by Farooq Ganderbali
Although China has refuted what are called “Xinjiang leaks” in the Western media, it is worried that the continuing unrest among the Uighur Muslims of the province and the damaging projection that is getting the world over could delay, if not derail Belt & Roads Initiative (BRI) and its flagship, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Xinjiang is China’s bridge to Central Asian, Middle Eastern and European markets, placing it logistically at the heart of the BRI. Of the six planned BRI economic corridors, three will pass through Xinjiang. Work has begun on the CPEC linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Port Gwadar in Pakistan. A distribution hub is also being developed in Khorgos on the Xinjiang–Kazakhstan border.
Beijing hopes to make Xinjiang the transportation hub and commercial, logistics and cultural centre for the region. In 2017, US$66 billion was invested in infrastructure in Xinjiang — a 50 per cent annual increase. Highways and high-speed railways have been constructed to connect the region to China’s other parts.
The government has promoted trade and financial cooperation between Xinjiang and BRI countries. Planned trade with BRI countries accounts for over 80 per cent of Xinjiang’s total trade. The province is also planned as the financial hub.
But ethnic tensions and violence have made BRI projects uncertain. The province’s administration tried a ‘development first’ strategy hoping better economic conditions would pacify the Muslims. But development has failed to meet Uighurs’ grievances.
One reason is that economic growth has not reduced disparity across ethnic groups. The 2012 China Labor-force Dynamics Survey indicates that the average annual income of a Han Chinese living in Xinjiang is 28,900 RMB (approximately US$4120), whereas that of an Uighurs remains 12,800 RMB (approximately US$1830), much lower than other ethnic minorities.
Beijing’s development projects in Xinjiang depend heavily on large-scale state-owned enterprises that prefer to hire Han workers for their language and technical skills. Uighurs believe Han people snatch their jobs and become rich at their expense.
China’s constant attempts to control the Uighurs’ religious activities such as studying the Quran, fasting and wearing Muslim scarf also anger the Uighurs and have contributed to some extent the rise of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang.
Uighurs see themselves as nationalists drawing upon the region’s historical and linguistic ties with Turkic nations. Neighbouring Pakistan promoted Wahabism in southern Xinjiang in the 1980s during the anti-Russian jihad in Afghanistan. This has continued. Thirty Uighurs from Xinjiang were reportedly trained in Pakistan-based militant camps before they were deployed to Syria.
Beijing sorely needs Xinjiang for BRI’s connectivity. After several violent incidents and terrorist attacks during 2013-2014, authorities have installed surveillance cameras on all streets and even outside private residences. Police have been deployed to conduct random mobile phone checks for suspicious content. Government officials are sent for short-term stays in the Uighur homes. They bring small gifts for the ‘host’ family, pay cash, but keep close surveillance on the family. A million Uighurs have been detained in “re-education camps”.
Despite Beijing’s focus on employment and education, a half of Uighur college graduates are unemployed, becoming likely candidates for insurgent movements. State-owned enterprises in Xinjiang are required to hire 70 percent locals, with at least 25 per cent from ethnic minorities.
But Uighurs lack Mandarin skills to survive in Han-dominated job market. The new education policy pursues bilingual education. Since 2017, southern Xinjiang began to provide free kindergarten, primary and secondary education.
These two-pronged policies, however, have a strong element of coercion. Promoting Mandarin education is seen as part of a broader plan to assimilate Uighurs into Chinese culture. Uighurs fear and resent that. There is no sign that the restrictions on Islamic practices will be relaxed.
An Indian spice manufacturer held back business expansion in Xinjiang because of ethnic tensions and excessive security procedures, according to Wei Shan, a Research Fellow at the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Wei says Xinjiang could remain a source of uncertainty in the BRI as social unrest drives away businesses. International condemnation has risen. China seeks to strengthen its global connectivity through the BRI, but its policies in Xinjiang may only drive it away from many parts of the world.