China to Turn Silk Road City into Special Economic Zone (updated)

After demolishing much of the historic part of the city, Beijing authorities are now aiming to turn Kashgar into the Shenzhen of the west by making it a Special Economic Zone. From the Los Angeles Times:

Chinese officials hope the economic zone status will do for Kashgar what it did for Shenzhen, the South China Sea fishing village that 30 years ago launched China’s transformation into a manufacturing superpower. Whereas Shenzhen’s wares head by sea to Korea, Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States, Kashgar is viewed increasingly as the launch pad into Pakistan and India, as well as some of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

“We want to restore Kashgar to the position it had in the days of the Silk Road,” said Wang Ning, an economist with the government-run Academy of Social Sciences in Xinjiang, the far-western region where Kashgar lies.

“The plan is that by 2020 we should close the gap between east and west and allow the west to share in the prosperity of the east,” said Wang, who is based in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

But Kashgar residents are suspicious of such claims, knowing that economic development in China often involves policies that allow outsiders to grab most new wealth. Until a decade ago, 90% of Kashgar’s 355,000 permanent residents were Uighurs, a Turkic people whose language, appearance and Islamic faith more closely link them to Central Asia than to Beijing. New census data won’t be available until next year, but activists suspect that the Uighur population has dropped to 70% with the migration of of about 150,000 Han Chinese to Kashgar.

Update: See also from the New York Times, “Aid Fuels Change of Fortunes on Silk Road“:

The situation is repeated across this faded Silk Road pit stop, where a skyline once dominated by minarets and a huge Mao statue is now flecked with cranes and balcony-trimmed high rises. The real estate boom, much of it fueled by speculators from other parts of China, was ignited last spring by a central government directive lavishing Kashgar with economic aid and the creation of a special development zone.

“We can’t build apartments fast enough for the demand,” said Han Cunliang, a salesman at European View Gardens, a high-end apartment complex where prices have nearly doubled in recent months. “Come back here in five years, and you won’t recognize the place.”

The city’s sudden change in fortunes is striking given the realities of Kashgar, an impoverished backwater encircled by desert that is closer to Baghdad than to Beijing. Per capita income in Xinjiang’s urban areas is about 30 percent less than that in Chinese cities as a whole. Jobs are scarce and water is in short supply.

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