MODERN XINJIANG: STABLE, GROWING AND PROMISING. THANKS OR DESPITE?
Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an inspection visit to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the largest region of China, for the first time in eight years (!). During a three–day working trip, he visited a number of XUAR cities, namely Urumqi, Shihezi, Turfan and the ruins of the ancient fortress city of Yarkhoto (Jiaohe).
These events with the participation of the head of the People's Republic of China attracted a lot of attention, because this autonomous region has been at the epicenter of many international events for several years. If you look at the materials of the international media, the main topics that immediately come to the fore are security issues, the fight against terrorism and extremism, as well as various actions of the Chinese authorities to address these challenges and the reaction of a number of foreign countries to them. And there is an understandable explanation for this, which will be presented in the conclusion part of this publication.
At the same time, for some reason, there are virtually no publications in the media about the high economic growth of the XUAR over the past 10 years, about the achievements of the region in the field of industrialization and infrastructure development, there is no information about the social well-being of the region. And SUAR has changed a lot over the years and acquires the features of a modern urbanized and high-tech space. There are also very few objective materials in the media in general about the importance of Xinjiang in the modern Silk Road that is gaining momentum.
But for Kazakhstan and Central Asia, understanding the processes in the XUAR is of strategic importance – after all, it is with this region that China neighbors and interacts in the first place. And the changes in Xinjiang will have a direct impact on the context of cooperation between Central Asia and China.
So, why is the current trip of Chinese President Xi Jinping to XUAR a landmark?
First. The visit of the first head of China to a number of cities of XUAR means that the security situation in this autonomous region has been taken under control and has completely stabilized. Recall that until 2014, Xinjiang was a long headache for Beijing due to the preservation of a long-standing hotbed of terrorist activity there. According to reports, more than a thousand terrorist attacks were carried out in Xinjiang from 1990 to 2016 (the peak was in 2015, when 110 terrorist attacks were committed).
Along with the constant numerous victims of terrorists, the problem of fear was also on the agenda: neither Chinese business, nor even foreign capital came to XUAR, respectively, the autonomous region itself was the most backward in China in socio-economic terms. Geographically, Xinjiang is the gateway of the modern Silk Road, which was announced in 2013. However, terrorist activity hindered the use of all the opportunities opening up to the region.
Since that time, Beijing has taken a number of extraordinary measures to curb extremist sentiments among the local population. There are a lot of different materials, rumors, contradictory and emotional judgments, as well as falsifications around these measures. And in this matter it is difficult to find a "golden mean" in the assessments of the policy.
Therefore, the main indicator in assessing China's policy in the XUAR should be its result. And the result for today is that in recent years there has not been a single terrorist act in the autonomous region. And this is a fact. For example, let's turn to the assessments of Western institutions that assess terrorism in the world or the so-called Global Terrorism Index, which is conducted annually by the Institute of Economics and Peace (Institute for Economics & Peace, IEP).
According to 2015 data, China was ranked 22nd in the world out of 124 countries evaluated in the index. At that time, the level of terrorist threat in the PRC was estimated at that time as very high (in fact, one of the highest in the world), and the main contribution to this was made by the difficult situation in the XUAR. (https://privacyinternational.org /.../Global%20Terrorism...)
In 2022, China's position in the same Western ranking was ranked 67th next to countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, which have a very low level of terrorist threat. (https://www.visionofhumanity.org/.../GTI-2022-web...)
Thus, Western experts recognize in their research the fact that in 7 years China has not just improved the security situation, but has actually solved this problem and has become one of the most stable states of our time.
This conclusion can be supplemented by the following fact that the IEP Institute, the world's leading terrorism index, is an Australian organization with headquarters in Sydney, New York and Brussels. Australia regularly criticizes the PRC, including because of the situation in the XUAR, and therefore the positive assessments of Australian experts are impartial (it is difficult to suspect this country of political sympathies with China) and reflect real changes.
