David Eimer in Uruqmi
November 7, 2010
The new Silk Road begins and ends in the bustle of the vast Hualing Wholesale Mall in Urumqi, the desert-ringed capital of Xinjiang Province in the far west of China. To the shoppers who flock here from the eight other countries that Xinjiang borders, it is a retail paradise where the prices are up to 100% cheaper than at home – be it for CD players and cookers or TVs and toys.
Now Beijing is planning a multi-billion dollar expansion of the province's rail, road and air links, turning it into a key trading hub with central Asia, Russia and the Middle East – just as it was a thousand years ago when the Silk Road connected China to the outside world.
In this particular project, though, the central planners in China's Politburo have political as well as financial gains in mind.
They hope the resulting economic boom will also end decades of strife between the ethnic Uighurs, the Muslim minority indigenous to Xinjiang, and the Han Chinese who make up 90 per cent of the rest of the country's population.
Tension between the two groups exploded into violence in July last year, when at least 197 people died and over 1,600 were injured in Urumqi during riots that focused the world's attention on this remote, resource-rich province.
"More railways and roads and airports are good for us, because it means more people will come here and buy things," said Wang Guanghui, a trader who sells TVs to a mainly Kazakh clientele. "I think business will get better because you can find everything here and the prices are cheaper than elsewhere."
The question though, is just which of Xinjiang's rival ethnic groups will really benefit from Beijing's largesse.
Mr Wang, like most of the shop owners at the Hualing Mall, is an ethnic Han, as are most of the mall's employees, many of whom are new arrivals in Urumqi from far-off provinces in the south and east of China. The suspicion among Uighurs is that despite Beijing's talk of equal opportunities in the region, the revival of the Silk Road is all simply part of a plan to increase Han Chinese migration to the area, and so further marginalising them in their own homeland.
"We're most worried about the numbers of Chinese coming to Xinjiang. It makes it much harder for us to get jobs," said Mehmet, who, like many ethnic Uighurs, was afraid to give more than his first name for fear of attracting the attention of the security forces.
"Even if you speak good Chinese, the government and Han companies will always give the best jobs to the Han."
It is little surprise, therefore, that Uighur anger has not diminished in the 15 months since the Urumqi disturbances, where most of the victims were Han. Restrictions on their right to practise Islam, and curbs on their culture – Uighurs speak a Turkic dialect which connects them linguistically with most central Asian countries – has provided ample motivation for extremists. In August, a Uighur man drove an electric tricycle into a crowd of security guards in Aksu, 620 miles from Urumqi, and detonated a bomb killing seven people.
At first glance, though, Urumqi appears to have put the riots behind it and displays all the signs of a typically booming Chinese city. Property prices are soaring, with smart apartment and office developments going up in the centre, while new cars jam the roads and the shopping malls are packed.
In May, China's president, Hu Jintao, announced a ten year investment plan designed to "leapfrog development" in Xinjiang. and the equivalent of more than £10 billion has been pumped into the region this year alone.
Yet, there is little sign that the money flowing into Xinjiang is reaching the Uighurs.
At the Hualing Mall, the only Uighurs in evidence were translating for the Kazakhs, Uzbekis and Russians who make up the vast majority of Hualing's customers, or begging outside. So far, the one government initiative to tackle Uighur unemployment is a scheme where young men are paid 1000 RMB (£95) a month to work as security guards in their local neighbourhoods. Along with the convoys of armed police and soldiers in jeeps and trucks that patrol Urumqi every day, they are a constant reminder that the city remains divided.
In the south, districts of tenement-style housing are home to the majority of Uighurs, while the far more prosperous north is dominated by the Han. The two communities do not socialise or intermarry, and often view each other with mutual contempt.
While the Uighurs complain of discrimination and Han arrogance, the Han say they simply lack the entrepreneurial spirit that characterises modern China.
"Ninety per cent of the shops in Hualing are run by Han people," said Mr Wang, the TV trader.
"The Uighurs don't know how to run a business like this. They don't have the connections to get the goods from the different cities in China."
Successive waves of Han immigration since the 1950s mean the Uighurs are now already a minority in Xinjiang, making up just 46 per cent of its 22 million residents. A ban on under-18's attending mosques and the requirement that all children must go to Han schools has further alienated the Uighurs.
"They're only taught Chinese history in school now, no Uighur history. They have to learn that from our old people," said one man. "You hear Uighur kids speaking Chinese with each other now. Chinese! It's a result of them having to go to Chinese school. If our language dies out, then so will the Uighur nation."
His reluctance to give his name follows warnings from the authorities not to speak to foreign journalists, despite widespread discontent over the thousands of Uighurs imprisoned in the aftermath of last July's riots and still unable to contact their families.
Beijing, though, claims its measures are necessary to achieve stability in the region. It blames Uighur unrest on the activities of exiles and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a shadowy terrorist organisation fighting for an independent Uighur state they call East Turkestan.
There is little sign, however, that the ongoing clash between the Uighurs and Han is discouraging the shoppers at Hualing. Foreign trade is expected to be worth £16 billion this year, according to the Xinjiang government, a 400% jump from 2006.
"People weren't put off from coming by last July. We know it had nothing to do with us," said Zavresh Abicheva, a Kazakh who runs a shipping company in Urumqi.
In the meantime, the new Silk Road looks likely to get ever busier and more cosmopolitan. Six new airports are set to open in Xinjiang in 2015 and train lines will be extended to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan by 2020.