Development redefining China's west
Since 2000, Beijing has poured billions of dollars into its rustic western provinces, leaving local ethnic groups feeling threatened.

By Craig Simons
Sunday, December 10, 2006

KUCHE, China — From the air, Xinjiang province looks like a vast canvas.

Huge swaths of open land are pockmarked with bright green oases. The ancient Silk Road, its markets quiet for centuries, again pulses with construction and commerce.

It is a land in the midst of radical economic and social change. In the cities, new shopping malls, upscale restaurants and brothels abut traditional markets.

Since China kicked off a drive to develop its rustic far west in 2000, Beijing has poured billions of dollars into Xinjiang, an expanse of deserts and mountains in the northwest that is four times larger than California.

The aim is to tap oil and gas fields to power China's economic surge and to improve trade and energy links with its Central Asian neighbors.

Like the American West in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when pioneers carved farms from wilderness and cashed in on abundant natural resources, the development of the region has revitalized Xinjiang and attracted millions of Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group.

"Here a man can make something of himself," said Wang Xiaofei, a 34-year-old farmer who moved to Xinjiang from China's Sichuan province in 1993.

Wang and others who have followed farm the parched lands to build better futures for their families.

"When we first arrived, everything looked so poor, we almost turned around and went home," he said as he perched on a stool outside his ramshackle house near Kuche.

Instead, they stayed, and today he and a few relatives rent 50 acres — 400 times more than the small plot he farmed in Sichuan — at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. They grow cotton with water from government-built irrigation canals and this year hope to earn a profit of about $15,000, a small fortune in the village they left behind.

The influx of outsiders has exacerbated ethnic tensions with the native population, called the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people who have little in common with the Han.

Officials in Beijing, though, are thinking globally, not locally. Ethnic strains take a back seat to China's reborn trade links with Central Asia.

Silk Road links that once carried only traders now carry natural resources that fuel China's rapid growth.

China, the world's second-largest oil consumer after the United States, and Kazakhstan recently opened a $700 million oil pipeline, the first time foreign oil has flowed directly into China.

Xinjiang also borders Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Since 2001, trade between China and these neighbors has surged more than 200 percent to almost $40 billion annually.

Beijing at the reins

China's drive to revitalize the Silk Road has been spurred by Beijing's bureaucrats.

Since 2000, Beijing has spent at least $125 billion on projects, services and incentives aimed at attracting businesses and migrants to 11 western provinces.

The impact is on grand display in a part of Kuche that residents call the "New Town." Upscale restaurants, bars and hotels crowd together like colorful blocks in a child's toy chest. High-end brothels such as Di Hao, which has a dozen-odd private rooms fitted with wrap-around couches and karaoke machines, are crowded with businessmen from the east at night.

"Almost all of our guests are Han Chinese," a manager surnamed Zhou said as she surveyed a line of young women waiting for clients. "Business is good."

Along with a slew of government incentives, the growth has attracted businessmen such as Yang Xintai, a 51-year-old former government official from China's eastern Henan province.

At the beginning of the Great Western Development program, the Kuche government offered Yang free land and reduced taxes to build a theme park with hiking trails and tourist facilities.

In 2000, he invested $1.25 million to establish the Tianshan Mysterious Valley attraction. When it proved profitable, he partnered with the local government to build a museum commemorating the city's history and culture.

In a room decorated with photographs of him posed with top Xinjiang officials, Yang said the government had given him opportunities "too hard to pass up."

"The government wants Kuche to be successful," Yang said.

So far, Kuche, like most larger cities in Xinjiang, has succeeded. Its economy grows about 12 percent annually, exceeding the country's already impressive growth rate, and investments have increased 15-fold since 1989.

"Now the speed of development is incredible," said Wang Youshen, deputy governor of Kuche County.

The great game

In the long run, the government's investments in Xinjiang will help China's wealthier east coast more than it will help locals, said Chen Yao, a government economist in Beijing.

One key project completed in 2004 was a $14.6 billion pipeline to carry natural gas more than 2,000 miles to Shanghai from Xinjiang, which holds roughly 30 percent of China's estimated oil reserves, according to government data.

In May, China and Kazakhstan opened a 620-mile pipeline, partly financed by the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., to feed Kazak oil to two refineries in Xinjiang. Beijing's bureaucrats have said they hope it will be able to carry more oil in the future.

Such relationships built with Xinjiang's Central Asian neighbors are likely to prove important to the global economy.

Gas and oil fields in Central Asia are believed to be among the world's largest untapped fossil fuel resources.

As when Russian and British diplomats jousted for political power in the region in the 19th century, governments today — including China, Russia and the United States — are engaged in a new "Great Game" as they jockey for political leverage that could lead to greater access to resources.

Last year, China imported 3.4 million barrels of oil a day, roughly 4.5 percent of global demand. But with Chinese energy use "doubling every seven to 10 years," it will account for some 8 percent of world demand in 2015, said James Brock, an energy consultant in Beijing.

Another world

Strategies about how to boost geopolitical ties seem remote at Kuche's Akbar Bazaar, where thousands of local Uighurs gather each Friday to trade goods, drink tea and feast on roasted mutton, routines they have followed for generations.

"We don't have much to do with the Han," said a 30-year-old Uighur farmer who, like many locals, asked that his name not be printed to avoid possible persecution for criticizing the government. "They run all of the businesses and don't give us any opportunities."

His is a story visitors hear across Xinjiang: The economic fruits of Beijing's development drive are not filtering down to locals.

"The Han come here and take the oil and gas without giving us anything back," said a 41-year-old Uighur at a small Muslim restaurant. "Most Uighurs want independence."

Such hard feelings have led to sporadic violence.

To ensure long-term control of the region, Beijing has developed a strategy of encouraging migration to Xinjiang, experts said.

According to official government statistics, Han Chinese made up only 15 percent of Xinjiang's population in 1948 but today number almost 8 million, more than 40 percent of Xinjiang's 19 million people.

Beijing has taken the steps to reduce the chance that Xinjiang might split away from China, said Ben Carrdus, a researcher at the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project.

The government has dictated that public schools in Xinjiang must begin full-time Chinese language instruction in the sixth grade, several Kuche residents said.

"The schools teach in Chinese and about Chinese history and culture," said a 30-year-old merchant at the Akbar Bazaar. "We are slowly losing our identity."

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