Wed, Sep 06, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Go west?

Despite huge inflows of investment from Beijing, the region of Xinjiang is struggling to grow up with the country

By Johannes Eisele  /  AFP, Kashgar, China

A traffic sign forbidding horse carts in front of a construction site in ‘Shenzhen City’ on the outskirts of Kashgar in China’s western Xinjiang province in June.

PHOTO: AFP

The future of economic development in China’s far western Xinjiang region lies behind the shattered glass door of a welcome center on the outskirts of the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar.

Inside, a dusty model depicts a modern urban development with wide, tree-lined boulevards and a pair of twin skyscrapers — but outside the project remains a ghost town reflecting Beijing’s struggle to bring prosperity to the restless region.

Dubbed “Shenzhen City” after the bustling southern port city that financed it, the more than 200,000 square meter development is part of a government project to stabilize Xinjiang with massive economic stimulus.

Beijing has paired promises of wealth with strict controls on personal and religious freedoms in an effort to quell ethnic strife between the country’s Han Chinese majority and the region’s mostly Muslim Uighur minority.

But outside the welcome center, where a broken LED sign flashed out an investment hotline number like an SOS, the plan for a vibrant oasis on the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert stood like a mirage.

The landmark building’s half-finished silhouettes jut out of a rubble-strewn construction site, surrounded by withered trees and grass.

ECONOMIC PACIFICATION

Several such ambitious projects around Kashgar have stagnated despite government plans to bring the poverty-stricken region’s economy on par with the rest of the nation.

To do so, Shenzhen and 18 of the country’s other wealthiest cities and provinces have been required to pump a fraction of their GDP into Xinjiang under a “pairing assistance” program.

The rationale is “if you can improve people’s economic conditions, they will become less politically restive,” said Enze Han, a lecturer on politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

But “if you look at the ground, the story in Xinjiang is a failure,” he said.

In 2010, a year after deadly riots in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi killed around 200 people, authorities rolled out the “pairing assistance” program to raise the region’s per capita GDP to the national average within five years.

By the end of 2015, cities such as Beijing and Shanghai had invested some US$8.5 billion in the region, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping (習進平) shifted the focus back to security in 2014 after Uighurs perpetrated a series of violent attacks across the country, killing dozens.

Two years later, the gap between Xinjiang and the rest of the country had only grown, with its per capita GDP expanding about 18 percent more slowly than the nation as a whole during the five-year period after the assistance program began, according to calculations by AFP using government statistics.

FRONTIER TOWN

Another project lies largely abandoned across town: Guangzhou New City, a 1.5 million square meter “urban center” in suburban Kashgar funded by the wealthy southern province of the same name.

In late June, Michael Jackson songs blared from speakers around the complex, where rubbish piled up in front of empty store fronts covered in fading “for rent” signs. Toilets in the men’s bathroom were still wrapped in their original cellophane.

When the development opened in 2012, promotional materials promised 20,000 jobs and housing for up to 80,000 people, roughly 15 percent of Kashgar’s population.

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