C.HINESE OFFICIALS previously insisted that social harmony in Xinjiang could only be achieved by developing the economy of the Far West region. In 2014, however, the government began to argue that stability was first necessary for economic development. This small change in wording heralded the most violent storm.
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Authorities have long been concerned about the occasional violence against Uyghurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic group who make up more than 40% of Xinjiang’s 26 million people. In the past five years, China has destroyed thousands of Xinjiang’s mosques, thrown a million of its residents into camps for “re-education,” placed the rest under high-tech surveillance, and severed ties with the outside world. The government has dismissed international criticism and Western economic sanctions against companies and officials who are held responsible for these abuses.
Buildings and streets around Xinjiang are now adorned with signs saying that the government wants “long-term peace.” It is said that there have been no “terrorist” incidents in Xinjiang since 2017, when Uyghurs were rounded up for even the most trivial signs of religious or ethnic loyalty, such as praying in a public place or wearing a beard.
Now China is turning back to the economy. That doesn’t mean easing the repression. Motorways remain littered with checkpoints. Cameras rotate to track people walking by. The detention centers appear to have moved many inmates to regular prisons. But Xinjiang is also setting up industrial zones, investing money in infrastructure and building new cities.
Chinese officials already boast of success. In July, Chinese diplomats organized a video conference at the United Nations insisting that Xinjiang prosper, contrary to the “slander” of Western media. Late last year, Xi Jinping, China’s president, said Xinjiang had “unprecedented achievements” in developing its economy and improving people’s lives. The reality is much grimmer.
Xinjiang’s economy can be divided in half. Much of its wealth and importance to China comes from its abundant energy resources. Related industries – oil and gas exploration, power generation, and chemicals – account for more than half of the region’s industrial output. As in other resource-rich parts of the world, they are relatively disconnected from society. They are more dependent on the capital of large state-owned companies than on labor and are concentrated in the sparsely populated north.
The other half of Xinjiang’s economy is more agricultural and informal, and is concentrated in the south, where most of the Uyghurs live. This is the half that the government is focusing on. There are three main pillars of its efforts: promoting industries that create many jobs; Reshaping the area’s economic links with other parts of China and the world; and tourism promotion.
The government has long encouraged labor-intensive industries to locate in Xinjiang. Now it is tried a lot harder. In her last five-year plan for the region, which was completed in June, she emphasized the importance of raw material production. She sees factories as the best source of stable, well-paying jobs.
Human rights groups sense ulterior motives. Analysis of satellite imagery suggests that factories are being built alongside many of the region’s expanding prisons. Evidence from inmates suggests that forced labor is widespread. Many of those released from re-education camps appear to be on indefinite probation and are required to work where they are assigned.
The government rejects such allegations. It claims to have created around 2.7 million “surplus labor” jobs in Xinjiang last year, many of them in textile factories. Textiles currently only account for around 2% of Xinjiang’s industrial production. That should increase soon. From Manas in the north to Bachu in the south, the government wants to increase production by building seven industrial parks, three industrial zones and a trading center in Ürümqi, the region’s capital. Employment in Xinjiang’s textile industry has grown from around 400,000 in 2017 to nearly one million today. The industry appeals to the government because it can settle almost entirely in the region, from growing cotton (Xinjiang produces 20% of the world’s supply) to spinning yarn and making clothes.
About 25 kilometers outside of Kashgar, the largest city in southern Xinjiang, trucks unload cotton bales in front of the factory gates of Dongchunxing, a state-owned fabric manufacturer that started production only four years ago and today employs 5,000 people, mostly Uyghurs. At lunchtime, the scene looks similar to other factories in China. Workers in baggy blue uniforms stroll out, some crowd around a food stand, others whiz away on electric motorcycles.
A five-minute drive away, however, is a more ominous sight: two police checkpoints restrict access to another textile park managed by the government of Akto County in Kizilsu Prefecture, which borders Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Nearby is a cluster of dormitory-like buildings behind the high walls of an Australian think tank identified as a re-education facility. At a checkpoint, a Uighur security officer is sitting at a table with two books on it: a brief history of the Chinese Communist Party and a selection of Mao Zedong’s quotes. It’s the kind of material that China believes will help heal wayward Muslims from extremist tendencies.
One difficulty with China’s industrial plans in Xinjiang is that many in the West want nothing to do with it. In July, the US Senate passed law banning all goods from Xinjiang unless importers can prove they were not made using forced labor – a practically impossible standard.
The second part of the Chinese strategy could help overcome this hurdle. It’s about making it easier for goods and workers to be transported in and out of Xinjiang. In the past five years, the local rail network has expanded by 1,530 km or 25%. Over the next five years the region will build 15 civil airports, a total of 37. Connections with other countries will be strengthened. Of the six trade corridors that make up China’s Belt and Road Initiative, three lead through Xinjiang (see map). The dry ports of Khorgos and Alashan – both on the border with Kazakhstan – are heavily frequented. Exports from the Kashgar region, which fell by almost 50% at the height of re-education custody in 2018, stabilized over the past year. A manager in front of the Akto textile park brushes aside a question about the American sanctions. “Our products are not for the West anyway. We sell to Pakistan and Kazakhstan, ”he says.
The third element, promoting tourism, could bring significant benefits. Tourism revenue was a quarter of Xinjiang’s GDP even before the pandemic. It also helps advertise China’s success in enforcing stability. About 200 million tourists are expected this year. The government plans to double that number to 400 million by 2025, almost all of them from China.
From the silk road to the theme park
The message that Xinjiang is stable could also encourage more people from the ethnic majority of China, the Han, to settle in the south, watering down Uighur culture. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a Han-dominated state conglomerate that functions like a state within a state, wants to promote “southern development”. The so-called Bingtuan offers subsidies to migrants from outside Xinjiang. In Caohu, a Bingtuan village south of Kashgar, a Han construction worker from Shaanxi Province said he was given a house when he agreed to live there permanently.
Two years ago, armored vehicles and paramilitary police were ubiquitous in Kashgar. Today the city looks less intimidating but retains few memories of Uighur identity. Streets that once echoed calls to prayer are lined with jewelry stalls. In a mosque near the center, the room where the faithful washed has been converted into a tourist toilet.
On heavily staged trips, China has begun to bring foreign diplomats to Xinjiang. When consuls general from countries like Belarus, Cuba and Serbia based in Shanghai visited in June, Kashgar looked more like a theme park than an old Silk Road town where Uyghurs in bright clothes sang and danced to greet visitors. “We saw the government’s great efforts to improve the lives of the local people,” enthused the Singapore Consul General, according to the state newspaper Xinjiang Daily.
But the history of the government is also not convincing from an economic point of view. Cash flows into the region: Investments in factories, roads and other property, plant and equipment rose 16% in 2020, more than five times faster than the national average. But Xinjiang’s economy only grew 3% – a poor result given that spending.
Officials can hope that Xinjiang will follow the example of coastal provinces like Guangdong and Zhejiang, where the path to prosperity began with factories producing cheap clothes and shoes. However, the upswing on the coast was led by private entrepreneurs and made possible by a relatively free labor market. Uyghur workers, even if they are not in labor camps, cannot easily change jobs, let alone move around China without being followed by the police.
Many of the largest investors in Xinjiang are state-owned companies that are driven not by profit but by political obligations. In the past, Xinjiang had its own business leaders who were Uighurs. But the officials saw them as a threat. Many have disappeared in prisons and re-education camps. Far from laying a foundation for growth, the pursuit of stability is more likely to end in stagnation. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the heading “Controlled Growth”