By: Bidisha Chatterjee, Research Analyst, GSDN
The People’s Republic of China has risen to a tremendous economic development in the past decade. The country is now focusing on enhancing its global outreach through a series of projects such as China’s pioneering Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese President Xi Jinping had put forth the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project in 2013 to build a line of communication through railways, roadways, power grids and maritime ports etc. that run through the Europe and Asia. In that frame, Xinjiang region becomes strategically important for China as it serves as the junction between China, Middle East and Central Asian nations; and is developing as the trade hub between these geopolitical powers. Chinese government is eager to maintain its power and position over the Xinjiang region to facilitate its ambitious westward march.
Xinjiang was earlier known as East Turkestan or East Turkistan and has been part of People’s Republic of China since 1949. In 1954, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) was established to promote local economy by settling retired soldiers in this region.
With about 1.6 million square kilometers area and more than 25 million inhabitants, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) or Xinjiang is largest province-level division of the country. Xinjiang is located on the northwest side of China and connects the country to the East Asia and Central Asia. Xinjiang shares its borders with countries like Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The autonomous region is a vast landscape of deserts and mountains, however, only 9.7% of Xinjiang’s area is suitable for human settlement. The region is known for its richness in natural resources and cultural diversity. It is home to various ethnic groups including the Turkic Uyghur people, Mongols, Kazakhs, Russians, Han Chinese, and Tibetans etc.
Xinjiang, due to its strategic position and geographic advantage, has always been looked as a prized possession. The area has around 2,500 years of recorded history and has been the part of many powerful dynasties. Under the rule of Han Dynasty, the area served a very important purpose. The empire had established many profitable routes for the historic Silk Road and the most well-known route of the Silk Road passed through the region from its east borders to the northwestern borders. Xinjiang region is regarded as an important political buffer zone and its stability is necessary for the success of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB).
Historical Significance and the Xinjiang Conflict
Xinjiang has been a region of contest throughout the history. Many parts of the area has been controlled by the Han dynasty, Turkic Muslim rulers, Qing dynasty and many other Chinese, Muslim and Asian powers. The region was a gateway for the western world and served as a trade market. Xinjiang also shared the cultural, historical and ethnic links with Central Asia. It contained the major route of the historic Silk Road running through it. The present demographic of Xinjiang can be attributed to the “settler colonialism” strategy of the Qing dynasty. The rulers from the Qing hierarchy, towards the end of the rule, focused on colonizing Xinjiang and facilitated the settlement of Han Chinese community on the frontier. The similar policy was followed by People’s Republic of China after the establishment of of Xinjiang Ugyur Autonomous Region in 1955.
Chinese state under the rule of Mao, orchestrated a mass migration of millions of Han Chinese to settle in Xinjiang. Between 1950s and 1970s the population of Han Chinese in the region rose from 7 percent to about 40 percent. Presently, the more educated Han Chinese community forms the majority group in the industrialized capital city of Ürümqi consisting of 75 percent of its 2.3 million population. Uygur community in the capital is about 12.8 percent large and other ethnic groups form about 10 percent of the population. The economically poor region has been facing several separatist conflicts since past several years. The 2009 incident of the communal clash between Uyghur and Han Chinese in Ürümqi, leading to the death of hundreds of people, was one of the major incidents of unrest between the local communities of the autonomous region. The ongoing tensions in the area are primarily the aftermath of the Chinese policy of strict unity, harsh response to separatism, lack of administration, local communal elements and suppression of various religious expressions of Uygur Muslims. Lately Chinese Communist Party has resorted to the mass surveillance and indoctrination of ethnic minorities in the region.
Economical and Geostrategic Importance of Xinjiang
Xinjiang is the energy powerhouse of People’s Republic of China. The region has second largest solar, wind and hydropower resources in the country. The region provides an essential support to China towards its power strategy. It is known as the hub of rare earth minerals like tungsten, molybdenum, iron, zinc, copper, chromium, and nickel. Xinjiang is also rich in hydrocarbons, oils and gas. The autonomous region serves as a prudent fulcrum for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to connect Asia and Europe while also extending the Chinese influence on world sphere. Four out of six major routes of Belt and Road Initiative pass through the region of Xinjiang. Most of the western China along with the Xinjiang autonomous region is impoverished and rural. The communities live with the most basic facilities and are more prone to ideological whitewashing. Chinese government under the Jinping administration aims to develop the Xinjiang region as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), as to facilitate its economic and administrative upliftment. The leadership is working for the urbanization of the autonomous area to foster modern values in the ethnic communities and eliminate poverty.
Xinjiang along with Mongolia and Tibet has served as a political buffer for the Chinese peninsula. The large cold mountains provide a natural barrier for invaders and foreign tensions since ancient times. Three of the major airbases- Hotan, Kashgar and Ngari Gunsa- are located in the region. Being in the centre of Asia, the Xinjiang autonomous region provides China with the ability to extend its influence in the whole neighborhood from South Asian countries like India and Pakistan to Central Asia and Russia. The region has also helped China to extend its communication network up to Europe.
The region was majorly affected by the communal elements from the erstwhile Soviet Union after the “Cultural Revolution” of 1949. The majority population of Uygur Muslims was subjected to strict religious restrictions. Mosques were closed and religious teachings were prohibited leading to massive protests from the ethnic minorities and an urge to liberate Xinjiang. China has since emphasized on the Sinicization of the Xinjiang in order to hold its firm control over a very important trade hub and military point.
The way ahead for Xinjiang
China has risen to power mainly after the collapse of Soviet Union. With its rigorous policy structures, the country has managed to become the biggest Asian and second biggest world economy. Its influence in the world has grown on an impressive scale. China and its administration under Xi Jinping has successfully propagated the “Go West” program through their impressive network of railways, roadways and maritime ports to achieve the goal of being a bigger global power. However, a comprehensive territorial integrity and prosperity in the country still has to be the immediate priority for the leadership. As to achieve a firm foreign policy, a sound domestic policy should be formed and implemented.
People’s Republic of China has been promoting the leap frog development in Xinjiang to strengthen its Great Western Developmental Program. The prosperity and stability of the autonomous region is in overall interest of China as the region provides an access to huge natural energy resources. In order to maintain a sound territorial integrity as well as to fulfill the strategic and energy objectives of China, Xinjiang region has to be controlled by the Chinese government. Xinjiang has had its historical significance of being a trading hub in the ancient times and it still holds its value to the present day. About 80 percent of Chinese trade to Central Asia is done through the region. Xinjiang also serves as a communication portal for European land as six out eight Sino-European railways originates from here. The great Chinese Rise that the world is witnessing cannot be completed without the cooperation of Xinjiang. Despite of being a resource rich region, Xinjiang still lacks in economic prosperity and effective administration. Hence like Taiwan or Tibet, development in Xinjiang has become a foremost priority for the Chinese country.
China is the primary promoter of the idea of “three evils” (extremism, terrorism and separatism) in this province. The autonomous region of Xinjiang has been dealing these conflicts since 1990s. The Chinese government has issued various guidelines and policy regulations to control the political outcry, however, most of the actions have been severe and harsh on the ethnic minorities living in China’s Xinjiang region. With number of local and international protests rising, many world leaders have also made their stance clear. The United States of America and some other nations has already labeled the atrocities in the Xinjiang region by the Chinese government as genocide. Although this situation has put People’s Republic of China in a tight spot, the ultimate idea has to be about the welfare of the diverse population of the Xinjiang region.