Xinjiang is a critically important region to the Chinese government. Firstly, Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin has the country’s fastest-growing oil and gas fields, and potential reserves could also make them the largest. Secondly, China’s increasingly important political, economic and military ties to its partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (particularly Russia and Kazakhstan) raise this border region to new heights of geopolitical significance. Its role as a conduit for Central Asian energy (Turkmen gas and Kazakh oil especially) and as a platform for Chinese power projection into Central Asia each make Xinjiang indispensable to an ambitious China. Its concurrent role as a release valve for the population pressures of inland China is also highly significant, and of particular relevance to the accompanying photo-essay. Immigration of Han Chinese increases the ratio of Han to minority ethnicities including Uyghurs and, along with urban development and infrastructure construction, strengthens the bond with China’s core. These factors serve to integrate this once unstable border region into what has been termed “China proper”.
But Xinjiang can no longer be considered volatile. Beijing’s policy of “Stability through Development”, pursued in the region over a decade, has moved a long way towards creating a stable and compliant social, political and economic environment. Although this period saw armed and unarmed protests by Uyghurs, they were dealt with swiftly and brutally. The authorities’ capacity to deploy crack troops against these poorly-organised protests prompted the top official in Xinjiang, Wang Lequan, to state in 2004, “Compared to the early and mid-1990s, the threat of separatism has diminished”. But sheer firepower and a demonstrated willingness to use it are not the only factors that prevented protests like those throughout China’s Tibetan areas in March from taking place in Xinjiang. Firstly, Uyghurs are not unified in their desire to resist – many of what Beijing calls “terrorist activities” are spontaneous rather than organised, and the occasional violence against Han is usually the work of a few Uyghurs for whom the resentment became too much. Secondly, whereas Tibetan Buddhists, in the eyes of much of the media-fed world are warm and furry representatives of a Worthy Cause, Uyghurs are tainted by Islam’s connection with global terrorism. And whereas everybody has heard of Tibet, there are far fewer editors (or readers) who could distinguish between a bomb or protest in Xinjiang and a similar event in Iraq or Afghanistan. The March protests attempted to attract international attention and stimulate sympathetic governments to exert pressure on China to change its Tibet policy, but without that level of international sympathy or even interest, similar protests from Uyghurs would mean unnecessary loss of life and/or liberty.
Now that ethnic separatist dissent can be dealt with, Beijing is focusing on securing complicity and support among the Han population of Xinjiang. In the cities, this means raising their standard of living by driving urbanisation that is, on the one hand, economical in terms of land area used and, on the other, creates and appeals to Xinjiang’s new aspirational classes.