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Poverty in China’s Xinjiang ProvinceXinjiang is a remote autonomous region in northwest China. While Xinjiang had periods of independence, the province became part of communist China in 1949. There are 40 different ethnic groups in Xinjiang, but the Uighurs, who are the traditional inhabitants of the area, and the Hans Chinese compose the ethnic majority of the region. While the economic disparity between the Hans and Uighurs gave rise to a certain amount of ethnic tension, the Chinese government’s recent treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang led to many human rights violations and poverty in Xinjiang.

Poverty in China’s Xinjiang Province

The historic racial tension between the Uighurs and Hans seems to be the root cause of poverty in Xinjiang. The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Sunni Muslim minority in China. In general, the Hans Chinese and the Uighurs disagree on who has the historic claim to Xinjiang. Since 1949, and centuries before, the Uighurs resisted the Chinese control over Xinjiang. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a surge of support for the Uighur separatist groups within Xinjiang. The Chinese government feared that this Uighur support for separatism might lead to the region declaring itself as a separate state called the East Turkestan. Due to this fear, the Chinese government started to characterize the Muslim traditions, practices and activities of the Uighurs as a national security threat.

The Chinese government’s hostile stance against the Uighurs had a wide-reaching effect throughout Chinese society. After years of the Chinese government’s repression of Uighurs’ religious practices and culture, it has presented the Uighurs as terrorist sympathizers to the general Chinese public. This perception of the Uighurs is a further cause of poverty in Xinjiang. According to The Guardian’s reporter Gene A. Bunin, it is common for businesses to deny service to a Uighur person. Due to the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uighurs, many Uighurs are losing their rights, livelihoods and potentially their lives. Bunin reported that Uighur restaurants in inner-China are the only ones on their street that Chinese flags and posters about the determined struggle against terrorism cover.

China’s Strike Hard Campaign

In 2014, the Chinese government launched the Strike Hard campaign, which aimed to quell these Uighur separatist sentiments. While the government presented this campaign as a campaign to eradicate terrorism within China, the Strike Hard campaign justified the establishment of political reeducation camps throughout Xinjiang. An estimated 800,000 to 2 million detainees are Uighurs and other Muslims. Reports suggest that Chinese authorities arrested these detainees for trivial reasons such as traveling to a Muslim country, attending services at mosques and sending texts containing Quranic verses. While official reports about the detention camps are scarce, some have made allegations against the Chinese government for torture, sexual abuse and mistreatment of the detainees.

The Xinjiang Economy

While Xinjiang’s economy largely depends on agriculture, there is a recent push to develop the region’s mineral resource harvesting and heavy industries. The recent growth in China’s energy needs further increased the importance of the region to the Chinese government. Some estimations state that Xinjiang has 38 percent of coal reserves, 30 percent of crude oil output and 30 percent of natural gas output in China. During China’s economic boom in the 1990s, the Chinese government invested heavily in Xinjiang’s industrial and energy projects. This, however, meant the mass migration of the Hans Chinese into Xinjiang. The Chinese government stated that this mass migration of the Hans to Xinjiang happens in the name of national unity and inter-ethnic mingling. However, many Uighurs protested that the Hans Chinese were taking their jobs, making it difficult for the Uighurs to support themselves.

In 2018, the Chinese government launched a three-year plan to eradicate poverty in Xinjiang. While people do not know the exact amount of money the Chinese government will spend on its poverty relief program, the $960 million the Chinese government spent in 2017 gives hope to many people in Xinjiang. In addition, many think that the forced detention of the Uighurs, which caused poverty in Xinjiang, is the result of the Chinese government’s desire to secure Xinjiang in its Belt and Road Initiative. Since Xinjiang will play a big part in the project, many think that the Chinese government is trying to eradicate any possibility of separatist activity in Xinjiang.

Poverty in Xinjiang presents a bleak picture. More specifically, poverty in Xinjiang is the story of the Uighurs. The picture of Uighurs forcefully detained against their will is reminiscent of the Orwellian dystopia that many are familiar with. While the Chinese government’s heavy investment in Xinjiang might have improved the economic conditions in the region, many are still doubtful that this improved economy is benefiting the already marginalized Uighurs. The international community still looks to China, hoping that China will improve its human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr

China's Belt and Road Initiative
Chinese authorities have dubbed the One Belt One Road Initiative as the Project of the Century. Spanning 78 countries with a total investment representing 70 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of its GDP and 75 percent of its energy reserves, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the world’s largest-scale development project. The One Belt One Road is conceptually based on the historic Silk Road, a network of trade routes established during China’s Han Dynasty from the second century B.C. until the 14th century A.D. stretching from China to the Mediterranean.

Broken down into two parts, BRI is composed of a land-based Silk Road Economic Belt, which will connect China with Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Western Europe, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a sea-based route that will give China’s southern coast access to the Mediterranean, South-East Asia, Central Asia and Africa. The One Belt includes six economic corridors by land and the maritime One Road has two directions, one reaching the Indian Ocean from China’s coastal ports and extending to Europe and the other from coastal China to the South Pacific.

