On landing at Urumqi Diwopu International Airport you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in just another large Chinese city. The short drive from the airport would not encourage you to suppose otherwise, until a closer look at the road signs shows place names written in three scripts: Mandarin, Pinyin (China’s phonetic romanisation) and across the top, Uighur.
Urumqi, which means ‘beautiful pasture’ in Mongolian, is the capital city of Xinjiang, China’s largest and westernmost province. The UK, France and Germany would all fit in with space to spare and while officially operating on Beijing time, my iPhone informs me local time is two hours behind. The province boasts eight international borders (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and Russia – not to mention Tibet) and is home to 12 ethnic minorities, the most populous of which are the Uighurs. Numbering some 10 million and largely Muslim, they are native to the region and have more in common with their Central Asian neighbours, both ethnically and culturally, than with the Han. The province’s Kazakh population is also considerable and the Xinjiang Daily is published in Kazakh as well as Uighur and Mandarin.
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, as it became known in October 1955, has been the recipient of many waves of Han immigration over the last half century to help stabilise the region and reduce the threat of Muslim uprisings. Following Deng Xiaoping’s triumphant Southern Tour of 1992 and the declaration that “to get rich is glorious”, by the end of the decade the number of Han Chinese in Xinjiang had risen by over 30%. That same year also marked the birth of a new economic policy, Beijing’s “Go West” initiative, aimed at improving infrastructure and enticing foreign investment in China’s drastically underdeveloped west. Along with economic development came the central government’s hopes for increased assimilation amongst China’s ethnic minorities. However, the Uighurs, perhaps more so than any other minority, have fought hard to maintain their cultural and linguistic identity.
On a superficial level this can easily be seen in Urumqi. Stay in the north of the city and it feels typically Chinese, a forest of beige high rise topped with oversize red characters and the sing-song of Mandarin prevalent on the streets. Travel to the south of the city, however, and you immediately feel the change. As one local expat told me, some of his Han friends see an invisible line in the city that is not to be crossed. Noses become more aquiline, cheeks more ruddy, and brightly coloured scarfs and doppas (the traditional skull cap) punctuate the sea of heads bobbing in and out of the ubiquitous underpasses. Tantalisingly, the smell of lamb kebab and local flatbread fills the air. My attempts to order in Chinese in a local restaurant are met with much hilarity by the Uighur staff who – giggling – call for the one member of staff who speaks passable Mandarin.
Joking aside, ethnic tensions in the region hit the international press in July 2009 following violent riots in Urumqi protesting the death of two Uighurs in southern China at the hands of Han Chinese. Official reports counted 200 dead and 1,700 injured, although many claimed the real figures were much higher. The 2013 suicide car attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and 2014 car bomb attack in Urumqi are two more recent examples of what the government has classed as acts of terror perpetrated by Uighur ‘separatists’ and fermented by ‘hostile foreign forces’. Sadly, these reports dominate Western coverage of Xinjiang and many China-watchers offered words of caution ahead of my trip to the region. I do not wish to either ignore or underplay the situation on the ground. Indeed, the obvious police presence, the extensive network of CCTV, and local journalists’ willingness to talk about almost anything but ‘religious issues’, are stark reminders of the simmering conflict. However, there is much more to Xinjiang than ethnic strife and civil unrest.
Urumqi and the wider region are at the heart of what is arguably China’s most important development drive of recent years, the One Belt One Road initiative. This was announced in September 2013 during Xi Jinping’s tour of Central Asia and refers to the ambition to link China with Central Asia and ultimately Europe, via the trade routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In recent days it has also been a key topic at the Boao Forum for Asia held in China’s Hainan province. Various other projects are also underway in Xinjiang which will boost domestic and regional trade flows, including a new free trade zone being built in China’s border town of Kashgar, supported by China’s southern city Shenzhen through an assistance programme.
Urumqi is well-placed to become the dominant regional trade hub and several individuals I spoke to pondered the possibility that Chinese would become the lingua franca for the whole region. Over the last two decades the city has been building the Urumqi Economic and Technology Development Zone (UETD). Envisaged to expand Urumqi City by 50%, the zone is set to include an export-import orientated industrial park, as well as production zones for both domestic and international companies. Volkswagen has already set up shop, the German flag proudly flying besides the Chinese outside its factory, and production is already underway. Urumqi is also soon to be connected to Beijing by high-speed train with a predicted journey time of only 12 hours. On top of all this, Xinjiang holds 30% of China’s petroleum reserves and 40% of its coal.
Sadly, Xinjiang’s growth story has seen little serious coverage in mainstream Western media, not least because none of the major news outlets seem to have correspondents based here. Even the China Daily, the Chinese government’s English language newspaper, appears to have only one journalist permanently covering the region.
Ethnic strife aside, if Xinjiang’s burgeoning trade links with Central Asia aren’t enough to lure investors out here, perhaps its agricultural produce will. Locally-grown fruits are the most coveted in all China, perhaps because Xinjiang is the country's sunniest province, with Kucha County in Xinjiang’s centre averaging 180 cloudless days per year. However, as I sit in a local café in up-town Urumqi looking out of the window, I’m sorry to say today isn’t one of them.