Second. The stabilization of the socio-political situation in the Autonomous Region also means that in the coming years the economy of the autonomous region will receive an even greater impetus for growth. The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping also means that the attention of the Chinese leadership to the XUAR will increase.
Over the past 8 years, not only the security areas of the XUAR have been strengthened, but also its economy. The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China increased its GRP in 2021 by 7% to $ 251.2 billion. For comparison, the combined GDP of the five Central Asian countries is currently about $285 billion.
Thus, today the economy of the XUAR is comparable in volume to the total GDP of the whole neighboring region, and in comparison with the countries of Central Asia separately, Xinjiang exceeds each republic of the region.
In 2014, the volume of GRP of the XUAR was about 140 billion dollars, thus, over 8 years, the economy of the district grew by 111.2 billion dollars or actually doubled. And this is despite the fact that XUAR is still considered one of the "lagging regions of China" in comparison with the prosperous coastal provinces. Thus, there is a direct link between the stabilization of the situation and the strengthening of security with economic growth.
The third. The increased attention to the SOAR is quite understandable from the standpoint of the development of the Belt and Road initiative. During the trip, the Chinese leader said that Xinjiang plays a key role in China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative.
Xi Jinping described the Belt and Road initiative as a vivid example of the success of the openness policy, which turned the XUAR from a closed inner region into an outpost of the central zone of the new Silk Road, connected with surrounding and more distant countries by a strong system of economic and trade ties. At the same time, the region itself benefits from the Silk Road. Thus, in 2016, the volume of Xinjiang's foreign trade turnover amounted to $ 17.9 billion, in 2021 it exceeded $ 22 billion.
In 2023, the first decade of the "One Belt, One Road" initiative will be celebrated. In January 2022, Xi Jinping has already proposed new projects for Central Asia within the framework of the Belt and Road. Therefore, the XUAR will not only be part of the anniversary events, but also the Chinese base for increasing economic activity along all existing land routes.
Thus, China is preparing to enter a qualitatively new level of development of the belt and road, and a stabilized XUAR will play a special role in this. And Central Asia will get even more opportunities for its development.
At the same time, it is worth noting that both the reconstruction of the modern Silk Road itself and the strengthening of stability in Xinjiang are personal projects of Xi Jinping, who is expected to be re-elected for another term of presidency in October this year. And the successes of the belt and Road, as in Xinjiang, are real and tangible achievements of the Chinese leader. The Belt and Road is a key idea of his period of leadership of China, and will probably be one of the largest examples of his political legacy in the future. At the same time, as the first decade of the project shows, the idea fully justified itself and convinced even the most persistent skeptics of the Silk Road resuscitation of its effectiveness.
Taking into account the fact that there is always a lot of deep symbolism in Chinese politics, the visit of the Chinese leader to the XUAR is undoubtedly politically significant (for more information, see https://regnum.ru/news/polit/3648360.html ).
Therefore, the meaning of this trip should be considered in a broader context. In general, with his three-day visit to several cities at once, Xi Jinping showed all his critics that in one term of his presidency he managed to achieve his major political goal and for the first time in many decades, the troubled XUAR became a stable, prosperous region and is under full state control.
This also means that the Chinese leadership was able not only to defeat long-term terrorism, which greatly hindered the development of the autonomous region (capital does not like risks), but also was able to withstand the most powerful political pressure from a whole group of countries (human rights, the situation of Muslims, ethnic repression, re-education centers, etc.).
Speaking about human rights in the XUAR, it is worth looking at the situation from the other side – after all, a significant increase in the standard of living of the local population is the provision of basic human rights to a decent life and access to the basic benefits of modern civilization. This was achieved in the XUAR, where, as well as in the whole of China, absolute poverty was eradicated. It seems that such a result reveals the issue of human rights in Xinjiang much better than the sponsors of the East Turkestan movement understand it.
