[Documents menu] Documents menu

Go West, Young Han

By John Pomfret, The Washington Post, Friday 15 September 2000; A01

URUMQI, China—It's boom time here in China's Wild West. Planes packed with officials roll into this once sleepy Central Asian capital. Bureaucrats and businessmen make deals over lunches of abalone and shrimp flown in from the ports around Guangzhou 2,500 miles to the south.

We're booked up, said Abulait Abuderexit, the governor of Xinjiang province, referring to the delegations jetting in to this far-northwestern corner of China to discuss investment schemes. We are busy day and night and afternoon. Xinjiang is stable and developing well.

With a massive propaganda campaign and millions of dollars, Beijing has launched a high-stakes gamble to develop Xinjiang and the rest of the Chinese west. Faced with persistent and sometimes violent ethnic unrest and a widening gap between the booming east coast and the poverty-stricken hinterland, China's leaders are pouring cash and expertise into an area largely left behind by two decades of economic reforms that have transformed such cities as Shanghai and Beijing.

The goal is to poultice the growing fissures between China's rich and poor regions, and in the process halt any idea that the remote, poor areas could one day spin off into independent states. Odds for success are unknown; China's rulers have been promising to develop the western regions for decades, and many people here ask whether this time will be different.

A weeklong trip through a large part of Xinjiang--from its capital, Urumqi, to the verdant but rebellious Yili Valley, rocked by an anti-Chinese revolt three years ago--revealed a region that is desperate for capital, ideas and people. It also showed a region simmering with muffled discontent.

In town after town, government officials pointed to a development model that seemed written to aid Han Chinese, the country's dominant ethnic group but still a minority here, and to encourage their immigration into the region. The plans often did not seem aimed at Xinjiang's 8 million Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group some of whose members have conducted a campaign of bombings, demonstrations and killings for independence from China--and who still outnumber Han Chinese here by 1.2 million despite huge Han population gains.

Project Tied to Stability

China's Western Big Development project encompasses 2 million square miles and 300 million people spread across nine provinces--Gansu, Guizhou, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang. The provinces occupy well over half of China's area and account for most of its oil and mineral reserves, borderlands and strategic military installations--and almost all of its restive minority regions.

The project includes construction of roads, airports, railroads and a $14 billion pipeline linking Xinjiang's natural gas fields to Shanghai, 2,500 miles to the southeast. President Jiang Zemin recently declared the development plan crucial to China's stability, the Communist Party's hold on power and the revitalization of the Chinese people.

Xinjiang and Tibet, home to China's two most restive ethnic minorities, the Uighurs and the Tibetans, are the linchpins. If the program fails here, analysts argue, Beijing's hold on these far-flung regions could weaken. If it succeeds, then Beijing could hold on to the regions where ethnic minorities predominate--a feat Moscow failed to accomplish as the Soviet Union flew apart.

But the Western Big Development project has the air of an imperial edict to settle savage lands, encouraging the Han people to Go West, young man. Chinese scholars have evoked the American concept of Manifest Destiny and the taming of its Wild West when writing about the plan. One Western diplomat saw a parallel to Israel's Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Even the irrigation technology the Han settlers use, he observed, is Israeli-designed.

Nicolas Becquelin, a researcher on China's Xinjiang policies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, said that while China does not publish statistics on migration to the region, it is generally believed that 250,000 Han have moved here annually in recent years. He said Chinese authorities were alarmed by the 1990 census, which showed Han had declined to 37.5 percent of the population from 42 percent in 1978, and they have worked to reverse that trend.

Xinjiang is the largest province in China, an empty expanse four times the size of California. It contains some of China's tallest mountain ranges, endless desert and an ancient oasis, the Turfan basin, 505 feet below sea level. The province straddles the fabled Silk Road. Ever since the Han Dynasty, 200 years before Jesus, Han Chinese have been traveling into the region, trading, occupying it and being beaten back. Over the centuries, Xinjiang has counted among its overlords Han, Mongols, Arabs, Uighurs, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Russians and Manchus.

