SPEAKING FREELY Xinjiang and the revival of the Silk Road
By David Gosset
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Most reflections on Central Asia, a region key to the future of Eurasia and
indeed to international relations, are based on three premises.
First, as with other parts of the world, US projection is both unavoidable and
constructive. "A world without US primacy will be
a world with more violence and disorder," Harvard political scientist Samuel P
Huntington said ("Why International Primacy Matters", International Security
journal, Spring 1993). "A quick end to US supremacy would produce massive
international instability. In effect, it would prompt global anarchy," said
Zbigniew Brzezinski, analyst and former national security adviser to president
Jimmy Carter (The Grand Chessboard, 1997).
Second, components of Central Asia - countries or regions - are manipulated by
external players: Central Asia is the theater of a new Great Game.
And finally, the "Xinjiang problem" is another factor of instability in a
highly volatile macro-region.
We do not share these assumptions, obviously Western-centric, and which fail to
take into account that, with the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China is a
fundamental element of 21st-century Central Asia. How can we better describe
the immanent arrangements that are structuring Central Asia?
It is that a world without US unilateral supremacy would not mean necessarily
more violence and chaos. For Washington to think and act as if it would is
having already embarked toward hubris' pitfalls. It would certainly mean a
different world but not global anarchy. The United States, a relative newcomer
in world affairs, has to learn to be more modest; material hyperpower having
global reach - the US is, indeed, a reference for scientific and economic
vitality - does not mechanically translate into source of sustainable universal
Further, the very notion of Great Game does not really help to understand what
is currently at work in the heart of Eurasia. By shifting to another paradigm,
we would gain in clarity. Coined first by Arthur Conolly (born in 1807 and
beheaded in Bokhara 35 years later), immortalized by Rudyard Kipling ("Now I
shall go far and far into the North, playing the Great Game," Kim, 1901)
and magisterially popularized by Peter Hopkirk (The Great Game, 1990),
it was mainly the competition in Central Asia between the 19th-century
superpower, the British Empire, and a rising Russia, made possible by a
decadent Qing Dynasty and a weak Republic of China (1912-49).
Today's configuration cannot be more different. The British Empire is gone.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia is trying to maintain itself;
by 2050 Russia's population could be 100 million (143 million in 2003) - other
predictions suggest that the number will be closer to 80 million ("Russia may
be dying as a nation, and it faces a threat that no one will talk about: AIDS,"
The New Yorker, October 11, 2004).
In sharp contrast, post-Maoist China (a fifth of mankind) is reshaping the
world order. While we speak the question is no more: How is China going to
change the world? But rather it is, How is China changing the world? As Joshua
Cooper Ramo writes, "China's rise is already reshaping the international order
by introducing a new physics of development and power" ("The Beijing
Consensus", Foreign Policy Center, 2004).
Great Game, new Great Game (even to describe moves around energy resources)
implies to a certain extent that Central Asia's components are passive pawns in
the hands of more powerful entities. However, the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (SCO) will demonstrate that the actors decided at the beginning of
the 21st century to master their respective destiny. Central Asia is not the
theater for a Great Game but the laboratory of a great plan, which hitherto
does not include the West.
And also, the "Xinjiang problem" is not making fragile a volatile Central Asia;
on the contrary, "Xinjiang's experience" might help stabilize the macro-region.
Within this framework, we would like to reflect on China's Xinjiang and on the
revival of the Silk Road. (The original Silk Road was an ancient trade route
between China and the Mediterranean Sea extending some 6,440 kilometers and
linking China with the Roman Empire.)
From China's booming coastal areas, especially from Shanghai (on the way to
become a world metropolis), Xinjiang (New Frontier in Mandarin) seems to be
remote; from Dalian to Shenzhen people generally see it as pianyuan,
having in mind vast deserts and high mountains far away from the center. This
perception might change. Indeed, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is in
fact in a process of gradually regaining centrality at the very heart of
post-Soviet Union Eurasia.
Officially established in 1955, Xinjiang, one of the five autonomous regions of
the People's Republic of China (PRC), is for Beijing of the highest strategic
importance; moreover, what can be called "Xinjiang's experience" is, far beyond
the Chinese borders, highly meaningful. There are interactions - globally
positive - between Xinjiang's rapid techno-economic modernization and the
revival of the Silk Road. Mainstream Western media, largely reinforcing one
another, often report on what they frame as the "Xinjiang problem": relatively
isolated events linked with a combination of separatism, economic exclusion and
religious fundamentalism. If it is a priori assumed that there is a
"Xinjiang problem" the analysis is biased. Let us adopt another point of view
and open - we hope - genuine debates and stimulate research. "Xinjiang's
experience" demonstrates that initial internal difficulties can be managed -
and are managed.
