At the heart of the Silk Road

At the heart of the Silk Road

Xinjiang province has the most to offer China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. But with ethnic tensions and a relatively poorer economic position, it could also contribute a lot of problems. Suhasini Haidar on the region that is China’s greatest hope and worry

As the horses stomp their hooves, the flames on stage rise up. This is a spectacle like no other, an opera that celebrates all the differences of the the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang, formerly known as Sinkiang, is home to 47 ethnic groups, every major religion of the world, and the descendants of four ancient civilisations: Greek, Chinese, Indian and Mesopotamian. Hundreds of artistes bearing Russian, Caucasian, Indian, Central Asian, Tibetan, Han Chinese, and local Uighur features perform together on stage, along with the horses, eagles and even some Bactrian camels, as screens with colourful animations keep shifting. The opera, called Revisiting the Western Regions, recreates the region’s glorious past as a crucial link of the old Silk Route under the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).

It was through the three branches that go around the Tarim basin that goods were traded with China on the Silk Route, explains our tour guide and interpreter. The branches around the basin gave it the look of an eye, with the forbidding Taklamakan desert at the centre. Xinjiang means “an old frontier which returned”. The opera is a subtle celebration of China’s Qing dynasty reclaiming control of the Western regions in 1884, and of post-Revolution in 1949 when the Communist People’s Republic of China incorporated Xinjiang, with a 90% ethnic Muslim population, into China. Since then, as the Chinese majority Han population has grown from 6% to 41% (2010 Census), Uighur Muslims have dropped to 45%.

Much of the diversity resplendent on stage at the Changji Opera is not as prominent outside. Thirty kilometres away, in the Xinjiang capital city of Ürümqi, we are taken to a school that is a showpiece, given its grand classrooms, libraries and impressive facilities. One by one, the students stand up to speak about their school, where they spend all but two months of the year. What they say sounds rehearsed and explains the changes in Xinjiang quite vividly. “My country is my family,” says 12-year-old Kawsar. “My teachers are my parents, and I live here at school where all students are my brothers and sisters.” Firdaus, 11, says: “I want to say thank you to my government and my country because they allowed me to come here.” Anya adds: “My parents live in a village and are poor. I think I am lucky to come here to school and it is all thanks to my country that I am here.” Nearly all the students at Ürümqi’s No. 66 school belong to poor families who live hundreds of km away in the rural and underdeveloped parts of southern Xinjiang, closer to Kashgar. Ninety per cent of them belong to the ethnic ‘minorities’, as the Uighur Muslims and other ethnicities are termed. They have been brought here for an education, but more importantly, a “mainstream” Chinese education, in which religion, culture and ethnicities don’t find much of a place.

No overt religiosity

“According to the Constitution, we have freedom of religion,” says Qu Mingcai, the principal of No. 66 school. “But until they are adults, religious activities are forbidden. When they grow up, they can choose what faith to follow.” As a result, when asked, students at the school know little about the upcoming Eid festival or the month of Ramzan, and most say they don’t know how to pray. While they say they speak their native Uighur language at home, they focus on Mandarin and English in school. Qu estimates that 90% of his students will move east to “mainland” China to continue their education and work, and hopes that this too will help in fostering a more homogenised culture. “They are all one ethnic group called Chinese,” he says, and mastering Mandarin is an “obligation” for every Chinese citizen.

China’s form of a “secular and nationalistic” education for the people of Xinjiang, where until some decades ago most people followed the Islamic faith, has long been a contentious issue, written about by human rights agencies and criticised by many governments as an attempt to change the demography of the region. The U.S. State Department’s country report issued in April 2018 calls the repression of local culture and religion an effort to “Sinicize” the entire population. In a recent survey, Human Rights Watch stated that apart from what is taught at schools, as many as 800,000 Uighurs have been taken forcibly to “reeducation” camps where they are questioned about possibly extremist thoughts and indoctrinated on the perils of the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism”. Not all of them have returned, but some of those who have speak of harsh treatment and even violent punishments for those who didn’t learn their lessons well.

Other restrictions on faith are plain to the eye. In Ürümqi, Changji and Korla in central and north Xinjiang, it is difficult to see any men with beards, women with headscarves (veils are banned), mosque minarets, or many people praying at mosques. According to human rights agency reports, any overt form of religiosity could bring you under the scanner of the state’s well-spread surveillance system, and qualify you for a stint at the “reeducation” centre.

