Natives Feel Left Out of China's New West

In remote Xinjiang province, native people are still farmers while newcomers from eastern China run stores and other businesses.
In remote Xinjiang province, native people are still farmers while newcomers from eastern China run stores and other businesses. (By Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)
By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 5, 2006

SHANSHAN, China -- Before the highway arrived last year, threading a strip of black pavement across a moonscape of pale sand, this town in central Xinjiang province was among the lonelier places on earth.

Now, trucks rumble across the desert, hauling watermelons from irrigated plantations to cities thousands of miles away. Caravans ferry supplies to workers at state-owned oil fields on the fringes of town, where drilling rigs extract crude for China's industrial coast. Freighters carry electronics and clothing from coastal factories to Han Chinese merchants who have flocked here from other parts of the country to capitalize on an economic boom.

Yet just off the highway in Mazha village, life is little changed. Most people spend their days under the tyranny of sun and windblown dust, tending trellises of green grapes. Nearly all the villagers are Uighur, the Muslim ethnic minority that was the majority in Xinjiang before the arrival of Han Chinese, the dominant group in China. The highways funded by the government's Develop the West initiative have brought little benefit here, the villagers complain.

"We Uighur people are all farmers," said Gulijanat Tayir, a 17-year-old student. "The Han people are running all the businesses."

In the six years since China's central government began its well-financed campaign to spread the benefits of economic growth beyond coastal provinces, the effort has exacerbated the extreme inequality that characterizes the national economy. Gaps have grown between urban and rural China and between the less-developed west and the frenetic east.

The Develop the West program was conceived in part to stem separatist inclinations in Xinjiang and other western provinces, where ethnic minority communities resent the continued influx of Han-- a migration actively encouraged by the central government.

Though sporadic and sometimes violent protests have persisted in Xinjiang since the advent of the program, observers say they are happening less frequently -- a fact that Uighur groups attribute more to an aggressive crackdown by Chinese authorities than to the success of the campaign in spreading development.

"Among the key projects of the Develop the West program, the majority only benefit the east," said Zhao Baotong, who heads the economics institute at the Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences in the western city of Xian. "These projects are transporting electricity, natural gas and other resources from the west to the east to fuel development there. Almost none of these projects are aiming at developing local manufacturing industry in the west."

Since the initiative began in January 2000, the central government has set aside $106 billion for 60 major projects, such as rail and road expansions, hydroelectric dams, and oil pipelines. Thirty-nine projects have been completed, costing $56 billion, according to state figures.

Studies have shown that the investment has contributed to economic growth in the west, but the pace has fallen behind development in the east, where China's nouveau riche and a growing middle class occupy increasingly glitzy cities. From 2000 to 2004, the overall growth of China's 12 western provinces was behind that of 11 provinces and municipalities in the east by more than 12 percent, according to a study by the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Extreme income gaps now separate Xinjiang from booming enclaves on the coast. In 1980, for example, the average annual income of people in Xinjiang was roughly equal to those in Zhejiang, a coastal province south of Shanghai. Last year, annual incomes in Xinjiang lagged behind those in Zhejiang by more than $1,000.

More than twice the size of Texas, Xinjiang has long occupied the fringes of Chinese domain, its inhospitable deserts once navigated by traders crossing the Silk Road from Europe to Asia. Today, a trip across the province reveals how the benefits of development are being spread unequally, even inside Xinjiang itself.

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