However, we suggest that the root cause of Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang is not terrorism, separatism, or even human rights abuses. Rather, it is an outgrowth of the state’s development efforts in the region, which are interrelated with China’s economic engagement of Central and South Asia. In this regard, the violence reflects a substantial and volatile local challenge to the almost unstoppable plans of the Chinese state to project its power westward.
While these plans are already quickly transforming the geopolitical map of Central and South Asia, the recent street violence in Xinjiang and China’s strong response to it may hint at the nature of these changes and whether they are more likely to bring stability or conflict to the region.
Over the last decade, China has sought to rapidly develop Xinjiang, leading to the establishment of modern transportation networks, mass urbanization, and a steady flow of commercial investment. While the People’s Republic claims that this development is intended to ease ethnic tension through the establishment of economic opportunities, it is actually exacerbating it.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Development is raising the region’s economic potential, but it is also further marginalizing the Uyghurs in their perceived homeland. State projects have destroyed Uyghur communities, displaced thousands, and have brought an influx of Han migrants to the region. They have also been accompanied by aggressive attempts to assimilate Uyghurs into Han culture through targeted educational and work programs that incentivize the learning of Mandarin and integration into the Chinese state’s vision of modernization.
While some are now claiming that the latest violence in the region could lead to a shift in state policy that would be more conciliatory towards Uyghurs, this may be overly optimistic given that the local people have little to do with the vision that the Chinese state has for Xinjiang. Unlike Tibet, which has more symbolic than strategic value to the People’s Republic, Xinjiang is critical to China’s future intentions in Central and South Asia.
Without strong control over Xinjiang, China’s only overland routes westward are through India and Russia, neither of which are easy countries for the Chinese to engage. With a developed commercial and financial infrastructure in Xinjiang fully under the control of the state, however, China will be able to establish multiple critical trade routes to the west and south through partnerships with neighboring countries over which it has significant leverage.
Already, China has established a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan through Xinjiang, and is discussing the potential for a pipeline mega-project through Pakistan that would run from the Persian Gulf to Xinjiang as well as pipelines from Afghanistan to the region. At the same time, the Chinese state is negotiating deals with its Central Asian neighbors and Pakistan to establish a variety of rail links between Xinjiang and points west and south.
This emerging transport network for hydrocarbons and other goods is also being built around two urban hubs in Xinjiang, Urumqi and Kashgar, where the state is creating Special Economic Trading Areas roughly modeled on the Special Economic Zones of southern China, which initially fueled the country’s economic rise.