From the 9th to the 13th centuries, Turfan, about 100 miles east of Urumqi, was the capital of an indigenous civilization that followed the teachings of the Manicheans, practitioners of an ancient religion based on opposing forces of light and darkness. Islam came to Xinjiang in the 10th century with an Arab invasion, and most minorities here are Muslims.

Xinjiang means new dominion, a name adopted when the Qing Dynasty pushed into the region in the 19th century and established garrisons. That practice continues. Since the early 1950s, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary organization that operates farms and factories, has moved 2.4 million people, 90 percent Han, into Xinjiang and opened up millions of acres of desert for farming. In 1948, 75 percent of Xinjiang's population was Uighur and 15 percent was Han. Today, 40 percent of Xinjiang's 16 million people are Han.

Liu Fangzhen and his wife, Gong Guifen, were among the first Han settlers in the 1950s. The children of landlords from Hunan province in southeastern China, they came to Xinjiang to escape what Mao Zedong's revolution had labeled bad class backgrounds. While people like them and their relatives were being killed or jailed in other parts of China, Liu and Gong were digging in Xinjiang's parched soil and living in an underground dirt bunker.

Liu, now 69, and Gong, 67, were sent to Shihezi, the corps operations center. I didn't realize how difficult it would be to live here, Liu said. I couldn't imagine how vast and desolate Xinjiang could be.

But in the ensuing years, the couple persuaded more than 50 other Han relatives and friends to move to Xinjiang. The late 1950s was a particularly good time for settling, Liu said. A famine, sparked by the Communist Party's disastrous economic policies, was sweeping the rest of China.

The eventual result was the creation of cities like Shihezi, with its massive statue of Wang Zhen, the founder of the corps. Started as an encampment of 170,000 Han settlers four decades ago, Shihezi has developed into a city of 2 million, with skyscrapers, traffic circles and a fountain that pumps water in time with cheesy Chinese pop tunes. Uighurs call Shihezi Little Shanghai because it is almost purely Han.

Liu said Shihezi maintains its attraction to Han Chinese, who can rent more than an acre from the government at low cost. They can develop themselves here. They have land, and they can find work. They have no land back home. And there's a big population back there, he said. y One new settler is Zhang Qiang, 26, a recently demobilized soldier from Sichuan, in central China. He lives in Alashankou, on the border with Kazakhstan, and is making more money than he ever dreamed--$500 a month--working in a restaurant.

Zhang said that the Chinese army is encouraging demobilized troops throughout Xinjiang and Tibet to stay and settle. In exchange for remaining in Xinjiang, Zhang said, he was guaranteed a job and was allowed to trade his rural residency permit, which banned him from going into many cities, for an urban one, which allows him freedom to travel. Of the 200 men from his county who were demobilized at the same time, he said, 60 stayed in Xinjiang.

There are thousands like me every year, he said.

Reforms Bypassed Region

The economic reforms that have transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese on the bustling east coast have largely bypassed Xinjiang. For one, it is isolated, and the only rail service moves slowly. While it takes less than a week to move grapes from California to Canton, for instance, it takes up to 15 days from Turfan.

Security concerns also have held Xinjiang back. Beijing has chosen provincial leaders largely based on loyalty, not competence. As a result, while the non-state sector is cranking out more than 60 percent of China's gross national product, its share in Xinjiang is less than 20 percent. Forty percent of Xinjiang's economy comes from government subsidies.

Critics of the Xinjiang development project say it is designed to benefit Han settlement and further exploit Xinjiang's natural resources for the betterment of the rest of China, not necessarily Xinjiang.

Cotton, one of the pillars of Xinjiang's economy, is cited as an example. In the 1990s, the acreage devoted to cotton doubled; Xinjiang is now China's No. 1 cotton producer. But China's cotton industry is in crisis. A partial collapse of the textile industry in the late 1990s left the state with a stockpile of 4 million tons of cotton, equal to three years of Xinjiang's production. And tumbling world prices have meant that China's cotton producers needed to find ways to increase the quality of their crop.

