Xinjiang is China’s bridge to Central Asian, Middle Eastern and European markets, placing it at the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is the largest logistical centre among the BRI countries. Of the six planned BRI economic corridors, three will pass through Xinjiang, including the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Port Gwadar in Pakistan. A distribution hub is also being developed in Khorgos on the Xinjiang–Kazakhstan border. Wei Shan specially for the East Asia Forum.
Beijing hopes that Xinjiang can serve as a transportation hub and commercial, logistics and cultural centre for the region. In 2017 around US$66 billion was invested in infrastructure in Xinjiang — a 50 per cent increase year-on-year. Highways and high-speed railways have been constructed to connect the region to other parts of China. The government has promoted trade and financial cooperation between Xinjiang and BRI countries. Trade with BRI countries accounts for over 80 per cent of Xinjiang’s total trade. In terms of financial development, the region is expected to become a cross-border renminbi settlement centre.
Yet this province is one of the most restive regions in China. Ethnic tensions and violence have long plagued Xinjiang, casting a shadow of uncertainty on BRI projects. The former Hu–Wen administration tried a ‘development first’ strategy, with the hope that improved economic conditions would pacify the Muslim Uyghurs into accepting Chinese rule. Hundreds of billions of renminbi were poured into this far west frontier, causing an upsurge in Xinjiang’s GDP.
But the development programs failed to soothe the Uyghurs’ grievances. One reason is that economic growth has not reduced income inequality across ethnic groups. The 2012 China Labor-force Dynamics Survey indicates that the average annual income of a Han Chinese person in Xinjiang is 28,900 RMB (approximately US$4120), whereas the average income for Uyghurs is 12,800 RMB (approximately US$1830). This is also much lower than other ethnic minorities in China.
Beijing’s development projects in Xinjiang depend heavily on large-scale state-owned enterprises that prefer to hire Han Chinese workers for their language and technical skills. Uyghurs believe these projects have brought in Han people who have snatched job opportunities and become rich at their expense.
Another source of grievances is the region’s repressive religious policies. The government has been adamant about controlling religious activities such as studying the Quran, fasting and wearing Muslim headdresses. Harsh restrictions on Islam have radicalised many Uyghurs and to some extent encouraged the rise of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang.
A major ideology underlying the Uyghur insurgent movement is nationalism, which can be traced back to Pan-Turkism in the 1930s. Uyghur leaders such as Rebiya Kadeer have used Pan-Turkism as a vehicle of nationalist mobilisation, drawing upon the region’s historical and linguistic ties with Turkic nations. Wahhabism, a conservative Islamic doctrine, has been widespread in southern Xinjiang since the 1980s, further radicalising younger generations of dissidents. Some of them are even influenced by Islamism. It was reported that about 30 Uyghurs from Xinjiang were trained in Pakistan-based militant camps before they were deployed to Syria.
To ensure Xinjiang is a reliable connectivity hub for the BRI, especially after a series of violent incidents and terrorist attacks from 2013 to 2014, Chinese leaders have adopted a two-pronged approach that closely integrates a heavy-handed crackdown with economic and social policies. Surveillance cameras are found on all streets and even outside private residences. Police have been deployed to conduct random mobile phone checks for suspicious content and local government officials have been dispatched for short-term stays in the homes of Uyghurs. They bring small gifts for the family such as meat or cash and keep close surveillance on the family’s daily activities. Re-education camps that reportedly detain over one million Uyghurs is one result of the hard-line policies.
Socioeconomic policies have focussed on employment and education. Some sources report that over half of Uyghur college graduates are unemployed. Jobless youth are major candidates for insurgent movements. State-owned enterprises in Xinjiang are now required to hire at least 70 per cent of new staff locally, with at least 25 per cent from ethnic minorities. The state selects enterprises from other provinces to invest in Xinjiang with an emphasis on creating jobs. Efforts to develop tourism aim to attract rural minority youth to seek employment in the service sector.
But a continuing barrier for Uyghurs in the job market is their Mandarin skills — an important prerequisite for many Han employers. The new education policy places greater emphasis on bilingual education. From 2017, southern Xinjiang began to provide free kindergarten, primary and secondary education for students.
Whether these two-pronged policies will bring stability to Xinjiang remains a big question. Many of the policies are coercive strategies. Mandarin education is promoted as part of a broader plan which aims to assimilate Uyghurs into Chinese culture — risking the eradication of Uyghur culture. Re-education camps are used to ‘promote’ employment by forcing detainees to work at nearby industrial parks. There is also no sign that the restrictions on Islam will be relaxed. Such policies are likely to invoke greater resistance and harsh international criticism.
Xinjiang could remain a source of uncertainty in the BRI as social unrest drives away businesses. An Indian spice manufacturer held back business expansion in Xinjiang because of ethnic tensions and excessive security procedures. International condemnation has risen as repression worsens. Although China seeks to strengthen its global connectivity through the BRI, its policies in Xinjiang may only drive it further apart from many parts of the world.
Wei Shan is a Research Fellow of the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS).