This article series explores 12 distinct “regions” within China: six “core” regions long dominated by the majority Han ethnic group and six “periphery” regions home to many of China’s ethnic minorities. The series overview is available here. To view the full series, click here.
Xinjiang is China’s biggest administrative division, sprawling across 1.6 million square kilometers of some of the world’s harshest terrain. It consists of the Tarim basin, covered by the world’s second largest sand desert, and Dzungaria, an area of mixed desert, steppe, and forest. The region is defined by some of the highest mountains ranges in the world: the Altai on the Mongolian border, the Tianshan dividing the two basins, the Pamirs walling off Central Asia, and the Kunlun rising from the Tarim basin’s southern rim into the Tibetan plateau.
Meltwater from the mountains supports a string of oasis towns on the desert’s edge along the rim of the Tarim basin. These were stations on the fabled Silk Roads, once inhabited by Indo-European peoples and vibrant centers of Buddhist culture before the region’s Islamicization from the 8th century. Controlled episodically by strong Imperial Chinese states, from the 13th century this region was dominated by the western Mongols, led from the 1600s by Eurasia’s last great nomad confederation, the Dzungars.
The Qing state overran the area in its campaign to destroy the Dzungars, incorporating it into the empire as Xinjiang (literally “new frontier”). With the Dzungar genocide, the Mongols almost disappeared, their legacy largely reduced to place names (including the regional capital, Urumqi). Today the region’s ethnic minority population is dominated by Muslim Turkic peoples, Uyghurs in the Tarim basin and Kazakhs in Dzungaria; hence the region was once called “Chinese Turkestan” and seen as culturally part of Central Asia. Characterizing imperial rule in Xinjiang has become a political battleground of the “new Qing history,” a pejorative term used in China for foreign scholarship that draws comparisons between Qing policies and European imperialism.
The region’s remoteness and harsh environment made it China’s Siberia-equivalent for exiling criminals and political undesirables. Today it hosts a network of prison labor camps run by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a paramilitary entity founded in the 1950s to secure the region and develop it agriculturally, in China’s long tradition of taming frontier lands through soldier-farmers. Xinjiang’s expansive deserts have also made it a testing ground for nuclear weapons and missiles. The region accounts for much of China’s oil reserves and is a crossroads for gas pipelines from Central Asia, although the economy remains dependent on agriculture (Xinjiang fruits are famous nationwide). Promoting trade and transport links with the neighboring Central Asian countries is a key element of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Xinjiang has been a strategic burden for China since Russian encroachments in the mid-19th century. The diversion of resources to secure this region contributed to China’s defeat in the 1894-95 war with Japan, precipitating the imperial system’s collapse. In recent decades, Han in-migration and restrictions on Islamic practice have aggravated Uyghur resentment, expressed in a series of deadly attacks across Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. Concern over an elusive separatist movement, the spread of Salafism, and the growing number of Uyghurs fighting for al-Qaeda and Islamic State in the Middle East has led the Chinese state to double down with sticks and carrots. The latter is manifested in Xinjiang’s growing manufacturing and transportation infrastructure, although equality of opportunity between Han and Uyghurs remains contentious.
Next up: The Tibetan plateau.
John Lee is a former visiting fellow of the Mercator Institute for China Studies. He tweets at @J_B_C16.