At a hotel last May in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, a woman from South Africa was having breakfast on her sixth visit to China. She and her husband had just arrived from Kashgar, an ancient city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in the far west of China. Kashgar was a key stop on the old Silk Road, with a history stretching back more than 2,000 years. The Silk Road carried Chinese silk, spices and other treasures to the Roman world in exchange for precious metals, glassware and woollen clothes. This couple took the same trip 20 years ago. “You have to see the difference the Chinese can make in 20 years,” the woman said.
In 2014, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan successfully petitioned UNESCO to designate a section of the Silk Road a World Heritage site. The Routes Network of the Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor is a 5,000-kilometre section of the Silk Road system, built over routes that have been used intermittently for more than 2,000 years.
To revive this ancient trade route, an initiative known as the New Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative — and also called the “One Belt, One Road,” or OBOR project — was put in place. The project involves existing and new rail lines, highways and pipelines along the old Silk Road route from China through Central Asia to Europe and the Baltics. The system through the south of China, officially known as the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road, aims to connect China with South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific via ocean routes.
The project, announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his address at Nazarbajev University during his September 2013 visit to Astana, Kazakhstan, is an ambitious effort to link the country through infrastructure, telecommunications and finance to Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
The new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has been in development for several years and was only formalized in January 2016 in Beijing with 57 founding members, supports the project.
The bank’s mandate is to focus on infrastructure projects, including energy and power, transportation and telecommunications, rural infrastructure and agricultural
development, water supply and sanitation, environmental protection, urban development and logistics.
Another 30 countries have applied to join the multinational bank and Canada also submitted an official application in September to join. Canada is aiming to be the bank’s first North American member.
The New Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative aims to bring together China, Central Asia, Russia and the Baltic region of Europe with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea through Central Asia and West Asia, while also creating new jobs and bringing more wealth to the most western region of China. Xinjiang, a region with rich history and ancient culture going back thousands of years, became autonomous within China in 1955.
The Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang occupies the northwestern corner of the country and consists of about one sixth of China’s total territory. It is China’s largest physical political unit and is the eighth-largest country subdivision in the world, with many deserts and mountainous areas. However, only 4.3 per cent of Xinjiang land is suitable for human habitation.
Due to its location, Xinjiang has a significant geographical advantage and position as a major land transport link to the countries of Central Asia. It is becoming a key trade, transportation, cultural, science, medical and educational centre on the modern Silk Road Economic Belt, with enormous international importance. Xinjiang offers a corridor to many countries along the belt and road as it borders eight countries: Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It also lies adjacent to the Tibet Autonomous Region and Gansu and Qinghai provinces of China.
The population of Xinjiang is only 22 million people, yet it is home to 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Uyghur and the Han. Other groups include Kazakhs, Mongolians, Uzbeks, Manchu, Russians, Tatars, Tahurs, Tajiks, Hui and Khalkha. Uyghurs and the Hui are the largest Muslim groups in China. Muslims have been settling in China for more than 1,400 years, since the founding of the Islamic faith, many of them during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th Centuries.
Xinjiang, with its strong multicultural and religious roots, now has many opportunities to look forward to as well. Visitors will discover many new start-up businesses and a growing number of investors coming here from all over China and many other countries.
Volkswagen, Honeywell and Coca-Cola have established large operations in recent years. Many successful Chinese companies, led by Goldwind, the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer and based in Urumqi, has constructed large factories. New highways, factories, housing developments, recreational complexes, restaurants and shopping malls are being built at a tremendously rapid pace. A new marketplace has developed in this region and is driving expansion in retail, dining and entertainment. As an example, in June, the Urumqi State High-Tech Zone signed a strategic partnership with Watsons, one of Asia’s most prominent health and beauty products retailers, to open a series of stores in the region.
Xinjiang is heavily investing in infrastructure and has designated more than $24 billion for 223 major projects in 2016 alone. Another $13 billion will be devoted to industrial projects such as textile plants and natural gas production. A total of $11 billion will be directed towards social infrastructure such as bilingual kindergartens. These projects and cash infusions will play an important role in boosting the economic and social development of the Xinjiang region, especially as 70 per cent of the trade between China and central Asia goes through Xinjiang.
