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.
The great build-out of highways and the expansion of energy production encouraged by Beijing's largesse have attracted millions of Han, who have come in a Gold Rush-like frenzy to capture some of the spoils of China's modern-day frontier. The Han are now a slim majority among Xinjiang's 19 million people. That has exacerbated tensions with the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, who have long regarded the Han as invaders.
Neon-lit shopping malls fill downtown Urumqi, the provincial capital, where Han Chinese merchants opened stores. In Kashgar (known as Kashi in Mandarin Chinese), Xinjiang's westernmost city -- an overgrown oasis that was a key stop on the Silk Road and remains famous for its raucous bazaar -- Han entrepreneurs have established trading houses aimed at central Asian countries to the west, selling plumbing supplies to Kyrgyzstan and roofing materials to Tajikistan. The featureless rectangular office buildings of the Han merchants tower over the labyrinthine streets where Uighurs live in ancient brick homes.
Han Chinese road crews from Sichuan province camp in rough canvas tents along the Karakoram Highway, the road through blank desert expanses, past mountain lakes ringed by tents, and finally on to Pakistan, paving the last remaining stretches of dirt in anticipation of more traffic.
Even in Tashgurkan, a cluster of low buildings beneath snow-capped peaks in the desolate country near the Pakistan border, pioneering Han Chinese have established restaurants and supermarkets to cater to road workers.
In Shanshan, in the low-lying Turpan Valley, Feng Meng, 28, successfully made the jump to the white-collar ranks, aided in part by the government's Develop the West program.
Feng's parents, Han Chinese, were dispatched from coastal Jiangsu province during the Cultural Revolution to improve grape-growing techniques. Their college-educated son is now a technical manager at Xinjiang Loulan Wine Co., perhaps the world's most unusually situated chateau: Cabernet sauvignon and Riesling grapes spring from desert sands, destined for Italian-made steel tanks and French oak barrels resting in the cool of the basement. The highway improvements of recent years have allowed the winery to ship its products all over China and to Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Over the past decade, production has nearly doubled.
"Before, even if we had the product, it was hard to ship it out," Feng said. Feng earns almost $400 a month, roughly 10 times his parents' former wages. He has saved almost $12,000, enough to buy a house. "The future looks better and better," he said.
A mile down the road, Uighur villagers sat on stools in front of half-built brick homes as the wind blew trash down unpaved streets. Men used donkey carts to carry farm tools into the fields. "We don't have enough land," complained Alim Pulat, the vice chief of Lianmuqing village. Families are dependent on middlemen traders to get their crops to customers in big cities.
With fields expanding and middlemen able to reach more areas, boosting supply, prices have dropped by as much as half since 2003. But the expansion of the roads and the electricity grid has produced several local factories -- a heating plant, a copper smelter -- and they have provided jobs for local people, boosting incomes.
"It's a little better than years past," Alim said. "We can eat. We have clothes to wear."
He shrugged when asked about the fairness of the Han getting more benefits from development. "It is more convenient for Han to do business with one another," he said.
But many Uighurs complain that even when they strive to transcend rural confines, they are denied the benefits, because they lack fluency in Mandarin Chinese, the national language. "If I'm looking for a job, the first thing they want to know is what's my Chinese level, and if it's not up to par, they say, 'Go away,' " said Rayila, a 20-year-old university student in Urumqi.
Kuche, a town whose red soils hold some of China's largest reserves of oil and natural gas, has become a hub for giant state energy firms. Service trucks navigate a network of recently built roads. The West-East pipeline carries natural gas more than 2,000 miles across the country to Shanghai. On the edge of the city, a network of refineries has sprung up, turning crude oil into gasoline.
"Yes, there's oil here, but the money doesn't reach ordinary people," said a man near the crumbling walls of the ancient city, as two men squatted in the dirt, tinkering with the innards of a weathered car. "This is all we've got," he said, holding out empty palms.
Special correspondent Eva Woo contributed to this report.