Xinjiang: the Beating Heart of the Silk Road


If China is generally so little understood by most of the rest of the world, Xinjiang is even less so. But despite internal issues, Xinjiang’s historical location at the heart of the Silk Road makes it the most important player in the Dragon’s modern ambitions


Located at the northwestern corner of China, Xinjiang is probably one of the most controversial regions of the country. Here, Han Chinese share the land with a majority of Muslim Uygurs and many other ethnic minorities, not without difficulties and tensions.

Xinjiang actually means “new frontier” in Chinese and its rich history calls to mind old caravan routes and the ancient Silk Road, through which merchants used to reach the Middle Kingdom from Europe and vice versa. What once belonged to Marco Polo’s route is now often involved in social and political unrest.

If China is generally so little understood by most of the rest of the world, Xinjiang is even less so. However, the region’s location bordering with seven countries makes it the center of action of the Belt and Road Initiative and one of the most important players in the future cross-border trade.


Xinjiang - urumqi - cifnews

© Sohu. Urumqi, Xinjiang. Perched on the edge of the Gobi Desert, Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang. Historically, it was one of the most important cities of the northern route of the Chinese Silk Road.


Known as the “far west of China”, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is the largest Chinese administrative division and the 8th largest country subdivision in the world, spanning over 1.6 million km2. But although it is China’s largest region, it is also one of the least densely populated.

It is bordered by the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Gansu to the east, the Tibet Autonomous Region to the south, Afghanistan and the disputed territory of Kashmir to the southwest, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the west, Kazakhstan to the northwest, Russia to the north, and Mongolia to the northeast.

Xinjiang is inhabited by more than 40 different ethnic groups, the largest of which are the Uygurs and the Han. In addition to Hui – Chinese Muslims, other groups include Mongolians, Khalkha, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tungusic-speaking Manchu and Sibos, Tajiks, Tatars, Russians, and Tahurs.


Upon landing in the small but orderly airport of Urumqi, the region’s capital city, it becomes apparent that this region is a melting pot of races, cultures, and commerce.


Over the last forty years, Xinjiang has welcomed Chinese people from all over the country. The 1950s saw the arrival of technicians collaborating with Russian engineers on the Kazakh border, in the ‘60s the region played host to those seeking safety from the Cultural Revolution, and as of late, a new wave of immigration has come to the city.

Today, Xinjiang, mainly desert but rich in energy resources, covers 17% of the Chinese territory and is one of the poorest administrative entities in China, despite the high GDP growth rates.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, the region has benefited from the China Western Development policy introduced by the State Council to boost economic development in western China, which lags behind other more developed parts of the country. The strategy includes the development of infrastructure, enticement of foreign investment, increased efforts on ecological protection, promotion of education, and retention of talent flowing to richer provinces.

As of 2006, a total of 1 trillion yuan has already been spent building infrastructure in western China but now President Xi Jinping has a grand plan in motion to put his country at the economic and political center of the world, and Xinjiang is at the heart of this globe-spanning trade infrastructure program.


Xinjiang - beijing-urumqi highway in hami - cifnews

© Xinhua. The Hami section of Beijing-Xinjiang Highway, Xinjiang. The highway that connects Beijing with Urumqi is the world’s longest expressway passing through a desert.


Launched in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative is the Dragon’s ambitious project that seeks to connect countries across continents on trade. It involves creating a sea route connecting the PRC to Southeast Asia, Oceania, and North Africa, as well as through building railway and road infrastructure to connect Beijing with Central and West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

On one hand, at the global level, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a port city in Sri Lanka, and the high-speed railway in Indonesia are some of the biggest current projects under the initiative. But on the other hand, domestically, Fujian – the launch pad of the ancient Maritime Silk Road – and Xinjiang are at the center of the action.

Therefore, sharing several international borders, Urumqi is the most important gateway in the land part of the project, which includes a highway connecting China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, a railway tunnel in Uzbekistan, and a regional natural gas pipeline. All those highways, gas pipelines, and railways built within the BRI, they all have to go through Xinjiang, resulting in Beijing’s particular attention to the region’s social and political stability.

While more and more freight trains have connected Chinese and European cities, Xinjiang has turned from a remote border region into a forefront for international logistics services.


“The Belt and Road Initiative has transformed Xinjiang into a gate that opens to the west,” said Nan Jun.


When the operation of the train logistics center in Urumqi started in May 2016, only four international lines were available, with trains operating once per week. Now trains departing from the city run on 19 lines, covering 24 cities of 17 Asian and European countries, according to Nan Jun, deputy general manager of the Xinjiang Xintie International Logistics Company, operator of the logistics center. In 2018, around 1,400 trains loaded with goods headed west, while up to 3,600 tonnes of cargo are handled every day, making Urumqi one of the largest logistics centers among the countries along the Belt and Road.

Moreover, in less than 10 years, as part of the BRI, Beijing has built a long highway in the middle of the desert that stretches 2,768 kilometers from Beijing to Urumqi. This highway, the world’s longest expressway passing through a desert, has shortened the distance between the two cities by 1,300 km.

Nevertheless, besides BRI, Xinjiang already plays an important role in China’s economic growth, as almost all imports and exports to and from Central Asia pass through it. In 2018, the foreign trade volume between the provinces and countries along the renewed Silk Road totaled about $43 billion, up 13.5% year on year, and the figure accounted for 98.2% of the total foreign trade through the region’s ports last year.

In addition, thanks to the BRI development, Xinjiang has also seen the foreign trade growth rate more than double with some European countries, including Armenia, Spain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

Although Beijing boasts that Xinjiang has already achieved annual economic growth of 8.5% on average, the government has recently worked out a wine industry development plan to help alleviate poverty, which is still jeopardizing the region. The aim is to increase local production to $1.45 billion by 2025, also relying on tourism promotion.


Xinjiang - kashgar bazar - cifnews

© Michael Moody. Kashgar, Xinjiang. Due to its Muslim population, Kashgar looks different from Chinese cities. In the southwest of Xinjiang, it is the last city on the Chinese Silk Road, bordering with Pakistan.


But there is another side to the story, one in which China has imposed strict controls in Xinjiang, positioning the region as a “core interest” alongside Tibet and Taiwan. Here, security forces make great use of new technologies, starting with face-recognition cameras. In just the last two years, the state has invested an estimated $7.2 billion in techno-security.

Some of the technologies pioneered in the northwestern region have already found customers abroad such as Zimbabwe’s government, which last year finalized an agreement with CloudWalk – a Guangzhou-based tech startup – to use its facial recognition technologies in order to address social security issues.

The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has, therefore, revealed to be a controversial territory, where a massive deployment of new technologies and its location play a fundamental role not only in the region’s growth but also in its reputation.

The ups and downs that Xinjiang has experienced over the last decades in terms of economic growth or social and political stability have made the region an unexpected place. Although internal issues still put Beijing in a delicate position, its location has an extraordinary potential within the BRI.

Therefore, since the ancient Silk Road to China’s modern ambitions, Xinjiang’s role in the Dragon’s international trade will grow even larger.


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