For much of its 300-year history, Khorgas in western Xinjiang has led a pretty unglamorous existence as an imperial outpost and garrison town.
But on Friday, as part of President Xi Jinping’s plan to resurrect the old Silk Road, it became China’s newest city.
With a population of only 85,000, Khorgas – which can also be spelt Horgos – didn’t qualify automatically for city status, so the State Council had to issue a special edict in June to ensure its elevation. The hope is that a change in status will enable it to attract more investment and that its addition to the Silk Road project will help to quell a rising wave of separatist violence in the region.
“Development is the key to addressing all issues in Xinjiang,” Xi said during a visit there in early May. But as he was ending his tour, three people were killed and 79 injured in a bomb attack on the railway station in the regional capital, Urumqi.
So just what is the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and how will it help Beijing regain control over this restive region?
As with the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route (see WiC253), details on some of Beijing’s grander plans can be vague. But like the original Silk Road, which was really a network of dozens of routes weaving their way over the Eurasian landmass, the newer version is ostensibly about trade. It also leverages the fact that Xinjiang shares borders with eight countries: Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
The idea appears to be focused on increasing transportation links through Xinjiang to make it easier to facilitate trade with neighbouring countries. To that end the local government has built, or is in the process of building, three ‘free’ land ports: one in Khorgas, which is already functioning, another near Kashgar (which has just opened) and a third about 20 kilometres from the border with Pakistan.
One hope: that the initiative will allow more goods from Central Asia to arrive in China more easily (and play to a cultural preference among Xinjiang’s Turkic-speaking ethnic group in dealing with peoples from this area too).
Longer term, the plan is that companies from China’s wealthier eastern seaboard will see the opportunities of being closer to untapped markets to China’s far west, and thus set up factories in the region that create new jobs.
If China and Pakistan ever build the long-mooted Khunjerab rail link – officials in Kashgar have hinted that this will be included in the next five-year plan – companies based in southwestern Xinjiang might also export their goods to the wider world via the Arabian Sea.
But there are risks associated with the project too, as government officials admit in their less guarded moments. If it works as the central government envisages, the Silk Road programme will mean even more Han Chinese moving to Xinjiang – an area traditionally populated by several non-Chinese minorities, the dominant being the Uighurs.
Past migrations of Han Chinese to Xinjiang have irked this group, as many Uighurs feel the objective is to dilute their culture and their Muslim faith.
In retaliation some locals say that their only recourse is to use the state’s Uighur-friendly family planning policy against Beijing by having as many children as possible so as to outnumber the migrant Han families who can only have one child each.
Another worry for the Chinese is that increased contact with countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan might lead to an influx of Islamic fundamentalists. In this fear, the Han even find common ground with some of the Uighurs. As one Uighur told WiC of his fears of radical Islam recently: “I want my own state if it is like Turkey. If it is like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, I would rather we stayed part of China.”
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