BY ALESSANDRO MANCINI, 15/02/2016
Chinese authorities intend to tame ethnic conflicts in the Xinjiang region by encouraging economic prosperity.
For hundreds of years the Xinjiang region, located in North-Western China, was at the heart of the Silk Road- a 4.000 km route stretching across the Eurasian continent that linked the West with China through the commerce of gold, spices and silk.Today the Xinjiang region is known for being one of the poorest areas in China, with a GDP per capita of $6.000 and an economy of a similar size to that of Hungary’s (though Hungary has half the population of the 20 million that inhabitXinjiang).
However, for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the challenge posed by poverty is not second to the one posed by the attempt to achieve a social equilibrium; indeed the region is an uneasy melting pot of 56 ethnic groups where internal strifes have been common in the past, especially between the Uyghur (a Turkic group that accounts for 40% of the Xinjiang population) and the Han Chinese.
Although Xinjiang is technically an autonomous region, there are several advocates of separatism within the Uyghur community seeking to create an independent country (Turkestan) in order to end what they perceive as decades of discrimination by Chinese authorities. But the CCP is not only trying to containing the threat of separatism: it is also dealing with the growing concern over the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
To prevent violent outbreaks due to poverty and social exclusion, the Chinese authorities intend to transform Xinjiang into one of the most important economic hubs for the highly ambitious ‘New Silk Road’ project (also known as the ‘one road one belt’ strategy) announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping.
Chinese authorities want to revive the concept of the ancient Silk Road by linking the Eurasian continent with a modern network of infrastructure in order to boost trade between China and the over 60 countries involved in the project. According to Chinese officials the ‘one road one belt’ strategy may generate $2.5 trillion of additional trade among all parties. As indicated by a map released by Xinhua (a Chinese news agency), the New Silk Road will be made up of 2 sections: one via land (called the ‘economic belt’) that will tie through various infrastructural corridors China, Central Asia and the West; the second via sea (the ‘Maritime Silk Road’) that is planned to start from Guangzhou to end up in the mediterranean waters of Venice.
“The envisaged economic belt along the Silk Road is inhabited by nearly three billion people”, President Xi Jinping said in a 2013 speech in Kazakhstan. “It represents the biggest market in the world, with enormous, unparalleled potential for trade and investment”.
The railways of the economic belt that cross Xinjiang make the region an important bridge for China to access Central Asia. The Northern Xinjiang Railway connects the major cities in North-Western China, and constructions are underway to create new infrastructural joints. A 1.700 km long railway links Urumqi (the Xinjiang capital) and Lanzhou (a city that lies at the very centre of China), thereby allowing Xinjiangto commerce with the rest of the country. The Alataw Pass allows the Turkestan-Siberian Railway to connect Urumqi with Kazakhstan and with the rest of Central Asia (from which most railway lines are linked with the notorious Trans-Siberian Railway)
In the same 2013 address in Kazakhstan, President Xi Jinping explained that the idea behind the New Silk Road is also that of cooperation between China and its nearest countries: “Both China and Central Asian countries are at a crucial stage of development…. our strategic goals are the same- to ensure sustainable and stable economic development, build a prosperous and strong nation and achieve national revitalization”.
This gigantic network of infrastructures has made Xinjiang an essential section of the Trans-Eurasian Railway, which allows direct commerce between Rotterdam and Lianyungang. Major German multinationals like BMW and HP have already chosen to transport high-valued goods from Duisburg to Chongqing. The advantage of the Eurasian Railway is that it only takes an average of 16 days to bring goods from Europe into China (that is 20 days less than via sea).
Chinese authorities have also announced that preferential policies will be undertaken in Xinjiang in order to create Special Economic Development Zones (SEDZs); such policies include a mix of tax exemptions (to attract foreign investors), energy subsidies and infrastructure investments which in the past have been successful in creating prosperous economic areas (the most notorious case is that of the Shenzhen region). Chinese authorities have chosen Horgos and Kashgar (both border with Central Asian countries) as the two cities that will enjoy the SEDZs status. The city of Horgos is already being used as a land port so that Chinese products can make their way to the West; but Horgos is not simply an infrastructural gateway, it is also becoming an essential element of the global supply chain (with tasks ranging from tomatoes to cement mixers).
Infrastructure funds and Silk Road funds are already being used to bring billion ($) of investments in mining projects, roads, bridges and railways in order to exploit all the potential of the region in cooperation with Central Asian countries. Although there is no question that the scale of economic development in the future will be enormous (Xinjiang is already enjoying greater GDP growth than the national average), some Uyghur activists have lamented that new investments may be no panacea if they bring economic exploitation and the destruction of rural areas.
The Silk Road project is not the first attempt by Chinese authorities to prevent internal strife. Back in 2010 the former President Hu Jintao had announced a 10-year plat to end poverty in Xinjiang by encouraging the extraction of its natural riches (like oil and gas) and by reforming fuel taxes.
“We must clearly realise this: just as in other parts of China, the chief source of social conflicts in Xinjiang is rooted in the imbalance between people’s [growing] desire for a better livelihood and the lack of development there” Hu Jintao commented in 2010 to the Xinhua news agency.
In fact in the 2013 speech in Kazakhstan President Xi Jinping reiterated that economic development is essential “to combat ‘the three forces’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism”. Thus the Silk Road project and the 10-year plan combined may function together in bringing prosperity to Xinjiang; indeed in several Chinese regions economic growth has been effective in stabilising the social environment. There is no doubt that protests against the government may diminish as a result of better economic conditions in Xinjiang, but it will be very hard to put an end to the violent outbreaks that are rooted in ethnic rifts.