Sunday, June 27, 2004

A Fistful of Yuan

The New York Times has an slide show with audio on efforts of the Chinese government to develop and stabilize its far western province, Xinjiang (called China's Wild West (not a stable URL)).

From Maps of China

Xinjiang (officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) was an area that was physically and politically remote to Beijing, despite being part of China. A harsh mountain and desert environment, Xinjiang felt the influence of neighboring nations more than it did of Beijing. In particular, the native Muslims were most affected by policies from the Soviet Union. The dissolution of the Soviet Union loosened the province's ties to Moscow. The retreat of Soviet influence has meant that Xinjiang has become more of an untamed environment than ever before: a badlands that is gaining a reputation as the "Chinese Wild West."

Beijing wants to bring the province closer to the central government, to end what it perceives as a power vacuum that has formed with the demise of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, it wants to use the province as an outlet for migration from overpopulated cities in the east. Beijing has introduced massive development in infrastructure and economic opportunities (especially with the province's neighbors) in an effort to attain both goals. The goals that they have set out (according to China's own proposals) are ambitious:
We should combine market forces with improved macroeconomic management, and combine nation-wide support for Western Region Development with the spirit of self-reliance among the people in the Western Region.

Great efforts should be made in the next five to ten years to achieve breakthroughs in infrastructure development and ecological improvement in the Western Region and create a good start for Western Region Development. By the middle of the 21st century, the Western Region will be transformed into a prosperous and advanced new West, where life is stable, ethnic groups are united, and the natural landscape is beautiful.

They intend to follow a complex strategy of investment at all levels to achieve these goals: increasing funding for local governments, development of non-state and self-employed economic actors, introduce preferential tax policies, etc. With respect to China's overall policy toward its western provinces, Beijing would seem to be aware of the problems that ethnic minorities face:
More assistance should be delivered to poverty-stricken areas and areas inhabited by ethnic minorities in the Western Region, and the campaign named "Develop the frontier and help frontiersmen prosper" should be continued.

However, migration and investment can potential destabilize the province as well. Xinjiang's Muslims, Uyghurs who are ethnically related to Turkic groups in Central Asia, have shown their own aspirations of nationhood after the creation of Central Asian republics in the 1990s (the so-called "Stans"). The influx of ethnic Hans from the east could upset their dominance of the province, and lead to stronger separatism among the Uyghurs.

Furthermore, the influx of people could increase desertification. Xinjiang has some of the world's largest deserts, and they influence the entirety of the Chinese climate. Recent efforts at tree planting have not slowed the progress of the desert.

Economic investment is part of the effort to stabilize the province, but it also contributes to the freewheeling atmosphere.


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