Urumqi is Where China is Going

By Michael J. Economides

Back in Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang “Autonomous Region.”

In the iconography of the modern world it is probably the mega-cities of Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Beijing with resplendently lit enormous office towers or monumental buildings, like the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium and the new Grand Opera that came to symbolize the emerging world superpower. At a sustained economic growth of 10 percent per year for practically more than twenty years in a row, China just about had to show those images.

But it is probably the hard to pronounce in both Chinese and English city of Urumqi (Urumchi), the capital of Xinjiang, that more exemplifies where China is going in the more distant and perhaps less frantic future. The elements of Chinese modus operandi will be first to turn a blind eye to bothersome problems or foreign accusations of human rights violations, then overwhelm the problem with numbers (China has 1.4 billion people) and, finally, smother it with economic development. Who could dare to protest while enjoying unprecedented economic benefits?

Xinjiang, invariably termed as “restive” because of brewing unrest by the local Moslem Uyghurs, a “minority” in the Chinese official parlance, normally would be a God forsaken place. The region is to Beijing what the State of Washington is to New York, except what borders Xinjiang is not anything resembling the Pacific Ocean or Canada, but instead in order, Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan are probably the least well defined borders in the world. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Urumqi as the major city in the world furthest away from any coast line, at about 2500 kilometers. About 4 percent of Xinjiang is fit for human habitation. In fact, driving outside of Urumqi quickly one comes into an even more barren vision of the proverbial moonscape with no sign of any vegetation as far as the eye can see.

So why does Urumqi boast a population of 2.7 million plus another 2.3 million in the environs? The answer is “natural resources” but oil and, especially, natural gas dominate. With 850 Bcf per year of natural gas production (almost 30 percent of Chinese total), feeding the 2500-kilometer West-to-East pipeline, Xinjiang has gained a place in the Chinese economic mind. Only about 20 percent of the region’s oil and gas potential has been explored yet.

But the Uyghars have been a worry for the Chinese central government, a concern fomented by the international militant Islamic movements. The conflict between the locals and the Chinese is not new. The locals banded with the Mongols during the Genghis Khan era. In 1755 the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong conquered the other local tribal area, Dzungaria, and in systematic way more than one million Dzungars perished in state-planned genocide. The name Xinjiang was given by the Emperor Guangxu in 1884 and Urumqi at the time was known as Dihua.

For the last decade there have been several incidents involving deadly conflict between militant locals and the Chinese government. On the way to the Beijing Olympics the Chinese were literally terrified at a potential terrorist attack that would have sullied the Olympic spirit and the showcase it afforded China. In Chinese cultural and central casting of “harmonious” life any show of unrest, be it in Tibet or Xinjiang, is an indication of failure.

In 2008, just four days before the Beijing Olympics, 16 Chinese policemen died at a terrorist attack in Xinjiang. But the worst came in 2009, when riots in Urumqi resulted in at least 200 people killed, mostly Han Chinese.

More than a year ago, a video released by something called the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) claimed responsibility for attacks in western Xinjiang that left 40 people dead as “revenge” against the Chinese government for “maiming the identity of the Muslims.”

The Chinese have reacted to the Uyghurs unrest in a manner that belies modern China’s approach. First, typically, they put a tight lip on all news and communications from the entire region and especially the frontline areas in southern Xinjiang.

But then they went for the real kill.  Urumqi has emerged as a quite amazingly developed modern city, complete with outstanding hotels, restaurants and shopping. Multilane highways crisscross the region. Feverish construction for a new bullet train is supposed to cut the trip from Beijing from a typical one week just a few years ago, to three days today, to just 12 hours.

Urumqi is a far cry from the exploitative ruins that one can see in the main oil and gas producing areas of major countries like Hassi Messaoud in Algeria, the Delta States in Nigeria and Maturin in Venezuela. Visiting those places and seeing their miserable lifestyles would be hard to believe that a million barrels per day is produced from underneath them. In contrast, Urumqi looks and acts like a modern, prosperous city.

In the process the Uyghers have been drowned by the Han majority. In the last Urumqi census, Han Chinese comprise 75 percent of the population; Uyghers amount to about 13 percent. Or they can be reduced to the quaint inhabitants of the Turpan Valley of the Grapes, an oasis about 180 kilometers from Urumqi, selling raisins to teeming Chinese tourists. It is hard to see, other than occasional youthful expressions, how Islamic militancy can find fertile ground amid all this development and wealth.

Michael Economides is Editor-in-Chief of the Energy Tribune