Enter Rainbow Hi-Tech, Inc., a firm started with help from the Agriculture Ministry. Rainbow's mandate is to promote growth of genetically altered, naturally colored cotton. At its showroom in an opulent Urumqi high-rise, the firm shows off tufts of pastel-colored cotton. This year the firm planted 9,000 acres and plans to expand to 90,000 over the next five years. Rainbow's CEO, Zhao Xiaolin, said the firm is paying farmers more than double the price of regular cotton.

But the immediate beneficiaries are the paramilitary corps and its Han farmers. Unlike small Uighur plot-holders, the corps, which still dominates Xinjiang's economy, can afford to pay a deposit for the seeds; it also has bigger land holdings, so it can benefit from economies of scale.

Oil is the second pillar of Xinjiang's economy. The industry is now almost completely run by Han. The China National Petroleum Co. has brought most of its workers here from other parts of China, all but bypassing the provincial Xinjiang Petroleum Bureau in carrying out exploration.

Becquelin worries that development policies like these are putting the Han on a collision course with the Uighurs.

Different From Tibet

Xinjiang has been volatile for years. As in Tibet, unrest increased here in the 1980s after China began to relax policies toward religion. But the Uighurs lack a charismatic leader, like Tibet's Dalai Lama. In addition, the Buddhism of Tibet generally inspires more sympathy in the West than does Islam, Xinjiang's dominant faith.

As a result, while China is losing the international public relations war over Tibet, Beijing has successfully painted the Uighur issue as a battle between Chinese-backed development and Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, some Uighur separatists have received training from Islamic extremist organizations in Pakistan and Iran and have embraced terrorism as a method of dealing with Chinese authorities.

Xinjiang is also much more ethnically diverse than Tibet, which is inhabited only by Tibetans and Han. Some Xinjiang minorities, such as Kazakhs and Hui--Chinese Muslims--do not necessarily support an independent Xinjiang.

I would worry what would happen to us if the Uighurs ran Xinjiang, said a 22-year-old Kazakh herder as he sat on horseback by Lake Salim in the mountains of western Xinjiang. I believe in Islam, too, but not their Islam. Their Islam is changing. We wouldn't like them running things. Besides, we have our own country next door anyway.

In addition, while most Tibetans are adamant that they would like the Chinese out, among Uighurs there seems to be a broader spectrum of opinion about Chinese rule.

Our people don't marry their people, and I don't have many Han friends, said a 28-year-old Uighur police officer, enjoying a night out in the town of Bole near the border with Kazakhstan. But we minorities, we need a big brother, like the Han. If there was no big brother, we would always fight. Look at Yugoslavia. We'd become Yugoslavia. y Thousands of mosques were flattened in Xinjiang during China's ultra-radical Cultural Revolution in 1966-76. But a more relaxed policy on religion was accompanied by massive reconstruction, and today the region has 23,000 mosques and 29,000 Islamic clergy.

The religious revival shocked the central government. In March 1996, the standing committee of the Communist Party's Politburo, China's top policy-making body, approved Document 7, which ordered Xinjiang's authorities to roll back religious freedom.

The harsh new policy sparked disorder. In early February 1997, hundreds of young Uighurs battled for several days with security forces in the city of Yining, in western Xinjiang, smashing Chinese shops and waving flags of the independence movement. China's official media said nine people were killed, 198 injured and 500 demonstrators arrested.

Uighur sources said the riot was caused because the government had banned Uighurs from participating in meshreb, a traditional meeting where Uighurs gather to discuss problems in the community and to conduct important financial transactions.

The background [of meshreb] is separatist activity, said Albasbai Rashem, the tough-talking ethnic Kazakh who heads the prefectural government around Yining. And separatism is not allowed.

The crackdown stretched province wide. Details appeared in a little-noticed series of official books last year, published in Urumqi and titled Xinjiang, Still the Most Beautiful. In Yining, the prefecture's security forces broke up 26 bands of terrorists and shot dead on the spot 15 . . . criminals, according to one Chinese report. Guns, bullets, explosives and detonator caps were seized.

The campaign, another report said, effectively restrained the momentum of overheated religious faith.

Ethnic makeup of Xinjiang

Uighurs: 75%
Han: 15%
Others: 10%
Uighurs: 44%
Han: 38%
Others: 18%