There is also no confirmation of information about the repression of Islam and Muslims in the Syrian Arab Republic (certain restrictions on radical religious movements are applied in many countries, including in Central Asia). Speaking in the language of facts, today there are 24,400 mosques in Xinjiang for 13 million Muslims. That is, there is one mosque for every 500 people, which is more than not only in the USA, Great Britain, France, Germany, but also than in many Muslim countries.
During a visit to the XUAR, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, M. Bachelet, in May 2022, also could not find evidence of the alleged repression (Statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights https://www.ohchr.org/.../statement-un-high-commissioner ...).
In general, over the past five years, various media horror stories about the alleged "brutal Chinese policy" have not been justified. Yes, a system of re–education centers with different levels of discipline was organized in the XUAR - the Chinese authorities have never denied this in principle, and even repeatedly invited foreign diplomats and journalists to visit these centers. In addition, in 2019, at the request of Kazakhstan, China made friendly concessions, for example, regarding the situation of ethnic Kazakhs living in the XUAR (https://ru.sputnik.kz/.../china-kazahstancy-lager-mfa ...). This is a demonstration of understanding and readiness to develop good-neighborly relations.
It is clear that despite all the achievements, the topic of the SOAR will be hot in the future. This, for example, is evidenced by the recent hacking of allegedly police databases and the draining of several thousand photos and other materials on the SOAR – all this is similar to another fabrication and, in principle, has not received any wide coverage.
The content analysis of these publications also raises many questions. For example. Direct quote from the publication (https://vlast.kz/.../50104-lagera-perevospitania-v-licah ...), which shows the full level of expert reasoning: "...The Xinjiang police files allowed the BBC to reveal new insights about the scale of the persecution of Uighurs. An analysis of the data conducted by the scientist Zenz shows that only in the south of Xinjiang in 2017 and 2018 there were a total of 22,762 convicts in camps or prisons. These figures suggest that, in general, more than 1.2 million people are being held in custody. adult Uighurs and representatives of other ethnic minorities, which corresponds to the range of expert assessments...".
What exactly is the relationship between the author's calculations about "22,762" and the conclusion of "1.2 million", according to what formula and on the basis of what facts such "conclusions" were made is not clear. Apparently, the author's "logic" here is like in the classic propaganda formula: "there are lies, there are blatant lies, and there are statistics."
From all this, an obvious conclusion can be drawn: massive political pressure and the inflating of human rights issues is just another tool in economic and geopolitical competition with a growing China from those countries that are objectively losing their global positions in the Asian age. And this is also a classic technique of geopolitics.
Thus, the long-term upheaval of the situation in the XUAR (especially in the period since 2017) can largely be related to the attempts of global competitors to stop the development of the Belt and Road initiative and neutralize transport corridors passing through Central Asian countries and opening up new economic opportunities. Artificial waves of sinophobia, which were fueled through the media, NGOs and activists in 2017-2020, were most likely connected with this.
The goal chosen by external players for pressure only confirms the strategic importance of the Central Asia–XUAR bundle. Fortunately, the governments and expert circles of the Central Asian countries have their own reasonable vision of this issue and managed to stabilize the situation in time.
In general, returning to Central Asia, in the next decade the region will be influenced by the dynamic development of the XUAR and the further implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, in which Xinjiang will play an increasingly important role. And it is necessary to use it now.
That is why the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan K.K.Tokayev in January this year noted that the development of transport communications in Central Asia can ensure the GDP growth of five states at the level of 15%. The Kazakh leader said that Kazakhstan plans to invest $ 20 billion in transport corridors by 2025.
According to forecasts, the economy of the XUAR will continue to grow in the coming years. And it is already obvious that the regional importance of Xinjiang has grown significantly, the region has become a leading foreign economic and transport and logistics hub for the countries of Central Asia.
And here the ethno-cultural proximity of the peoples of Central Asia and Chinese Xinjiang will be a profitable bridge of business ties and economic cooperation. As it should be: common culture, traditions, mentality and languages should unite the peoples of Central Asia and the XUAR, promoting active economic exchanges of neighboring countries – as it was during the Silk Road.
China Studies Centre,
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