Fear of extremism

At Ürümqi’s Islamic Institute, a stone’s throw from No. 66, local officials attempt to explain what they call a “crackdown” on the “anti-human, anti-society” spread of extremism in Xinjiang. “Freedom of religion cannot overrule social order and education,” says Mahmood Usman, an official of the Religious Bureau of Xinjiang. The Islamic Institute, among the 10 such institutes in the region that educate men to become Imams, was established in 1982 with a grant of 250 million Yuan. The deputy president of the institute, Abdur Rahim, takes us through its classrooms in a seven-storey-high building. Except for the colourful caps they wear, the students in class who are chanting and memorising verses from the Koran could as well be at a management school. Not one of them sports facial hair. All of them wear shirts, jackets and shoes as they sit on chairs and tables learning their lessons. Above, cheerful red banners in Mandarin proclaim the importance of nation over faith and family. Abdur Rahim, who does have a small, well-kempt beard, dismisses all questions about restrictions as “Western propaganda”. When pressed by journalists from our group, he points to how the institute itself has been allowed to grow from 100 students four decades ago to about 1,200 students now, as proof that the government encourages religious freedom. “But no society will tolerate religious extremism,” he says.

The fear of extremism is evident everywhere in the province, and the link between excess religiosity and terrorism is accepted as a fact by the officials here. By the standards of any of the countries bordering Xinjiang, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and even India, Xinjiang has seen a small number of attacks. The worst violence was in Ürümqi in 2009, when 197 people died in Han-Uighur riots, followed by an attack in Kunming railway station in 2014, when knife-wielding terrorists killed more than 30 people. Even so, security personnel are present in much larger numbers than in most terror-hit countries, and there is a police station situated every 100 metres. Fuel stations are surrounded by barbed wire. Passengers must dismount outside the station; only the driver is allowed inside after strict ID and security checks. At high-security places, which include tourist sites, police personnel move in a rather striking triangular formation to avoid being attacked from any side. Surfing online for religious sites or information on terror groups can be hazardous as there is strong surveillance of the Internet, and any purchase, especially of things that can be used as weapons, is heavily scrutinised. One tourist who tried to buy a knife uploaded a video on how the knife was registered to the buyer’s ID, the ID number was then laser-emblazoned onto the blade, and his face recognition recorded.

Needless to say, all foreigners are watched and followed very closely and treated much like the “pandas” that author Vikram Seth likened them to during his own travels through Sinkiang in the early 1980s. “Officialdom treats the foreigner as one would a valuable panda given to fits of mischief,” he wrote in his travelogue From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet . “On no account must harm come to the animal. On the other hand, it must be closely watched at all times so that it doesn’t see too much, do too much on its own, or influence the behaviour of the local inhabitants.”

With the BRI, a sense of urgency

However close our treatment is to those distant days, China’s security crackdown and Sinicization programmes have a new urgency to them because of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious plans for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which runs right out of Xinjiang.

At the Ürümqi International Land Port zone, among the 18 “A class” land ports in the region, it is clear that the land route of the BRI will be driven by the railroads that run through Xinjiang. Even a few years before the BRI was announced in 2013, it would have been impossible to consider its scope. Today, a freight train goes from the Chinese city of Yiwu all the way to London, a distance that is second only to the Yiwu-Madrid freight route that traverses 12,874 km. This year, officials estimate that about 800 trains will run between 35 Chinese cities and 34 European cities. New ones are being inaugurated every day. On the day we visit the port, a freight train dressed with a big red bow is preparing to undertake its first journey from Ürümqi to Naples in Italy. It’s a cargo train, carrying hundreds of thousands of bottles of tomato ketchup. The BRI is not just China’s outreach to the world for connectivity or influence. As China’s economic growth slows, down to an estimated 6.5% from 6.9% last year, these railway routes will also supply new markets for China’s flagging manufacturing industry.

In order to attract manufacturers to Xinjiang, the Chinese government has designated the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region as the ‘Core Zone of the Silk Road Economic Belt’. Incentives have been given to both industries and real estate developers. The grand lotus bud-shaped opera house of Changji, for instance, is only the first part of a grand project called the Silkroad Incity, which will house thousands in a township whose model displayed at the opera house for prospective buyers resembles a resort in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and will include schools, colleges, hospitals and a football stadium.

