spreading the wealth was as important politically as economically — it was a way of increasing domestic stability and cementing the government’s control.
Chinese officials rattle off all the statistical measures of the program’s success: Highways were constructed. Houses were built. Nomads were resettled in “model” villages. Millions of people have electricity and clean drinking water. A rail line links Beijing in the east to Lhasa on the Tibetan plateau. And annual economic growth in the west is about 12 percent, higher than the national average.
But beneath the barrage of official statistics lies another reality. China’s west — defined as the dozen provinces and “autonomous regions” stretching from Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang and Tibet — remains the poorest, least-developed and least-educated part of the country.
The massive investment, critics say, has mainly benefited state-owned companies that build the roads and railways and mine the minerals. There is little indigenous industry and scant foreign investment. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, and nomads have been resettled into villages where they have no livelihood. Locals complain that China is primarily interested in extracting minerals to keep the factories back east running.