China builds pipeline through restive Uighurstan

The current (Dec. 1) issue of The Economist includes a profile of “China’s far west”—a region variously known as Xinjiang (to the Chinese), or East Turkestan or Uighurstan to its indigenous inhabitants, the Turkic and Muslim Uighurs. After providing some background on the separatist strife in the Autonomous Region (which readers of WW4 Report will already be familiar with), it notes the recent development of gasfields there and the construction, now underway, of a pipeline to Kazakhstan. We recently noted that Kazakhstan is to be connected with the new trans-Caucasian Baku-Ceyhan pipeline with a link across the Caspian Sea, at the other end of the country. Now, Kazakhstan is a vast place, but it is nearly inevitable the global planners already foresee linking these pipelines. The question, ultimately, is whose control all this infrastructure will fall under. With all eyes on the Baku-Ceyhan route, Japan is seeking a Pacific route for Siberian and (eventually) Central Asian oil and gas—which would, as we have noted, strategically by-pass longtime rival China.

The Uighurs are nearly invisibile to the outside world due to the remoteness of their high, arid land. If this distant region takes on a new geo-strategic significance, they could follow the Chechens in having their just struggle exploited as a pawn in the Great Game. The Economist, following their dogma, ends on an optimistic note, assuming that economic development will bring peace. Sometimes, however, it has just the opposite effect, by providing something to fight over…

China’s goal is not just to replicate the boom of its coastal areas. It wants to tame Xinjiang, its wild western frontier. Since January 2000, when China launched the “great development of the west” (often referred to as the “Go west” policy), it has been clear that there is more to this than simply boosting growth in China’s economic backwaters. It is shorthand for a policy of tightening central control over remote, far-flung territories and assimilating them into China proper. Xinjiang (literally meaning “New Frontier”) was the most recalcitrant region of the lot.

A chasm of language, culture and religion lies between the Han Chinese, who make up more than 90% of China’s population, and Xinjiang’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and Tajiks. The region’s brand of Islam, heavily influenced by Sufi mysticism, sits uncomfortably with the atheism espoused by the Chinese Communist Party. Xinjiang is periodically roiled by local uprisings set off by supporters of independence for the region—”East Turkestan” as the separatists call it, rejecting the Chinese name for their territory.

In 1945, a rebellion led to the creation of a short-lived independent republic in the Yining region close to the Soviet Union. But in 1949, this was abolished after the Russians told the Uighurs to co-operate with Mao. An earlier East Turkestan, in 1933, had lasted only a few months. Since 1949, Chinese rule has never been seriously challenged, although the authorities say there were more than 200 “terrorist incidents” between 1990 and 2001, causing the deaths of 162 people. The most recent unrest of any significance occurred in 1997, with the Yining riots. Three bus bombings in Urumqi and an explosion in Beijing that year were also blamed on Xinjiang separatists.

Calls for independence are still heard among members of the Uighur diaspora. Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman and former political prisoner who was sent into exile in America by China in March, has become a prominent cheerleader for the cause. She has been labelled a “terrorist” by the Chinese government and her family members in Xinjiang have been harassed by the police. Amnesty International says the government’s accusations “have not been backed up with any evidence” and appear to be aimed at discrediting Ms Kadeer and her associates as part of a broader political crackdown in Xinjiang.

But at the beginning of October, official celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the founding of what China calls the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region passed without disruption. Tight security for the events reflected the authorities’ continuing fear that, though subdued, separatists could still pose a security risk. Yet China plainly does not worry that Xinjiang might descend into a Chechnya-style conflict. And for all its warnings of terrorist dangers, it appears convinced that, just as rapid economic growth has bought respite from radical political demands in other parts of China, the same formula could well work in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang is a prize worth keeping for more than just reasons of national pride. As China searches for fuel to power its economic development, its gaze has inevitably turned westwards to the province’s rich endowments of coal, oil and natural gas. Driving along the edge of the vast Taklamakan desert, the vista is of endless tracts of wells and drills. Official hyperbole makes it hard to tell how much oil and gas Xinjiang really has. But the province is a focal point of exploration by China’s largest oil and gas producer, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

The discovery of Xinjiang’s Kela II natural-gas field laid the foundation for a 4,000km (2,500-mile) pipeline that began pumping gas from Xinjiang to China’s east coast last year. Three years ago, the oilfields of the Junggar basin, in northern Xinjiang, broke the annual output record for Chinese oilfields by crossing the ten million tonne mark. In 2004, the Tarim basin oilfields chipped in with five million tonnes.

With its borders with Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, among others, Xinjiang is also China’s principal gateway to the energy reserves of Central Asia. Chinese oil experts are frequent visitors to Almaty and Tashkent, where they hammer out some of the biggest deals in the global energy market today. The first phase of an oil pipeline stretching from Kazakhstan to the border town of Alashankou, in Xinjiang, is soon to be completed. The two countries are also exploring the feasibility of a natural-gas pipeline.

To protect these interests, China has no qualms about threatening and using force to keep militant Muslims under control. Religious schools have been banned altogether, and residents report that the prohibition has been completely effective. China has won support for its efforts from fellow members of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a security and commercial forum which also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. “The government has such a chokehold over us today,” mourns one local imam, “that we can’t even think about making war.”

China has also encouraged the migration of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang. Although there is no irrefutable evidence of a deliberate attempt to dilute Xinjiang’s potentially restive Muslim population with this influx, this is precisely what has happened in many urban areas. Once forming the vast majority of the region’s population, Xinjiang’s minorities had slipped to a rough parity with the Han even before the “Go west” policy began.


This growing gap between rich and poor in Xinjiang could provide new fuel for religious and ethnic hatred. While a number of Xinjiang’s Muslims have benefited from the Great Leap West, virtually all the losers are Muslim. In spite of stricter border control, access to weapons and even military training from madrassas in neighbouring Pakistan remains an option; in August, several Muslims were indicted for smuggling firearms from Pakistan into China through Xinjiang. With so many non-Han Muslims feeling disenfranchised, to say nothing of the fear amongst neighbouring Central Asians of being reduced to the near-abroad satellites of an expanding giant once again, there is always a chance that the development of China’s west might yet be accompanied by a return to 1997-style violence, with bombs going off in Beijing.

All of which, if history is any guide, will probably do very little to deter a state beginning to flex its muscles. Like the development of America’s west, the development of China’s has seen native peoples who dared to resist crushed or driven into exile. But however brutal the pacification of Xinjiang, China has so far managed to prevent it from degenerating into a security nightmare.

See our last posts on China, Uighurstan and Kazakhstan.