Looking for a place to invest in China? How about Xinjiang, or the “New Frontier,” as the northwestern autonomous region is known in Mandarin? Home to the Uighur people—a Turkic group that briefly helmed two self-proclaimed republics called East Turkestan in the 1930s and ‘40s—Xinjiang seethes with resentment toward the oppressive rule of China’s ethnically Han leadership. And now the New Frontier, once a vital stop along the ancient Silk Road, is fully open for foreign business.
On September 1 the inaugural China-Eurasia Expo commenced in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, with Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva in attendance. “Our goal is to give full play to Xinjiang’s role as a bridgehead in the process and forge it into a major window and pillar of [China’s] opening-up,” Li said, according to the China Daily, the English-language state newspaper. China’s eastern coast has boomed; now it’s supposedly the turn of the country’s borderlands.
But China’s vast hinterlands, which include the ethnic regions of Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia are a world away from the bright lights of Shanghai and Beijing. These regions are rich in natural resources and lie well placed to profit from regional trade—Xinjiang alone borders eight countries. But the ethnic minorities who live in these lands complain that the earnings from the earth’s treasures go disproportionately to members of the Han majority. In recent years, despite significant urban development, ethnic unrest has struck at least six provinces and autonomous regions. In 2009, tensions exploded in Xinjiang, with riots between Uighurs and Han, plus an ensuing security crackdown, claiming some 200 lives. Since then, Uighurs have complained of an omnipresent security presence that has hampered daily life and religious rituals. Despite the clampdown, outbreaks of violence continue. In late July, more than a dozen people died in bombing, knifing and hijacking incidents in the city of Kashgar, according to authorities. In mid-July, another 20 or so were killed in the oasis town of Hotan, after a police station was apparently targeted by Islamic militants.
Nevertheless, Beijing is keen to open up Xinjiang and has dubbed Kashgar a special economic zone, the same designation that made the fishing port of Shenzhen boom. The China-Eurasia Expo is slated to take place every year from September 1-5. “More than 5,000 foreign guests will visit [and] deals at the Expo are expected to hit $35.4 billion,” according to the China Daily. But Uighurs complain that their business interests have largely have been left out of the Expo. And in a chilling reminder of how violence stalks Xinjiang, Urumqi’s Communist Party Secretary Zhu Hailun, an ethnic Han who took over after the 2009 riots, announced that “separatists, religious extremists and terrorists have been plotting to sabotage the Expo,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency. In one case, a man tried to board a plane at the Urumqi airport with a knife, according to Zhu. Urumqi is currently under a security lockdown, with military, paramilitary and police forces patrolling the streets.
Meanwhile, political persecution of Uighurs has not abated, say human-rights groups. Over the past couple years Uighurs, many of whom fled Xinjiang after the 2009 strife, have been forcibly repatriated from various Central and Southeast Asian countries. Last month, Thai authorities handed over a Uighur named Nur Muammed to Chinese officials in Bangkok with nary a trial, public court proceeding or even the usual involvement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The Chinese government has again reached beyond its borders to force another Uighur into a black hole,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “Even worse, it appears that Thailand, which so often has protected people fleeing persecution, has instead abandoned that proud tradition to Beijing’s bidding.” The Thai police say the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok told them Muhammed was part of a terrorist network. His whereabouts today are unknown.
Then in late August, a batch of 11 Uighurs were deported from Malaysia back to China, again without the involvement of the UNHCR. China told the Malaysian government that the Uighurs were part of a human-smuggling ring. Whatever the truth, it appears that China’s influence extends far beyond the Central Asian heartland that is currently celebrating the inaugural trade expo in Urumqi.