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Tighter Han-Uighur links could pave way for New Silk Road trade initiative

Project will offer investment opportunities as well as energy and resources exchanges

Women wearing traditional Uighur clothes in the city of Kashgar in the Chinese Xinjiang province. The mostly Muslim Uighurs share very close linguistic and cultural links to Central Asia and resent the Han Chinese. Photograph: Reinhard Krause/Reuters

A view of tall trees and low walls encircling this oasis city is the first sign that the high-speed train has reached Hami in the Gobi desert, in the east of the mostly-Muslim Xinjiang autonomous region.

Outside the sleek, white metal snake of a train, nature’s palette slowly changes from pale yellow loess soil to dark, almost black, terrain, as the train cuts through the desert at speeds of more than 200 km/h, halving the travel time between Urumqi, the region’s capital, and Hami, to three hours.

The 530km route marks the first completed stage in a projected 1,775km line between Urumqi and Lanzhou, the capital of next-door Gansu province, far closer to the Chinese heartland.

Once, Hami – known for its sweet melons that grow in the desert oasis – was a busy trading post along the ancient Silk Road linking Asia and Europe. Now it may be poised to retake that role, as a key point on a “New Silk Road” project, introduced by President Xi Jinping, aimed at powering up the regional economy.

This high-speed railway route is a key part of that effort. It opened last month and every seat is full, the passengers comprising edgy young Han Chinese businessmen, Uighur traders with four-cornered doppa skullcaps and luminously headscarved women, each carrying what looks like dozens of plastic bags. Except for the mobile phones and plastic bags, the mix of people has not changed much since the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci came to Hami in 1605.

The project’s scope is vast, composing a network of intercontinental land and sea routes between China and central Asia. The land route, dubbed “the line” in Chinese, is to stretch all the way to Rotterdam, via Germany; the sea route, dubbed “the belt”, is to run from China, through southeast Asia all the way to the port of Piraeus in Greece, already part-operated by Chinese interests. From there, goods will fan out and up through eastern or western Europe, or into north Africa.

Strained relations

Because, to date, the main beneficiaries of the province’s industrial development have been the Han Chinese, which has prompted resentment among Uighurs, who account for 46 per cent of the population. Han Chinese now dominate the north of the region including the capital, Urumqi. The Uighurs fear they will be submerged culturally, economically and politically by the Han.

An upsurge in ethnic violence has turned Xinjiang into a heavily policed area. Buying a return ticket and boarding the train involved no fewer than six security checks, and police with machine guns patrol the platforms.

On the train itself, there are plenty of uniforms in evidence. In the dining car, Uighurs drink hot tea, cracking walnuts and producing their own bags of raisins, while Han passengers eat bowls of noodles, adding plenty of cumin and chili powder.

If the police and army presence represent the stick, measures like the “New Silk Road” are the carrot that Beijing hopes will win the hearts and minds of the Uighurs.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation leaders’ meeting in November, Xi announced a €32 billion fund to invest in infrastructure projects as part of the plan.

Jian Chang, an analyst at Barclays Bank, believes the New Silk Road initiative will create trade and investment opportunities in infrastructure and construction, including transportation, ports, pipelines, power generation and environmental projects, as well as energy and resources exchanges, while lifting consumption and tourism along the “road”.

“Overall, we believe development along the New Silk Road could contribute to the sustainability of China’s growth at 5-7 per cent in the coming years and have a positive impact on China’s industrial upgrading and economic transformation,” says Chang.

Xinjiang is vast, accounting for one-sixth of China’s land mass, but it’s largely empty, with just 2 per cent of the population. The region sprawls, filled with natural resources, including the oil and gas China needs to fuel its economic rise. Those account for about 60 per cent of the province’s gross domestic product.

The roads of the province are full of tankers and heavy goods vehicles, building the infrastructure to move the materials out of Xinjiang.

Hami prefecture provides 12.5 per cent of China’s coal, with many wind and solar energy projects in the area, and the train route is dotted with derricks, seemingly at random, their booms bobbing up and down relentlessly. Some of the world’s biggest wind farms are here too.

As I pass through the oasis town, low-rise and cold beneath a stark blue sky, lined with mulberry bushes and shops selling melons, the social tensions aren’t far beneath the surface.

Factional identity

“Hami is a very important place because everything has to go through here to get in,” says another man, a Han, who declines to give his name but says he is from Gansu province. “Han and Uighur get along here.”

A Han taxi driver says Hami is a harmonious place: “People come here taste Hami melons in the summer, go skiing in the winter and race jeeps in the sand dunes.”

Han control

Recent years have seen an upsurge in ethnic violence in Xinjiang and in the Han heartland of China’s inland provinces, with attacks claiming scores of lives.

Beijing says Xinjiang is an inalienable part of China, though it was independent for some of the last century. Separatist activity increased in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of independent Muslim states in Central Asia.

The current violence here is often dated back to February 1997, when several demonstrators were shot in the northern city of Ili, or Ghulja, near the Pamir mountains, and in the ensuing riots nine died. Hundreds were injured in what became known as the Ghulja Massacre. Thousands of activists were rounded up. Mosques and religious schools were shut.

Violence has surged this year with a number of attacks by separatists, which China says are aided by overseas terror groups. About 150 people have died in ethnic violence, the latest coming last month when 15 people were killed and 14 injured during an attack in Shache county. Chinese security forces’ response to such incidents is ferocious and lethal, human rights groups say.

Earlier this year, 29 people were killed and 140 injured when eight knife-wielding attackers went on the rampage at the main train station in the southwestern city of Kunming, in Yunnan province, in March. Police shot four of the attackers dead.

The Kunming attack raised fears of similar terror attacks nationwide and security everywhere was stepped up. Weeks later, in May, a suicide bombing killed at least 39 people at a market in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Scores of Uighurs have been jailed, and many executed, for terror activities and, in September, the high-profile Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment, charged with separatism and fuelling ethnic tensions.

The government has offered over 300 million yuan (€36 million) as bounty for tip-offs to aid the government’s crackdown on violent separatists in the region.

Xinjiang’s history, nevertheless, is a rich tapestry of cultures and nations intersecting.

The Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty, from Manchuria in the northeast, took control in 1755, but current rule by China is dated back to the late 19th century, when Manchu generals crushed a Muslim rebellion led by a Tajik Muslim warlord, Yakub Beg, who proclaimed an independent Turkestan in 1865.

He was an agent for Britain, which at the time was keen to counter Russia’s influence in the region and protect India, part of the strategic manoeuvring called the Great Game.

Beg ruled Xinjiang from 1866 to 1876, before the region was retaken in 1877 by Chinese troops and integrated formally into the empire.

After the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the area was ruled by brutally competitive local warlords; one Chinese warlord, Yang Zengxin, beheaded each of his enemies over the course of a dinner in 1916.

Suspicious crash

Increasingly, time is not on the Uighurs’ side. According to the 2000 census, the Han Chinese make up 40 per cent of the population, versus about 45 per cent Uighur, but the numbers of Han will have dramatically increased in the meantime.

Overseas, the Uighurs have their backers in the East Turkestan Liberation Movement and the World Uighur Congress, led by the exiled activist Rebiya Kadeer, a mother of 11. These groups accuse China of exaggerating the separatist threat to justify repression in the region.

In the dining car of the high-speed train, the passengers eating dried fruit and drinking tea show that peaceful co-existence is possible as the unforgiving desert landscape whips past.