Two hundred and fifty km south of Ürümqi, Korla is being marketed as the ‘Eye of the New Vitality of the Silk Road’. This dusty town on the edge of the desert has been transformed with a grant of $50 billion. Its population has doubled to 800,000 in a decade. The city centre today could be any bustling Western capital, with skyscrapers, malls and a huge central plaza with 69,000 sq m of office space. The aim is to make Korla a futuristic hub for applications development and cloud computing.

On the outskirts of Korla, the desert climate is also spawning new opportunities for China’s BRI. The dry air and soil have always been known for growing the juiciest pears and grapes, but Beijing’s push for business is attracting others. In 2015, the Litai textile company of China’s Jinsheng group, which has business in 35 countries, decided to invest in a “million spindle” silk yarn factory. Its website says that its Korla plant was an “an important strategic initiative” to “[seize] the ‘Belt and Road’ development opportunity and [promote] strategic transformation of Litai, and will make a positive contribution to the regional stability and economic development in Xinjiang.” Today, the mostly mechanised factory is up and running, with each unit producing about 75 tonnes of yarn a day. Jinsheng’s future plans involve harnessing the railway routes to Europe to send its products, a modern-day reprisal of the ancient Silk Route where merchants carried tea and spices from the East and returned with Western commodities. Italian explorer Marco Polo is said to have discovered the Chinese ‘Baiju’ rice wine during his travels along the old Silk Route in the 13th century. Today, dozens of vineyards in Yanqi County, not far from Korla, are hoping to rev up production to the point where they can repeat along the new Silk Road Marco Polo’s wine exports. “China has had 5,000 years of wine drinking, but regular grape wine is only just catching people’s attention,” says Zou Jiyun, the third-generation owner of the Xiangdu Winery that produces about 10 million bottles of Chan D’or wine per year. “As a wine culture grows and more wine is imported from Europe, it is necessary that we keep up with the competition.” The understanding is that the BRI will work “both ways” — the roads and railways could eventually bring in Western products to compete with Chinese goods.

Bumps on the Silk Road

However, not every investment is paying off. Sensing opportunity in Xinjiang, and facing labour problems in Kolenchery, Kerala, where it is headquartered, India’s spice essence manufacturer Synthite decided to set up a manufacturing plant in 2015 for export of Paprika oleoresins from Korla. The group, which had a turnover of Rs. 1,200 crore last year, controls about 45% of the world market in spice oleoresins, and is the world largest supplier of spice enhancers. The Synthite China Country Head and General Manager-Operations, Sreekumar Methil, says their original plan for the Xinjiang plant was to double capacity quickly and ship out spices over the rail route, but they have held off expansion plans for the moment. “Despite the government’s push, the business atmosphere is still not easy in Xinjiang. The biggest problem is the security environment,” he says. Methil lists issues: security checks, difficult access to export facilities, and problems with the labour force, given the Han-Uighur tensions over the past few years. “Working in China and working in Xinjiang are two very different things,” he says, indicating that Synthite facilities in other parts of China haven’t faced similar issues. In addition, relations between India and China, currently improving but frequently tense, also impact the working climate for Indian companies in Xinjiang, he says.

Synthite’s problems point to the larger bumps on China’s new Silk Road, which could derail many of its ambitious plans. As a result, officials have been trying to reduce ethnic tensions in Xinjiang. In Korla, city planners are working on massive housing projects to bring the two major communities to live together, unlike in Ürümqi, which was polarised and ghettoised before the 2009 riots. About 5,000 sq km have been acquired by Korla. Officials say all farmers and peasants are being given housing and compensation commensurate with the homes they gave up. We are welcomed into the home of one Uighur family which extols the virtues of modern living, with air conditioning, heating and piped gas. Thousands of them will also have to be given vocational training over the years, as the state consciously attempts to move them away from farming to other professions. When asked about the loss of traditional culture as a result of such urbanisation, officials take us to a quaint museum where they ‘showcase’ an old farm, with an old round-dial phone, a 1980s television, and basket-weaving women, to contrast this with the comforts of modern life and thus highlight their efforts in preserving traditional ways.

With its geographical position and climate benefits, Xinjiang has the most to offer the grand $1 trillion BRI. Yet, with its relatively poorer economic position, deep ethnic tensions and security situation, it could also contribute the most number of problems to the initiative. As one visiting journalist put it, the “core” of the Silk Road, as Xinjiang is called, is both at the heart of China’s biggest worries and is one of its greatest hopes.

The writer travelled to Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region as a part of a delegation of international journalists from 20 countries hosted by the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China.

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