WASHINGTON—The Asian Development Bank has approved a U.S.$100 million loan to China to help finance urbanization in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), prompting concern among ethnic minorities about how exactly the money will be used.
“The project will generate employment opportunities, and improve urban living standards and the environment for residents in the project cities, particularly for ethnic minorities and the poor,” Raushan Mamatkulov, Urban Development Specialist in the ADB’s East Asia Department, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.
The loan will be used to build or upgrade more than 100 kms (60 miles) of highways, put in traffic control measures, and install public toilet and other sanitation facilities, the bank said.
The bank approved the loan from its ordinary capital resources for the Xinjiang Urban Transport and Environmental Improvement Project, the Manila-based bank said in a statement.
An employee at the XUAR regional construction department said the loan would be used as capital for projects that would begin within the next three years to a high specification, and these would be administered by the State Development and Planning Commission at the regional level.
Highways would be administered by the transportation department, he said. Calls to the transportation department went unanswered during office hours.
“It’s all about roads,” the official said.
“The main focus will be roads in five major cities,” he added, but declined to give further details.
A former government official in the regional capital, Urumqi, voiced concern about the level of transparency surrounding the planned projects, however.
“A lot of money is donated these days, including money and material goods donated to help the victims of the earthquake,” the employee, a Han Chinese man, said.
“We donate this money, and yet we have no way of knowing whether it is really being used properly. It’s no use just worrying about it. There will be terms and conditions attached to this loan and the relevant supervisory authorities should make sure that the funds get to where they are supposed to go,” he added.
Overseas Uyghur groups said government expansion and development programs in Xinjiang often aim at reducing poverty, which is prevalent among the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur population there.
But in reality, they say, Uyghurs are often barred from the same benefits offered to Han migrants, who have entered the region in their millions in the last two decades, and unemployment among Uyghurs remains very high.
“Now the government is expanding measures to expand basic infrastructure,” Dilshat Rashit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress said.
“All of those laboriously constructed buildings will go to benefit migrants from the rest of China. Uyghurs don’t even have the right to apply to live in these buildings.”
He called for scrutiny how the ADB loan is used.
“We believe that if the ADB is going to invest in the region, it should add conditions for the Chinese government to get the loan, for example, how much of the assistance afforded by this loan will actually go to Uyghurs,” Rashit said.
Chinese government plans to redevelop an ancient area of housing in the Silk Road city of Kashgar, a major cultural center for the Uyghur population, have already drawn protest from Uyghurs in Xinjiang and overseas.
Authorities in Kashgar have been busy demolishing some of the traditional Uyghur residential areas of Kashgar’s old town for redevelopment, local officials said, despite criticism that they are destroying a unique element of Uyghur culture and history.
Kashgar has remained a strongly Uyghur oasis town in spite of an influx of millions of Han Chinese in recent decades of economic growth.
Many Uyghurs feel closer to the Central Asian cultures of the Silk Road than to Beijing, and many have braved official harassment, detention, and jail sentences to advocate independence from Beijing’s rule.
Uyghurs enjoyed two brief periods of independence as the state of East Turkestan during the 1940s, before the Chinese Communist Party consolidated control over the vast, resource-rich region in the extreme west of the country.
Now, the Chinese government is launching a three-billion yuan (U.S. $440 million) urban redevelopment plan that calls for the demolition of traditional Uyghur dwellings in the heart of the old city.
Beginning in late February, local officials began trying to move nearly 50,000 families out of Kashgar’s ancient city center, saying it would rebuild dangerous structures, install water and electricity, and widen roads and alleyways.
Cultural archeologists say that large-scale raw earth building complexes like those found in Kashgar are relatively rare and have their own architectural and cultural significance.
The mud-brick dwellings are communally arranged off networks of small alleyways, increasing social cohesion. They are also built from low-impact local materials to be warm in winter and cold in summer.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.