23 March 2019
Last year
Last year

Xinjiang: land of progress and discontent

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the most successful settlement project of the Communist era – the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (Bingtuan).

Established on the orders of Mao Zedong and headed by Wang Zhen, “the conqueror of Xinjiang”, its mission was to control the most lawless region of China and develop its economy. Its models were the early Jewish settlers of Palestine, with a hoe in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other.

The Bingtuan has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of Mao and Wang. Last year, it produced 148 billion yuan (US$23.82 billion), up 18 percent over 2012 and accounting for 18 percent of the region’s gross domestic product. It has 2.6 million members and a dozen listed companies, and last year it produced 1.47 million tons of cotton – the largest of any province in China – as well as substantial amounts of grain, sugar beet and rapeseed.

Xinjiang has turned from a remote desert frontier into a key part of China’s economy. In 2012, it produced 27 million tons of oil, 12.8 percent of the national total, and 25 billion cubic meters of gas, 23.2 percent. According to official estimates, these figures will rise to 40 million tons of oil and 70 billion cubic meters of gas by 2030. For a country almost 60 percent reliant on energy imports, Xinjiang’s importance can hardly be overstated.

Oil accounted for 44.2 percent of the region’s economy last year, followed by petrochemicals at 10.4 percent, electricity 10.3 percent, coal 4.9 percent, nonferrous metals 4.9 percent and steel 2.5 percent.

Xinjiang is also the center point of the Euro-Asia railway that runs 11,000 kilometers from Chongqing to Duisburg in Germany and takes 16 days, less than half the time of the maritime route. In 2011, trains ran once a month; now it is once daily and is expected to rise to three per day by 2015.

Chairman Mao gave Wang three missions – conquer the region, develop the economy and colonize it with Han people. In 1953, they accounted for less than 10 percent of the region’s population. Now they comprise over 40 percent, while they are the majority in the northern half, which is where most of the coal, oil, gas and other resources are.

Only in southern Xinjiang, especially in Hetian, Kashgar, Kezhou and Akesu, are the Uyghurs – the predominant group before 1949 – still the majority. Of the 10 million Muslims in the region, 93 percent live in Kashgar, Hetian and Kezhou.

So, like the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the Bingtuan is creating new settlements in the south. In 2004 it set up a new town in the desert 75 km west of Hetian. The town’s population has already grown from nothing to more than 4,800, with new residents from Henan and Gansu. Some are given a new flat and land as an incentive to move. The Bingtuan has spent hundreds of millions of dollars bringing water from the Molcha River 80 km away.

This last five years of rising growth in Xinjiang have been marked by an increase in violent attacks by Islamic radicals against military and civilian targets. Between 2008 and 2012, 242 people were killed and 80 wounded in 14 incidents in Xinjiang. Last October, three Uyghurs blew themselves up in a suicide car bomb on Tiananmen Square. On March 1 this year, 29 people were killed and over 140 wounded by five attackers wielding knives at Kunming railway station; the official media say the killers were Uyghurs.

Is there any link between these attacks and the economic growth?

The wealth of Xinjiang is concentrated in the state companies that dominate the oil, gas and mining sectors. The private economy is largely in the hands of Han entrepreneurs who have the capital, knowhow and connections to run large businesses.

Most Uyghurs work on the land, as farmers or herdsmen. A minority are able through education to obtain jobs in the mainstream, including posts in the government reserved for minorities. Fluency in written and spoken Mandarin is essential. Intermarriage with Han is rare because of differences in religion, cuisine and customs.

Each violent attack worsens the situation of Uyghurs. They turn Han people against them and make Han-owned companies less willing to employ them – just as Israeli firms are reluctant to hire Palestinians, preferring Chinese or other foreigners instead.

Uyghur exiles say the attacks reflect a sense of desperation among their people over their ancestral land that is being taken away from them, the same argument used by members of Hamas who launch rockets into Israel.

Like Israel, China has the weapons, the technology and the manpower to win.

– Contact us at [email protected]






Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe