Mystery Complex in Xinjiang Not Complex, Not a Mystery

At Ogle Earth (via Bill Bishop), Stefan Geens addresses speculation over Google Earth images of a Xinjiang construction site so mysterious that “Even an Ex-CIA Analyst Isn’t Sure” what is being built there. Geens’ conclusion, in light of Kashgar’s 2010 designation as a special economic zone, is that the site is not a submarine base or Mayan temple, but “just another huge industrial park”.

[…] The complex in question is conveniently being built just to the northeast of the very modern Kashgar airport, very close to a reservoir which I drove by on an excursion to nearby ruins (also marked on the map). The railway from Urumuqi to Kashgar veers into Kashgar just south of the reservoir, and would be perfectly positioned for an offshoot into the industrial zone. This complex is not at the far edge of some small desert town; it is located on prime real estate near transportation hubs in a rapidly expanding trading and manufacturing center that was once a major waypoint on the Silk Road. It would be the absolutely worst place to build a secret base.

[…] This story thus reveals more about us than about China. It is above all a story about technology racing ahead of our ability to put it into context. We are overawed by the notion that we can observe any place on Earth in high resolution, but we lack the tools to understand this power and the limits of this power. Into this cognitive vacuum we pile on conspiracy theories. Any absence of information suddenly requires a cover-up. Comments to the original Danger Room article betray an amazing appetite for conspiratorial beliefs that are incompatible with even a passing knowledge of how satellite imagery is collected.

And the story also reveals how many in the West continue to see China as an oriental mystery opaque to westerners, fair game for wild conjecture. But it’s not. Those days are long gone. Here be no more dragons. China is knowable. Just not from Google Earth alone.

Industrial parks have been built around Xinjiang as Beijing tries to soothe the region’s ethnic tensions and social problems with accelerated economic development. The path has been rocky, however. In 2011, The Financial Times’ Kathrin Hille reported that one such park in Hotan, sponsored by Zhejiang’s provincial government, was occupied mainly by jade prospectors scouring the former riverbed. See more on Xinjiang and its economic development via CDT.

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