Beijing plans to stabilize ethnic tensions in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region by developing the capital Urumqi into a regional financial hub, but experts and exile organizations say the move will further alienate Uyghurs and fuel unrest in the region.
Nearly two years after bloody ethnic riots rocked the region, China will develop Urumqi into an “international trade center” for Central Asia by 2020 in an effort to win over the residents of the city, the official Xinhua news agency said Wednesday.
Plans for the city include improved transportation links, two brand-new districts, and possibly a new airport.
The city's population is expected to double to nearly 5 million residents by 2020, while its economic output or GDP will rise to 420 billion yuan (U.S. $64 billion) from a predicted 131.1 billion yuan (U.S. $19.9 billion) this year, the report added.
"Local authorities will build faster and more convenient transportation networks to strengthen links between Urumqi and inland Chinese regions as well as areas in central and west Asia," Xinhua said.
Xinhua provided no details on the costs associated with the investment or whether any of the projects would be specifically aimed at the Uyghur population.
Zhang Chunxian, Communist Party chief of northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, said earlier this month that the party leadership needs to do more to win the trust and support of Xinjiang's people.
"The key is to win people's hearts and to have people's support," he said. "If all the people in Xinjiang support this regime, and they are confident in themselves, then [the region] can become solid as rock."
Xinjiang’s eight million Uyghurs say they feel marginalized in their homeland as Chinese families relocate to the area to capitalize on resettlement incentives. They say unwanted Chinese immigrants are stealing their jobs and diluting their traditional culture.
On July 5, 2009, deadly riots between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi left 200 dead and 1,700 injured, according to state media, and two years later, ethnic relations remain uneasy in the capital.
A broken policy
Kahriman Ghojanberdi, vice president of the World Uyghur Congress, said Uyghurs, who according to a 2000 census make up less than 13 percent of Urumqi’s population, would feel even less empowered through the development plans.
“The construction will bring more than 2 million Han Chinese to resettle in the city. Under these circumstances, the city’s traditional Uyghur architecture and culture will disappear. Urumqi will turn into a Chinese city, just like Beijing, Shanghai, or Tianjin,” he said.
Ghojanberdi said the plans to develop the city and draw new Han migrants to the capital are directly linked to the 2009 violence, which he said had rattled Chinese authorities.
“When the unrest occurred, it pushed the Chinese government to rethink their minority policy and settle more Chinese in Xinjiang to marginalize the Uyghur population even more.”
He conceded that Uyghurs in the city would see “limited” benefits, but said that helping the minority was not Beijing’s main goal in developing the city.
“In the last 30 years, China has built many industrial cities and towns in Xinjiang, but in these new towns, Uyghurs make up only three to four percent of the population. The rest are Han Chinese immigrants. That is why I believe the reconstruction and investment in Urumqi will only benefit the Chinese people,” he said.
“If the Chinese government really wants to help the Uyghur people, they shouldn’t expand Urumqi. They should help Uyghur towns, develop the countryside, and Uyghur cities. They should help to modernize these areas where there are majority Uyghur populations.”
Sean Roberts, director of the international development studies program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said he sees the rapid development of Xinjiang as “more of an aggravator of the tension between Uyghurs and Chinese than a part of the solution.”
“The Chinese state, probably for the last decade but increasingly after the Urumqi violence, has really focused on development as being the solution to the ethnic tension in the region,” he said.
“What worries me is that a lot of the development that’s going into Xinjiang is increasing opportunities for Han Chinese and it is bringing in more Han Chinese which is leading to an aggravation of the relationship between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.”
Roberts said China’s leadership sees ethnic differences in the region growing out of Uyghurs’ “traditional attachments” such as ethnic identity and nationalism.
By modernizing Xinjiang, Beijing believes it can “alleviate” those attachments, he said.
“That being said, I also really don’t think the Chinese government’s main purpose for development in Xinjiang is about alleviating ethnic tension. There are some real economic reasons for China to develop Xinjiang.”
He noted that Xinjiang acts as a sort of “revolving door” for goods entering and leaving China from Central Asia.
“Building up Urumqi as a financial center really sends a statement in that sense of the Chinese state as seeing Xinjiang as potentially a real place of engagement with places towards the West.”
Xinjiang is strategically vital to China. The region contains vast deposits of oil and natural gas and borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Central Asia.
Reported and translated by Jilili Musha for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.