Creaks in western China's door to Asia
TURPAN - He is a civil engineer and project manager. Once graduated, he applied for a good job in a state-owned firm in Urumqi, but his application was rejected since the employment officer told him that they did not plan to hire ethnic Uyghurs. Then he went to Beijing with a kind of depression and anger, but was
fortunately hired by one of the biggest engineering firms in China and is now working as a project manager.
Ironically, he was later sent to Urumqi for a big project and once there met the same employment officer who rejected his job application several years earlier. During a formal meal with a group from Beijing, including the young engineer, the local officer asked: "Why is it that talented Xinjiang youths always won't contribute to their homeland?"
This is a pretty common story in the western region of Xinjiang, which the central government intends to become China's springboard to Central Asia, a strategic hub made of roads, pipes and technology.
Pepe Escobar already described the road and pipeline geopolitical angle. Here we point out how stories as the above contrast with the idea of building a modern, technological, innovative "door to Asia".
In the amazingly lunar environment between Urumqi and Turpan, and for kilometer after kilometer, wind turbines shape the landscape. The never-ending rows of giant windmills are displaced in parallel lines like a futuristic terracotta army offering a regimented reminder of "China's big dream", or at least to the environmental side of it: making a sustainable economy.
Here Xinjiang is also a stage where Beijing's power - both in the sense of greatness and electricity - is projected. Then we get to the ancient Oasis, now a city of 250,000, where a magnificent brand new "ecocity" is being built right next to the motorway linking Turpan to Urumqi. The massive endeavor is by far the best example of what is meant by chengzhenhua, the new sustainable urbanization push by the Chinese leadership.
Solar panels stand out on hundreds of already built terraced houses, while large buildings - the future headquarters of local institutions - are rising. This sustainable town will be 8.8 square kilometers, located three kilometers from the existing city center. It will be home of about 60,000 people.
It will be completed in 2020, built over three phases lasting 10 years, according to a project engineer, and be powered by geothermal heat pumps and solar panels. Electrified public transport will be provided and motor vehicles diverted to large parking lots.
Another Uyghur, part of the local Muslim minority of Turkic origins - about half of Xinjiang's population, according to the latest figures - is also an engineer but unlike the young professional mentioned above, he actually found his way in his own homeland.
Are the new big technological projects going to drive Xinjiang's people toward a future of opportunity, to the Chinese dream? This is not easy to answer.
There's a huge risk it will be a mianzi gongchang - a "face" factory - whereas, says an Ugyghur architect, sustainable growth for Xinjiang is more a matter of reclaiming and renovating old cities, giving opportunities to local people, than building huge new projects.
Let's take the water scarcity. In this desertic land, people solved the problem in the past with that amazing miracle of ancient technology called karez, culverts that funnel water from the distant Tianshan mountains taking advantage of the natural slope (the Turpan "depression" is the third-lowest place on Earth). But how will this delicate ecosystem bear the impact of a new city of 60,000?
According to the engineer, "the main water supply sources of the new city will be different from the one supplying the existing, they will not interrupt and mix with each other". And the newly built city "is designed to be operated relatively independently from the existing city, thus includes most functional units of a regular city." This hydro-system will be the future "Turpan Urban-Rural Combination Project". According to the engineer, water could be occasionally funneled from the Grape Valley reservoir, the big basin providing fresh water to the vast vineyards surrounded by red dates trees which makes Turpan one of China's centers for fruit cultivation.
Instead of solving some problems, this "combination" approach could create new ones. What about a totally alien city side by side with an old one? And what about the future of the amazing Grape Valley? According to the engineer, since the new city is planned to be independent, it could promote urban sprawl and threaten the unity of the whole city region. The connection between new and old urban areas will be weakened.
Another rumor is that under government plans to leave the huge area as a playground for tourists, Grape Valley residents will be encouraged to move out from their own houses.
If that turns out to be true - we can't verify it right now - many people, being farmers, and workers with less income and less education than the government Han workers already encouraged to locate in the new city, will probably arrive. Will that create a happy melting pot or a new source of conflict in Xinjiang?
The ecocity is a good example to understand how the "Xinjianese ecosystem" could be further upset by huge top-down projects intended to make this land a springboard to Central Asia. The region is already in trouble for the difficult coexistence between Uyghur and Han people.
The fundamental problem is social: what if the locals are left behind?
Apart the "human" problem, this could be lethal for the aim of transforming Xinjiang in an open door of excellence on Eurasia.
Bill Dodson, author of China Fast Forward, stresses that the root of innovation (remember the "technological hub") is about the environment in which creativity, adaptation, exploration, sharing and serendipity are allowed to flourish. And the aggregation of insights from disparate sources is essential.
It's difficult to see anything like that in today's Xinjiang, which is sometimes an arid environment not only in natural terms.
And here's another story.
A young Uyghur woman graduated with a PhD in theoretical physics in a renowned Japanese university five years ago. She was rejected from taking a job at Xinjiang University because the school asked her to pass the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, Chinese Proficiency Test) even though she is actually a Chinese national and speaks good enough Hanyu. Disappointed, she went to Guangzhou and started selling cheap clothes. She's now a millionaire, doing nothing in her homeland. What did the employment officer ask about Xinjiang's talented youths?
Language is a difficult problem. On one side, given that the motherland's economy revolves around Chinese-speaking business, the authorities claim that minorities must learn and speak Chinese first, if they want to find their place in the labor market. On the other hand, many Uyghurs find it humiliating to see their language relegated as a local dialect, with the risk that it will soon become a dead one.
In such a context, radical Islam becomes a very efficient and flexible survival strategy; more than a foreign-born challenge imported from abroad, as the official narrative claims. It gives to the "still hopeful" a moral frame to go about the daily struggle for a better life, and a comfort zone to those "left behind".
"Welcome to Xinjiang," says a smiling soldier to a foreigner after taking a look at his passport on the motorway's checkpoint between Turpan and Urumqi. Two feet farther on, other soldiers inspect the luggage of two Uyghur peasants, while the Hans pass through by just swiping their electronic identity cards in the detector.
The ethnic and religious problem of Xinjiang is in fact a social one. The keyword, here as everywhere in China is "equality in diversity" as an enlightened intellectual like Wang Hui has already stressed. But here the problem seems bigger. And it is supposed to be overcome if this land is ever to become part of the Chinese dream.
Gabriele Battaglia is an observer of Chinese affairs based in Beijing. He is a member of China-Files agency, and has previously been a writer for PeaceReporter and E-il mensile magazines.
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