Beijing is on a 50-year plan to build colleges, hospitals, and roads in the resource-rich region
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.
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.
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.
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.
The west policy is bringing changes, both large and small. Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, is now undergoing simultaneous building and tearing down, and has just installed city-wide broadband. Korla, a 10-hour desert drive south of Urumqi, is a budding center of oil and business. Five years ago it was a relatively sleepy town; now it has high-rises, four-star hotels, and something of the buzz about it like Houston during the 1970s boom years.
As Wu Yong Sheng, deputy director of an industrial park in Urumqi says simply, "If there is no infrastructure, no investment will come."
Reporters on an official trip herevisited Mr. Wu's industrial park, which houses 170 small businesses, including stone carving, wood processing, and a Uighur-owned carrot juice company.
Many firms eagerly seek foreign investment. Golden Cattle cloning center, for example, wants partners in a bid to develop cloned cows that produce high-quality milk. In an otherwise empty laboratory, reporters saw a stuffed calf, "Gary No. 1," behind a glass case that last year became China's first, though short-lived, cloned cow.
The scale of Xinjiang, site of the old silk road, is immense. The Taklimakan Desert landscape, for example, changes dramatically from hour to hour. It switches abruptly from smooth small hills the color of burned popovers, to rocky reddish-black mountains, to expanses of level scrub brush, to classic sinewy sand dunes of a uniform tan color, to infinite flat surfaces with a light coating of charcoal-colored pebbles.
What Xinjiang lacks, from Beijing's perspective, is talent.
"The west's education and cultural levels are not high," says Mr. Wang, who arrived 13 years ago from the province of Shangdong in the east. "We need talent of those who can ... work in advanced industry."
This year Beijing began a program to send 6,000 college graduates yearly to the far west, on a volunteer basis. Those selected earn 600 yuan a month, about $70. According to Youth League organizer Mr. Guo, recruiting ads were placed in June. Within two weeks 43,763 applicants signed up, and the ads were canceled.
The students have already been chosen for work throughout the west, including Xinjiang - in schools, hospitals, technical jobs, and farming. They arrived this month.
Some Western diplomats and Uighur activists in the West say the march of the Han Chinese into Xinjiang is forcing the Uighur minority into a position of permanent second-class citizens.
Korla, for example, sits in a province that had been majority Uighur and Mongolian. Today, the ethnic breakdown is 58 percent Han, 32 percent Uighur, 5 percent Mongolian, according to city officials. Sources say a significant number of Chinese displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project in central China are now showing up in Xinjiang.
"We are being internally colonized," says Alim Seytoff, Washington spokesman for the Uighur American Association. "There were 300,000 Han in Xinjiang in 1949. Now they are half the people. If you want to move to Xinjiang [unlike the rest of China] no residency permit is necessary. You just go. The Uighur people are being pushed into the desert, forced out of cities and towns. Is there a single Uighur oil executive? I don't think so."
Such voices are not heard publicly in China.
The official Chinese view is that all minority groups are treated equally; officials told reporters that there is no significant increase in Islamic devotion among Uighur youth, as earlier Chinese internal reports suggests.
Veteran travelers to the region say that the pitched tensions of the late 1990s have receded.
Yet religious devotion has not waned. Reporters who escaped briefly to wander Urumqi's back streets found a mosque jammed to capacity - at 10 p.m. Of about 200 worshipers, at least half appeared to be under 30 years old.
• First of two parts. Next: An uncertain future for China's Uighurs.