This does not mean there are no difficulties in Xinjiang but it is important to
insist on the fact that they are manageable by a leadership with a clear,
constructive and balanced vision. In the foreseeable future, China's Xinjiang
could play a role of stabilizer and stand as an integrator factor in Central
Asia. In that sense, Xinjiang illustrates the broader idea that, far to be a
threat, China's prosperity is highly beneficial for Asia, Eurasia and the
The most western region of China - under the Han Dynasty it was just called xiyu
(the western region) and was referring to the land west of the famous Dunhuang
(in today's Gansu province) - it covers a sixth of the PRC's territory (9.6
million square kilometers). Xinjiang, bigger than Mongolia, is also twice the
size of Pakistan or about the size of Iran.
The autonomous region neighbors eight independent countries (Mongolia, Russia,
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India - in total
China has 14 land neighboring states) and its international border makes up a
quarter of China's total land boundary (22,117km). In a highly volatile
macro-region Xinjiang appears, by sharp contrast, as a pole of stability and
economic development; its land opening up - currently Xinjiang has established
17 land ports - not only benefits PRC's citizens but also underdeveloped and
politically fragile Mongolia, a relatively marginalized Siberia, the uncertain
post-Soviet Central Asia, and South Asia - with the Aksai Chin, Xinjiang is
neighboring with the disputed Kashmir.
Xinjiang's recent history is marked by economic achievements. They are visible
from the Altay to Hotian and from Kashgar to Hami; they are astonishing in
Urumqi, the capital of the autonomous region. With a gross regional product per
capita of 11,199 yuan (US$1,390) in 2004, Xinjiang ranks 13th among China's
administrative entities (among 31 municipalities, autonomous regions and
provinces. The richest is Shanghai municipality at 55,307 yuan per person, the
poorest Guizhou province with 4,215 yuan - China Statistical Yearbook 2005).
Prior to the founding of the PRC, animals were the principal means of transport
across the western region. The Lanzhou (in Gansu province) and Xinjiang railway
only reached Urumqi in 1962. By 2001, 3,000km railway lines were operating
across the region. On the axis of the 10,900km Eurasian land bridge from
Lianyungang (north of Jiangsu province) to Rotterdam, Xinjiang is a nexus of
Eurasia - and not at all peripheral. In 1949 Xinjiang had a road system of
little more than 3,000km, by 2001 the region's highways had been extended to
80,000km, including 428km of expressways. The highway running through the
Taklamakan Desert (known by the local people as the shamo gonglu, the
Desert Highway) is the first one in the world build on shifting sands.
The autonomous region currently has 11 airports, with international routes
connecting Urumqi with Almaty, Tashkent, Moscow and Islamabad. No need to say
that such achievements in such difficult conditions - backward initial material
conditions and extremely harsh climatic constraints - would have been
impossible without a highly motivated population. To a certain extent, Xinjiang
is to many Chinese what the Wild West was to Americans: a new frontier to
conquer and develop.
The region, it is well known, can rely on important natural resources as 30% of
China's oil land resources are located in Xinjiang - second to Heilongjiang
province in the northeast of the country. Its deposit of natural gas represents
35% of China's land total - the first among the 31 administrative entities.
Xinjiang is also the corridor though which energy supplies from Kazakhstan can
transit to serve the needs of fast-growing coastal China. Last month China's
first cross-border crude-oil pipeline was opened, pumping oil from Kazakhstan.
The Sino-Kazakh pipeline will carry 10 million tons of crude oil a year from
Atasu to Xinjiang's Alashankou. Constructed under a 50-50 joint venture between
China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) and KazMunaiGaz, it is a strong symbol of
Central Asia's integration by transnational projects - and China's Xinjiang is
at the center of this new configuration.
"The Development of the West Policy" (known in Chinese as xibu da kaifa),
initiated by the central government in 1999 to balance development between the
coast and the hinterland, reinforces Xinjiang's economic momentum. Xinjiang
authorities will perfect the region's infrastructure, the education system -
currently 28 units of higher education - and make sure to attract investment,
both from other parts of China and from abroad. (In 2002 and 2003 Xinjiang
ranked 30th just before Tibet in the level of foreign direct investment. It
will not stay at such a level that does not reflect the region's potential.)
A rich agricultural sector - Xinjiang's grapefruits from Turpan or melons from
Hami are famous all across China - and activities linked with tourism can be an
important source of jobs for the local population and for more populous Chinese
provinces. With its 17 land ports - three more will be established in the next
five years, Karasu at the border with Tajikistan, Ushi at the border with
Kyrgyzstan and Kanas in the Altay - Xinjiang stimulates neighboring countries'
economy. Of traders, the region ranked 19 (of 31) in China in 2004, but its
vitality can also help China's populous central provinces to export some
workers - each year temporary workers come for Xinjiang's cotton harvest from
inland provinces such as Gansu, Sichuan and Anhui.
Established in Shanghai in 2001 as an institutionalization of the Shanghai Five
Mechanism (1996), the SCO is the international framework within which China's
Xinjiang could fully play its role of stabilizer/integrator. Composed of China,
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as members, and
India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan as observers, the SCO's influence on
Eurasian affairs is growing. It has to be noted that the general secretary of
the SCO is currently Zhang Deguang, former vice minister of foreign affairs of
the PRC. It would be in the interest of the West not to be excluded from a
process of the highest importance for a region that impacts the global order.