According to the Urumqi Customs Office, Xinjiang took in approximately $117 billion from foreign trade between 2011 and 2015, up 41.5 per cent over the previous five years. The continuous growth and stability of this part of China is essential for the Silk Road Economic Belt program to succeed. “We should make good use of Xinjiang’s geographical advantages and its role as a window westward, opening up to deepen communication and co-operation with Central, South and West Asian countries, making it a key transportation, trade, logistics, culture, science and education centre, and a core area on the Silk Road Economic Belt,” stated a National Development and Reform Commission report from March 2015.
Key to the Silk Road project’s success is the development of a continuous road and rail network between China and Europe. This plan involves more than 60 countries representing nearly half of the world’s population and a third of the world’s total economy. China plans to negotiate new free-trade agreements with more than 65 countries along the OBOR.
Under construction since November 2014, the newly built Urumqi High-Speed Railway Station is the largest, most advanced and modern facility in Xinjiang. The station opened in July and started
operations with high-speed services to Hami. China has the world’s longest high-speed railway network, with more than 19,000 kilometres of track in service as of January 2016. The future Lanzhou-Urumqi High-Speed Railway is also promising, with trains expected to have an average speed of 350 kilometres per hour. In the future, a trip from Urumqi to Beijing will take only 15 hours and from Urumqi to Shanghai, fewer than 20.
The Gobi Desert is the fifth largest in the world at 1.3 million square kilometres. It now has a new significance as a global solar and energy hub. In an effort to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, the Chinese government is transforming the desert using the natural resources of sun and wind. Imagine driving in the Gobi Desert on a modern six-lane highway, with tall electrical power lines hanging over the fields. Nearby, greenhouses with a large number of solar panels shelter a variety of crops.
The project to develop greenhouses and turn the desert into a productive, arable land suitable for farming and growing different vegetables, flowers and fruits for local consumption and export to the rest of China has created many new jobs. Farmers are growing peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons and other vegetables in the greenhouses surrounded by open sky and endless stony sand dunes.
A typical 600-square-metre desert greenhouse, which can be built in a month, can provide two crops and about 7,000 kilograms of eggplant annually. Depending on the productivity, up to 10 standard-size greenhouses can be managed by one person. For example, a young family of five people manages eight greenhouses in Akto County. They earn about 20,000 yen a year ($2,800 US) for taking care of the greenhouses, harvesting twice a year and selling the produce. For water, they dug a 100-metre-deep well and bring the soil from elsewhere.
As Xinjiang is becoming a stronger regional transportation hub, a wider network of international air routes is also being developed with neighbouring countries. Cross-border trade is being facilitated by numerous new customs and immigration checkpoints at designated ports of entry.
An example of the many successful companies operating in Xinjiang is Desert Velvet, a company founded in 2007. It produces high-quality scarves, duvet covers and coats from camel hair.
Six factories have been established provincewide. Company director Tayir Kurban is an innovative leader, born of a Ukrainian father and Uyghur mother, with a foot in two worlds, and whose brand is an example of Xinjiang’s emerging economy looking to export and expand internationally.
Back in Kashgar, the advantages of the Special Economic Zone’s privileged status are clear.
Established in 2010, it provided funds to redevelop this most western ancient city in China with better infrastructure, increased public safety and more trade opportunities with Central Asia. Kashgar is in the midst of the biggest economic boom in its history as it is being transformed into a regional transport hub. The city is opening up to the world and has attracted more than a million tourists in the first half of 2016 with its ethnic cultures and cuisine. Many of the residents and artisans of the old town warmly invite foreign guests into their homes, shops and daily life.
Xinjiang’s locals are benefiting from its increased importance as a core part of the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative. One sign of confidence in the future is to see young people returning for employment at home, even if they travelled widely to get an education. Smaller traditional business owners are also taking advantage of the new economic investment in their backyard to create a vibrant commercial environment. For many professionals and creative minds, the future lies here.
Ülle Baum is an Ottawa-based writer and photographer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to reach her.