This modern Silk Road is a massive undertaking of unprecedented scope that will take the next 20 years to build. China is investing over $1 trillion to implement the infrastructure projects, funded through low-cost loans to the cooperating countries, including highways, railways, ports, bridges, pipelines, energy grids and power plants. Here are some of the most significant routes and projects in 10 countries affected by China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative Projects in 10 Countries

  1. The Mombasa-Nairobi Railway: The maritime route to Africa connects China to Africa. Kenya is one of the largest recipients of the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa. The Mombasa-Nairobi Railway is the first new railway in Kenya in the past 100 years and among the first modern infrastructure projects in east Africa. The new railway has already increased Kenya’s GDP and boosted local and foreign tourists, who can now take the Nairobi-Mombasa Madarak Express train to cross Tsavo National Park in just four hours instead of 18. Chinese enterprises have also begun construction on a wind power project in Kapedo, Kenya.
  2. The China-Pakistan Corridor: The China-Pakistan Corridor connects south-western China through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. In Pakistan, the Karot hydropower station on Ji lahm River was the first foreign investment of the BRI and its main project in Pakistan. China also began construction on the Karachi-Lahore Highway project with Pakistan’s National Highway Administration, the largest transportation infrastructure project in the China-Pakistan corridor.
  3. The Five Nations Railway: In Afghanistan, BRI plans include the Five Nations Railway, which would run from China to Iran through Afghanistan, as well as the north-south railway corridor connecting Kunduz to Torkham on Pakistan’s border.
  4. The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor: The Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor connects Southern China to India via Bangladesh and Myanmar (BCIMEC). In Bangladesh, the CMEC has led to the construction of the Sheila GanJie Power Station Project, which will improve the local electricity shortage in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has a great need for ports to import energy or raw materials and export finished products. The last port to have been developed in Bangladesh was when it gained independence in 1971. The BRI will establish a new deep-sea port at Payra, which will include an oil refinery, a coal terminal to service a power plant and a container terminal.
  5. Myanmar Infrastructure Projects: In Myanmar, China plans to build a deep seaport, a trading estate and a special economic zone (SEZ) or an area designated for facilitating the industrial activity in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine State. Infrastructure projects will also be implemented in the remote western state, where it is much needed as the violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists continues.
  6. The China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor: The China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor connects North China to Eastern Russia via Mongolia (CMREC). In Mongolia, two high-speed railways along this corridor, the Mongolian Vector running from Mongolia-Brest to Belarus and the Zhengzhou-Hamburg running from China to Germany via Mongolia, are bringing Mongolian markets to European firms. Development plans have begun for the building of an international UHV electric transmission super grid along CMREC routes. Another high profile BRI project in Mongolia is the Tavan Tolgoi Rail Project, which aims to link Tavan Tolgoi, the world’s most massive untapped coal mine, to the Chinese border by 2021.
  7. The China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor: The China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor connects Western China to Turkey via Central and West Asia. Turkey is a priority country for the BRI because of its quickly growing pipeline projects, especially the Lake Tuz Expansion, which will increase the capacity of an underground gas storage facility from 1.2 to 5.4 billion cubic meters. Lake Tuz (Tuz Gölü) is currently home to the world’s largest gas storage project under construction and it is expected to be completed in 2023.
  8. The Tehran-Mashhad: Iran is an essential part of the global framework of the BRI due to its tactical location. The BRI has implemented the Tehran-Mashhad, high-speed rail project, which unlike most of the single-tracked, slow and circuitous railways centered around Tehran, will be double-tracked and electrified. Iran plans to electrify all of its railroads, revolutionizing the country’s transportation, by 2025.
  9. China Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC): Vietnam is in a position to reap the most opportunity from the BRI in the Indochina region. China built a 1,205-mile North-South Expressway from Hanoi to Can Tho, connecting eight major cities including Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vientiane, Hanoi and Nanning. However, fears that the special economic zone laws would undermine Vietnamese sovereignty have caused unrest, leading to public demonstrations against SEZ law. Vietnam’s history of economic dependencies on China has made the Vietnamese citizens reluctant to cooperate with the BRI.
  10. The New Eurasian Land Bridge: The New Eurasian Land Bridge connects China to Europe and Western Russia (NELB). Kazakhstan will likely become a bustling financial hub of the Belt and Road Initiative as well as one of China’s main trading partners in the BRI. Khorgos has completed the Khorgos Gateway Dry Port, an important logistical town along the original Silk Road more than 1,000 years ago. The BRI has also completed a new land-border crossing with a four-lane road, connecting Khorgos with its Chinese counterpart Horgos.

Although there are many more countries that China’s Belt and Road Initiative will impact, these 10 countries highlight some of the key players and the most important development projects. So far, there have already been many notable successes, as well as failures and obstacles. The BRI has the potential to lift millions out of poverty.

Sarah Newgarden
Photo: Flickr