A structure originally centered on border and security issues, the SCO is now a
more mature and comprehensive organization. At this stage, some concrete
initiatives could help to integrate Central Asia's economy better. Visible
initiatives on education - regular exchange of students, creation of
high-education institutions strongly oriented toward a better integration of
the macro-region - and on tourism would deepen trust without huge investment.
Such projects could be conducted from Xinjiang - the SCO secretariat is in
Beijing while the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) is in Tashkent -
which is already having positive influence on Central Asia.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks on its territory, the US decided to enter
Central Asia massively. In October 2001 Washington announced Operation Enduring
Freedom to dismantle the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The US opened military
bases in Manas, Kyrgyzstan and Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan (and was asked by
Uzbek President Islam Karimov to close it after the Andijan events that saw the
military attack civilian protesters in May). China and the US were immediate
allies in the fight against terrorism.
However, the US will have to cope with the idea that China is the ideal player
to stabilize the region. In any case, far away and often disconnected with
highly complex realities on the ground, Washington cannot pretend to guarantee
peace and prosperity in Central Asia alone. Not only should the US abandon the
idea of a "China containment", but "it is unwise to substitute China for the
Soviet Union in our thinking and to apply to it the policy of military
containment of the Cold War", said Henry Kissinger in a June 13 Washington Post
story, "China: Containment won't work". Rather the US should support China's
efforts to structure the "Eurasian Balkans".
Reflecting on Xinjiang we need to go beyond a list of quantitative or strategic
parameters. Above all, Xinjiang is a place where cultures intersect. While the
region is gaining gradually in hard power, the accumulation of 3,000 years of
complex history makes its soft power, its attractiveness, enormous. Traditional
Chinese variations on the theme of the "Journey to the West", explorations of
Sven Hedin - among many other Europeans - or today's Japanese massive interest
for Xinjiang's archeology, show the constant and inexhaustible appeal of the
"Xinjiang's experience" is not only about techno-economic transformation. In a
world threatened by clashes between civilizations, contradictions between
religions and hatred, Xinjiang is a laboratory where cultures interact,
co-exist and ultimately enrich one another. Of the 55 official minorities of
the PRC, 12 can be found in Xinjiang. Among them, the Uighur, Kazak, Hui,
Kirgiz, Mongol and Tajik minorities make up more than half of the total
population (by 2004 19.6 million). Only Yunnan province (25 minorities) is
ethnically more diverse. With the region's economic development, cultures can
better express themselves and preserve their characteristics. Techno-economic
modernization does not necessarily bring cultural alienation. On the contrary,
cultural continuity depends on the ability to adjust to the times.
The Uighur language and literature are very much alive - non-PRC citizens come
to Urumqi's universities to learn Uighur. The extraordinary sophisticated muqam
- a combination of poetry, music and dance that carries some of the deepest
features of Uighur identity - reaches a wide audience. Various policies of the
central government since China's opening up and overall modernization did
contribute to Xinjiang's success; but history is probably Xinjiang's strongest
At the heart of the Silk Road, Xinjiang has been for 3,000 years a platform of
exchanges among cultures: fundamentally, this is what defines Xinjiang. Along
the Sogdian trading network the exchanges of goods were also opportunities to
exchange ideas. Buddhism (from India), Nestorianism (Nestorius was at a time
patriarch of Constantinople), Manicheism (from Persia) and Islam (from Arabia)
penetrated the Chinese world, crossing first the deserts and mountains of
Xinjiang. Multilingualism and multiculturalism are familiar to the people of
the western region. The Silk Road prepared ideally modern Xinjiang to face
contemporary globalization and its challenges linked to cross-cultural issues.
The Silk Road is not only an expression that refers to sites, monuments or
ruins of the past; it is very alive and indicates a direction for the future.
In the 20th century the Soviet system forced Euro-Asian economic and
intellectual circulations to stop. After the disintegration of the
Moscow-centered Eurasian empire, Europe and Asia are once again in the position
to cross-fertilize along the Silk Road: Europeans, Chinese, South Asians, Turks
and Arabs are rediscovering the Eurasian continuities. There is no better place
than Xinjiang, north or south of the fascinating Taklamakan desert, to make use
and sense of these continuities. Having the Silk Road as a backbone to
"Xinjiang's experience" has the potential to develop into a model that will
prove the (Samuel P) Huntingtonian clash of civilizations to be wrong.
In their highest expressions, cultures do not clash; if correctly understood,
differences between cultures are a source of harmony. The Silk Road is also a
path to wisdom - and it is open to all.
David Gosset is director of Academia Sinica Europaea, China Europe
International Business School, Shanghai, and founding director of the
(Copyright 2006 David Gosset.)
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have
Please click hereif you are interested in