Double Opportunity in China's Far West
Beijing seeks growth, analysts say, but also control of separatists.
By Don Lee
Times Staff Writer
August 28, 2006
WAITING: Tourism has boomed along with industry in western China. An ethnic Uighur man in Urumqi, one of millions of minorities in the Xinjiang region, offers his camel as a photo op. (Don Lee / LAT)
KASHGAR, China — Not too long ago, Kashgar was a sleepy town with mud houses, largely unchanged since Marco Polo trekked through in the 13th century.
But now this frontier town and other outposts in China's far west are booming with oil, cotton, coal and trade. Trains, new highways and an international airport are bringing thousands of people from neighboring Pakistan who want to take in the tourist sites and buy inexpensive Chinese goods.
A few months ago, oil from Kazakhstan arrived in the region by way of a new 600-mile pipeline financed by energy-hungry China. Trade with neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is breaking records.
China's soaring economy is most often illustrated by gleaming skyscrapers in coastal cities. But the nation's economic growth is also evident in other ways: Like America's Westward Ho of the 1800s, Beijing's Go West campaign of the last decade is transforming vast swaths of Central Asia by opening up the western hinterlands, populated by millions of ethnic minorities.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese have flocked here, hoping to cash in on construction jobs and business ventures.
The Chinese government, analysts say, is pushing west with two clear motives: to spread economic development, and to keep in check Tibetans and, here in the Xinjiang region, the Uighurs, Muslims of Turkic descent. About 9 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, and over the years separatist groups have clashed with Chinese forces, demanding independence and religious freedom.
For now, Beijing seems to have strengthened its economic and political grip on the region. Although China has been a caldron of unrest, with 87,000 protests nationwide last year, there has been no large-scale rioting in Xinjiang in two years, experts who track such activity say.
Human rights groups have accused the Chinese government of taking advantage of the U.S.-declared war on terrorism to increase its repression of Uighurs. Beijing has denied the claim, even as it has cracked down on Uighur activists and successfully lobbied the United States to label as terrorists a group of militant Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Although Beijing has used guns and force to restrain Uighurs, its arsenal of late has included people such as Wong So Nok, a merchant from Shenzhen in southeastern China.
Marco Polo is said to have found Kashgar an oasis when he arrived in 1275 on his journey along the Silk Road.
When Wong arrived in 1998, there were more donkey carts than taxis on the city's mostly dirt roads. Kashgar and other areas of Xinjiang were still smoldering from rioting, bus bombings and slayings that left scores of victims.
Today, the 50-year-old Wong sits behind a stately desk overseeing the construction of an international trading center similar to the giant wholesale market in Yiwu in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where more than 3,000 foreign traders flock daily.
Some of those traders in Yiwu travel from Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Wong's $50-million International Trade City in Kashgar will shorten their trip.
"We're creating a bridge to Central Asia," Wong said.
Beijing has spent $15 billion on roads, dams and power lines. State-owned energy companies have kicked in billions more, helping to pay for the 600-mile pipeline from Kazakhstan's Caspian coast.
Beijing's efforts to tap Kazakhstan's growing oil production in the Caspian Sea fields could present a challenge to U.S. energy interests there, some analysts said.
Some U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern that America is increasingly being isolated in the region while China cements relations.
Beijing is making a similar effort to develop and exert greater influence in Tibet. Last month, China inaugurated a train line to the snowcapped plateaus of Tibet.
Xinjiang may be the linchpin of Beijing's push westward. The region is the size of Alaska, occupying one-sixth of China's land. Its climate and terrain are as varied as California's, with deserts and towering mountains. Xinjiang produces coal, cotton, fruits and wine.
Although government figures on migration aren't available, at least 180,000 Chinese from one distant province alone, Zhejiang, are estimated to have settled and started businesses in Xinjiang, many in the last decade.
The Han Chinese account for more than 90% of China's population and about 40% of Xinjiang's almost 20 million residents, according to the latest figures from Beijing. Western scholars think there are many more Han Chinese in Xinjiang than official statistics show.
Their influx has transformed Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital. Apart from Arabic signs in Uighur enclaves, Urumqi resembles most Chinese cities, with an abundance of pale apartment buildings, a People's Square in the center of town and KFCs sprinkled throughout.
Residents say Beijing's ongoing campaign has chilled Uighurs' hopes for an independent state. Many Uighurs declined to be interviewed, fearful of reprisals from police. Others said that it was better to toe the line and secure economic gains, rather than spend time on political activities that would be quickly quashed.
The Uighurs in Xinjiang are in a "silent, pragmatic period," said Joanne Smith, a Uighur expert at Britain's Newcastle University. Xinjiang government officials declined to comment.
In Kashgar, narrow alleys that meander through earthen houses are redolent of lamb and naan, sold by bearded old men in skullcaps. Young craftsmen and their fathers sit in stalls, fashioning bronze pots and Turkish long-neck lutes.
Inside a small storefront up a narrow alley, Abilkem, a lanky 22-year-old with a thin mustache, was behind a counter facing a bank of nine red telephones, three of them used for international calls.
Abilkem, who, like many Uighurs, goes by one name, said business had been bustling with tourists and foreign visitors.
The most frequent calls are to Pakistan, for which Abilkem charges 40 cents a minute. He said he made a $100 profit each month.
The Chinese may not understand the Uighurs entirely. But Wang Shaoming, a senior manager at Xinjiang Esquel Textile, a Hong Kong group with factories in Xinjiang, measures economic progress by the shirts on his back.
Wang moved to Urumqi as a boy in 1966 with his parents, who, like millions of Chinese soldiers, were sent to Xinjiang by Mao Tse-tung to support economic and military projects in the west.
After graduating from college in the mid-1980s with a major in textiles, Wang began work in the garment trade. At the time, he said, China didn't have the know-how to make quality shirts. He earned enough to buy one or two cotton shirts. The 45-year-old says he now wears cotton Oxfords like socks, changing them every day.
Xinjiang Esquel's factory in Urumqi supplies the fabric for the shirts, processing local and imported cotton, including pima from California.
But if Wang can afford a closet full of shirts, his 1,000 factory workers can't.
Most city dwellers in Xinjiang earned about $1,000 after taxes last year, up 8% from 2004. But average urban income nationwide rose 11% to $1,300. Between Han Chinese and Uighurs, the divide is wider.
Some Uighur merchants are prospering from a rise in Chinese tourists and expanding trade with Central Asia. But many Uighurs, especially the elderly, can't communicate in Mandarin; they speak a Turkic language and read Arabic. That makes it tough to get jobs at Chinese companies.
State-owned enterprises are known to restrict Uighurs from growing facial hair or praying in the workplace. Uighurs say some employers require them to pay for jobs.
Officially, the unemployment rate in Xinjiang, like many provinces of China, has been 4% for years. But the streets tell a different story.
In Kashgar's People's Park, Uighurs young and old sit forlornly on benches under trees in the middle of a hot afternoon. Chinese merchants sell drinks and snacks. A lone Uighur peddles plum juice for 5 cents a bowl.
Across the street, an 85-foot stone statue of Mao, said to be the tallest in China, reminds everyone who is in charge.
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times