Since 1949, China has pursued two priorities in its restive far western region of Xinjiang – security and economic growth.
By improving living standards and the quality of housing, school and healthcare, Beijing aims to win the hearts and minds of the 59 per cent of the region’s 25 million people who are not Han Chinese and integrate them into the nation’s economy and society.
In 2019, the region’s GDP reached 1.36 trillion yuan, more than double the 661 billion yuan of 2011 and 6.2 per cent up on 2018. The average income of its urban residents reached 34,664 yuan, up 5.8 per cent over 2017, and of its rural residents 13,122 yuan, up 9.6 per cent.
For the last three years, the regional government has implemented security measures unprecedented in China – and few countries in the world in peacetime. They include police checkpoints, street surveillance cameras, face recognition and identity checks at parks and shopping plazas. More than one million Muslims have been forced into “retraining centres”.
In 2017, the region’s public security budget was 57.95 billion yuan, 10 times more than in 2009. It deems the restrictions necessary to stop terrorism.
These drastic measures are damaging the economy. In a rare report from Xinjiang by an unofficial media, the Financial Times in December reported that the population of Korla, the region’s second largest city, had halved because of the restrictions. While they have made the city safe, the authorities have restricted trade and commerce and detained thousands of Muslims, turning areas into ghost towns.
Korla is the operational centre of Petrochina’s fields in the nearby Taklamakan desert. It had a population of 550,000 in the 2010 census.
Xinjiang is critical to the economic future of China. It covers 1.6 million square kilometres, one sixth of the national territory. It holds the country’s largest natural gas reserves, almost half of its coal and a fifth of its oil. It has more than 130 kinds of mineral deposits, with those of mica and beryllium the highest in China. In 2019, it produced five million tonnes of cotton, 84.9 per cent of the national total.
According to official statistics, the four largest industrial sectors in 2017 were oil processing, coking and nuclear fuel processing, 14.1 per cent: production of electricity and heat power, 12.5 per cent: smelting and processing of non-ferrous metals, 11.7 per cent: and raw chemical materials and products, 9.5 per cent.
Through the region run the railways that connect east China with Central Asia and the cities of Europe – one of the most important links in the One Belt, One Road project of President Xi Jinping.
In 2017, primary industry – mainly agriculture – accounted for 14.3 per cent of GDP, including wheat, corn, cotton, grapes, tomatoes, melons and other fruits. Utilised foreign direct investment is very limited – just US$205 million in 2018 and US$196 million in 2017.
After natural resources, the second pillar of the economy is the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, known in Chinese as Bingtuan (兵團, meaning “military corps”). It was founded in 1954 to conquer and settle the region, like early Jewish immigrants of Palestine, with a farm tool in one hand and a gun in the other.
They have built 10 cities and control nine of them. They number 2.6 million people in 14 divisions; about 90 per cent of its members are Han Chinese. In its annual report in February 2019, the Bingtuan announced GDP in 2018 of 251.5 billion yuan, up six per cent on 2017. It produced a record 2.05 million tonnes of cotton, up 21 per cent. Agriculture accounted for 21.7 per cent of its output, manufacturing 41.7 per cent and services 36.6 per cent. It has 11 publicly traded subsidiaries. The 2018 figures are the latest available on the Bingtuan website.
The Bingtuan is not under the authority of the regional authorities but reports directly to the central government.
The report said: “We must be very clear. The external environment is complicated and severe. The number of challenges is increasing and the domestic economy is facing changes, some for the worse. The economy of the Bingtuan will face pressure.”
For the government, security and growth are inseparable. “There have been no terrorist attacks in the region since the government launched its initiative (the training camps),” the China Daily said in an editorial on December 24. “Thanks to the government’s effort to improve the region’s infrastructure and raise people’s living standards, for the first time in history, no Uighur people are living in abject poverty.” Official figures state that, in 2019, 645,000 people escaped from poverty and that the poverty level had fallen to 1.2 per cent.
It is difficult to estimate the impact of the three years of restrictions on the economy. Information from the region is highly censored; the few outside visitors are monitored. The narratives of the Chinese government and the Uighur diaspora about what is going on there are like chalk and cheese – they have nothing in common.
The detention of thousands of Muslims from their homes removes them from their fields and places of work. Thousands of Han Chinese residents are migrant workers who will not stay in Xinjiang without safe and stable employment. Have the restrictions worsened relations between the different communities? Why live in a place if you fear revenge from your neighbour or colleague?