The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is on the North-Western border of China. Sinkiang is an alternative name used before for Xinjiang. It is the largest territorial entity within China, but its population is not as big. It borders 8 nations – India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia.
Xinjiang recently grew in importance, mainly due to politics, but not only: its economic importance is growing due to its position as an important hub for the New Silk Road, just like it was in the past. The two things are actually more connected than it may seem at a first glance.
The capital city is Urumqi (in Chinese Wulumuqi), with a population is about 3.5 million people. In total, about 25 million people live in Xinjiang. 45% of the population is Uyghur, which make the biggest ethnicity in the region, but there are many more, including Kazakh, Hui, Kirghiz, Mongol, Tajiks, Russian, Zhuang, Tujia, Manchu and Miao. Han are also present and account for about 40% of the population.
Xinjiang – a diverse and vast territory
Xinjiang was earlier Xiyu (Western Regions). It was a protectorate under the Han dynasty, 2000 years ago. Xiyu was important for China due to its positioning that helped bringing goods from China to the West on the Silk Road. The territory has vast portions which are too hostile for human settlements. It was not under direct administration of Chinese empires for all of its time, and it came under a real direct rule under the Qing dynasty. It would then become a puppet state under the control of Soviet Union through Sheng Shicai in 1934. PRC recovered the territory in 1949. Since 1990s there has been terrorist activity in the area. Things got worse just before the first Olympic Games in China, in 2008.
Between 2007 and 2014, many more attacks happened in Xinjiang. The Turkistan Islamic Party claimed responsibility for them. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement is the current name of the group. Many entities and countries define them as a terrorist movement. Such entities are UK, Turkey, Russia and even the United Nations. The United States‘ position on this topic recently changed.
The situation improved since 2014, thanks to the government efforts to prevent terrorist ideologies from spreading.
The area has many peaks, including the second tallest mountain of the world, the K2 (8611 mt). The territory is subject to earthquakes due to its geological age being younger than many other areas in China. The climate is semiarid in most of the region. Yet, the cities are distributed in the less hostile areas so that the living quality is not bad at all.
Tourists, cotton and oil
The natural resources of Xinjiang are extremely important for the economy of the area.
Cotton production is massive – Xinjiang is the biggest cotton exporter of the world. Alone it produces 84% of the entire country’s cotton. The region is also famous for other products, including apples, pears, melons, walnuts, grapes and so on.
Due to the particular territory, mining – especially for oil – is particularly profitable in Xinjiang. The petrochemical business accounts for 60% of the entire GDP of the region. Xinjiang also owns about 20% of the entire coal, natural gas and oil of the country. Other important minerals include gold, jade, salt, borax and soda.
Xinjiang trades a lot with Kazakhstan, also thanks to a Free Trade Zone in Horgos, at the border.
There are also other economic and technological development zones, especially in Urumqi.
Tourism is growing as well, thanks to China’s natural landscapes and dynamic history.
A cradle of cultures led by a Sunni majority
The complex geography of Xinjiang (which extends for about 1/6 of China) made sure that different areas have completely different languages, dialects and cultures.
The official languages of the region are Uyghur and Mandarin, but there are many more used commonly. There are around 50 languages and dialects used in different areas around Xinjiang.
The majority of Xinjiang is Sunni Muslim, but there are also interesting Buddhist sites due to the importance Buddhism has had in the region for a long time. The infrastructure in the area is extremely difficult to build. While Urumqi is well connected, more roads and railways are being planned. There are especially thoughts to connect Xinjiang with some of the bordering countries, for example Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Due to the past terrorist attacks, many abroad and within China still consider Xinjiang unsafe outside the major cities. As a reaction, many Xinjiang influencers are trying to promote more their homeland abroad as well as in China.
Xinjiang’s future goes alongside the New Silk Road, due to its geographical position. If transport problems can be solved, things will certainly improve further. When more roads and railways will connect it with the 8 neighboring countries, Xinjiang will grow extensively. Still, there is the political disagreements on the policies the Chinese government applied to Xinjiang. These are more likely to be caused by the Chinese government’s efforts to build the New Silk Road. Some, though, have claimed Chinese government attempts at cultural genocide.
Asia would profit a lot from a New Silk Road, just like it did in the past. This also means the economic influence of the countries outside Asia will be damaged as a result.