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Go west: China looks to transform its frontier

Beijing is on a 50-year plan to build colleges, hospitals, and roads in the resource-rich region

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2003


The Tazhong oil distillery bakes in the Taklimakan desert of western China, hours from the nearest city. Some 200 ethnic Han Chinese work in a huddle of buildings and machinery ringed by a "green belt" of vegetation to keep the swirling sand at bay. They are recruited from all over China, deemed to have the technical "talents" - a much-used word in this frontier territory - to operate sophisticated equipment.

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During the day, engineers separate water from crude oil that is pumped from the Tarim basin, one of three newly developed fields in China's far west. The new fields are not yet an answer to China's energy needs. Yields are modest, and the crude lies deep and is expensive to remove.

Still, the exploration is part of a huge new push to develop China's vast western region of Xinjiang, which means "new territory." China's "go west" enterprise is an epic project to industrialize, repopulate, and transform the waste-howling wilderness that makes up one-sixth of mainland China.

Wang Lequan, party secretary of Xinjiang, says that it will take "40 to 50 years" to turn an untapped agricultural region of desert and mountains into a modern Chinese zone of roads, train lines, hotels, tourism, colleges, and hospitals. Comparisons are made by experts to the 19th-century American westward expansion - though the Chinese version, implemented through five-year plans, is less spontaneous.

A melting pot

Like America's western expansion, China's push acts partly as a "safety valve" for the eastern unemployed. As with the US West, there are local populations, mainly ethnic Uighurs of Turkic Muslim origin, not yet reconciled to the march by the ethnic Han into their world. The Uighurs dominated Xinjiang for centuries; in 1949 they made up 90 percent of the population. Today, they are 45 to 50 percent, estimates Chien-peng Chung, at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

China has slowly pushed west for years. But during the mid-1990s, after the Soviet Union breakup created new fledgling states in Central Asia, the strategic importance of China's west increased. Ethnic tensions were sharply rising among Uighurs, including separatists, who felt their identity to be in jeopardy.

Some groups are violent. The spreading influence of a stricter Islam was also in evidence in Central Asia. Collectively, these changes concerned Beijing enough to initiate a Central Asian grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, designed to give Beijing a more formal tie to states on its western border, particularly to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Just this week in Beijing, the five-year-old group moved past a concept to a formal structure, with funding and an antiterrorism center to be built in Uzbekistan.

At the same time, the west appeared to Chinese leaders as a cornucopia of untapped zinc, gold, coal, oil, energy, and land. China had spent the previous decade turning its east coast into a manufacturing mecca, a place to "get rich," in the words of paramount reformer Deng Xiaopeng.

With strategic, internal, and cross-border issues at stake, Beijing deemed it time to initiate a "Great Western Development" policy. "First develop the east, then shift to the west," as Party Secretary Wang says.

Making west a valuable player

Two years ago, the State Council began a $35 billion annual investment, with a rail line from Qinghai to Tibet as a centerpiece project. A 2,500-mile gas pipeline from Xinjiang to Shanghai is now under construction. This infrastructure could make Xinjiang a valuable partner to the region, rather than just an endlessly rugged transit point between Central Asia and China's east.