KORLA, CHINA—IT WAS MORNING WHEN I arrived in Korla, the nexus of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s oil boom, and the sky was dark, the sun obscured by a thick cloud of dust from the adjacent Taklamakan Desert. Many people on the street wore masks against the dust—the Chinese favoured surgical-style versions, while many Uyghur women wore delicate white cotton masks with lace trim.
Most of the inhabited parts of Xinjiang – a region that are dotted around the Taklamakan, an utterly lifeless expanse larger than Maharashtra whose name, roughly translated, means, ‘Go in and don’t come out.’ It is a graveyard for countless Silk Road caravans and was one of the last unexplored frontiers on the planet—the first time anyone crossed it the longer, east-west way, was in 1993. These days, rather than being an obstacle, the Taklamakan is the attraction. Oil was discovered here in the 1950s, and over the last decade, China’s speeding economy has created an oil rush in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is the traditional home of the Uyghur (pronounced WEE-gur) people, a Muslims minority who speak a language related to Turkish and whose Central Asian features and olive skin easily distinguish them from the country’s Han Chinese, who represent more than 90 percent of the people in China but who are outnumbered in this province.
China has exerted some sort of influence here for millenniums, and the Chinese Han presence has ebbed and flowed—exactly how much is hotly debated between the Chinese and Uyghurs. Since their first contact, the Uyghurs have stubbornly resisted assimilation.
Now China is making a renewed push to cement its control, driven by a confluence of geopolitical factors: its mounting consumption of oil and gas (Xinjiang is home to about one-third of China’s total petroleum reserves), growing fear of Islamist extremism and the break-up of the Soviet Union. Independence for countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, whose people are closely related to Uyghurs, has renewed hope among Uyghurs and fear in Beijing that Xinjiang, too, could become an independent state.
Aiming to nip that ambition in the bud, Beijing is cracking down on Uyghur nationalism and is rapidly moving Han Chinese into Xinjiang in an apparent effort to change the demographic balance. Think Tibet, but without the Dalai Lama or the star power.
While much of Xinjiang is relatively poorly developed, any signs of Third Worldliness have been driven out of sight in Korla, the home of the PetroChina Tarim Basin Oil Control Center, which operates the Taklamakan oilfields. The neatly laid-out downtown boasts meticulously tended parks bursting with orange and yellow carnations. In the course of a day, I saw two free performances of Chinese opera in small outdoor theatres, elderly women doing a synchronised folk dance, and a blood drive. It was all incredibly wholesome.
At Eversun, a Chinese coffee shop chain with a five-star-hotel-lobby vibe and piped-in Michael Bolton, a former top city official I’ll call Mr Yi explained that Korla’s tidiness is not an accident. In fact, the Chinese government has named Korla China’s cleanest city, and Korla has made the countrywide rankings in the categories for ‘most charming,’ ‘best relations between the army and public,’ and even ‘best overall city.’
“The government pays a lot of attention to this,” he says “It took us five years to win the title of cleanest city.” The city’s efforts included deputising retirees to patrol street corners, bus stations, and other public places to issue on-the-spot fines (of a little less than a dollar) to citizens found tossing cigarette butts or engaging in China’s national pastime, spitting.
Yi grew up in Korla in the 1960s, just after oil was discovered in the Taklamakan. “Then, it was like a village,” he said. “The roads were dirt, and you could see donkeys and carts everywhere. There weren’t very many people, and the minorities were a much bigger part of the population. It was a lot more Muslim.”
The city’s population is now 430,000, and it’s growing by an additional 20,000 people every year, he told me. The central government encourages people to come to Korla by relaxing land-use rules, offering tax breaks for businesses, and making it easier to acquire residency permits. ““When businessmen come here and see that this is a nice and clean city, they think that the people here must be good,”” he said.
Of course, as in most Xinjiang cities, the majority of migrants are Han Chinese, and this urban renewal is pushing out Uyghurs. Yi claimed it’s not intentional: “We need development from outside Xinjiang. Almost all the businessmen in China are Han Chinese, so there is no choice. That’s just the reality.”
Later I met Michael Manning, a 27-year-old New Jersey native who moved to Korla in 2005 to work as an English teacher. He documents life in Xinjiang on his excellent blog, The Opposite End of China.
“A significant portion of the population isn’t benefiting at all from this newfound wealth,” he wrote in one post. “More disturbing―and perhaps dangerous for Xinjiang―is the fact that Uyghurs are almost completely excluded from the oil boom. I can’t even think of a single Uyghur whose employment is related to the petrochemical industry. Obviously, this breeds resentment in those people still living in mud-brick huts, which are frequently demolished to build another garish new apartment complex.”
He offered to show me around Korla’s Uyghur district. It’s just a couple of blocks from the shopping centres and parks where I’d been spending my time, but crossing over to its unpaved streets, mud houses, and chaos is like leaving confortable Mumbai’s Bandra to the chawls in Kulra. We passed horribly deformed beggars, a butcher shop with a whole skinned sheep hanging outside the door, and a white-bearded street musician with a sort of Uyghur lute.
Manning said that in the last year he has seen used syringes around the Uyghur town. Hashish was a common drug; now heroin is more popular. Several of Manning’s Uyghur friends do drugs, but he doesn’t know any Chinese people in Korla who do.
We stopped to visit a friend of Manning’s who has a shop in the old town. He said he expects that his shop will be torn down soon to make room for new development, and he doesn’t think he’ll be able to set up shop again in this neighbourhood. “I won’t be able to get a new business licence—in all the newly developed parts of the city, the licences are too expensive,” he said. “So, I’ll probably have to move to a village.”
“I have no problem with development, but it’s the Chinese who get all the benefits,” he continued. “The government is always talking about how all the nationalities in China are like one big family, but the reality is that the Chinese don’t want anything to do with us, especially with the Uyghurs. ”
All over the margins of the old town, new 20-storey buildings are rising, and the city is extending a pleasant concrete riverside promenade, where I had seen one of the Chinese operas, into the Uyghur part of town. In one week alone, two old Uyghur restaurants had been bulldozed to make way for the promenade, according to Manning.
“The government likes to use Korla as an example of what Xinjiang could be—rich, clean, and harmonious,” he said. “They want a big shiny city, not these dirty old houses.”