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Beijing Review Exclusive
Xinjiang's Rise
Six decades of development makes the autonomous region a prosperous place
By Yin Pumin | NO. 42 OCTOBER 15, 2015

Muslims dance in celebration of the Corban Festival, also known as Eid al-Adha or the feast of the sacrifice, in Kashgar on September 24 (XINHUA)

Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, located in northwest China, celebrated its 60th anniversary on October 1. Having undergone tremendous changes over this period of time, the Xinjiang region has successfully utilized its picturesque landscapes, rich natural resources and diverse culture to create prosperity for its 22 million residents from 47 ethnic groups.

"The living standards for people of all ethnic groups [in Xinjiang] have improved considerably... [The region] has achieved the shift from poverty to a well-off society in general and is striving to be an all-round flourishing society," said Yu Zhengsheng, Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, at an anniversary celebration in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang.

Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is China's largest provincial-level region, covering an area of more than 1.6 million square km and making up one sixth of China's territory. Major ethnic groups in the region include Uygur, Han, Daur, Hui, Kazak, Kirgiz, Manchu, Mongolian, Russian, Tajik, Tartar, Uzbek and Xibe.

Great achievements

The development and progress in the autonomous region since its founding in 1955 underscores the successful implementation of China's system of ethnic regional autonomy in the vast area, according to a recent government white paper. The paper, titled "Historical Witness to Ethnic Equality, Unity and Development in Xinjiang," was issued by the State Council Information Office on September 24.

Over the past 60 years, Xinjiang's economy has seen significant development, which has accelerated the region's modernization and laid a solid foundation for an improved standard of living, the report stated.

Statistics show that the region's gross regional product (GRP) increased from 1.2 billion yuan ($189 million) in 1955 to 927.3 billion yuan ($146 billion) in 2014, representing a 116-fold increase in real terms with an annual growth rate of 8.3 percent. Its per-capita GRP rose to 40,648 yuan ($6,386) in 2014 from 241 yuan ($37.86) in 1955, representing a 23-fold increase in real terms and a 5.6-percent annual growth rate.

Notably, Xinjiang's poverty-stricken population was reduced by 1.39 million in the 2011-14 period, thanks to a host of effective development programs. As a result, Xinjiang residents have seen remarkable improvements in their work and living conditions.

Pataer Keyimu, a farmer living in the Grape Valley of Turpan, harvests grapes on his vineyard (XINHUA)

Pataer Keyimu is a farmer living in the Grape Valley of Turpan in east Xinjiang. Compared with his parents' generation, Pataer's way of life includes not only growing and selling grapes but also working in tourism and other sectors thanks to the opportunities available through the Internet.

In 2010, Pataer opened a family inn to accommodate tourists. After the 3G mobile service provided by China Telecom was made available in his hometown, he expanded his business online and sold local products, such as dried grapes, to customers from all over the world. This year, Pataer estimates that his family's yearly earnings will reach 150,000 yuan ($23,565).

Stories like Pataer's highlight how investments in infrastructure can benefit the local community. In his speech on October 1, Yu stressed that Xinjiang should continue to pursue high-quality and efficiency-oriented growth for its residents by optimizing and upgrading the region's industrial structure.

The Silk Road Economic Belt, proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 2013, aims at boosting international trade and enhancing China's cooperation on infrastructure projects with Central, South and West Asian countries. Xinjiang, a strategic region on the Silk Road Economic Belt, should seize opportunities to develop transportation and information technology and make itself a key player in China's increased trade with the West, Yu said.

Cultural prosperity

In addition to developing the economy, Xinjiang has also made significant efforts to preserve its ethnic languages and culture. The region has 10 principal spoken and written languages, which are widely used in various fields, including government administration and education.

Currently, seven languages are taught in primary and secondary schools in the region. Local broadcasting and television programs are available in five languages, and books, audio-visual products and electronic publications are published in six languages. Meanwhile, government departments use the languages of the ethnic groups exercising autonomy in a given area in handling public affairs as well as in recruitment and promotion tests.

As part of a larger strategy to address poverty and boost economic growth, Xinjiang began to use Mandarin as an instructional language in schools from 2004. In 2010, a central work conference on Xinjiang made bilingual education integral to a national plan to boost the region's development.

At the end of 2014, more than 2 million ethnic minority students were receiving bilingual education in Xinjiang, accounting for 75 percent of all students, up 102 percent from 2009, according to the region's education department.

The rich cultural heritage of Xinjiang has also been effectively protected.

It currently has 113 cultural relic sites under state protection and 550 under regional-level protection. In 2009, the autonomous region launched the Uygur Historic and Cultural Preservation Project--Renovation of Dilapidated Buildings in the Old Kashgar City Proper. By 2014, Xinjiang had invested more than 3 billion yuan ($471 million), renovating dilapidated buildings for 31,000 households.

Xinjiang also has three projects on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List and the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding--the Art of Xinjiang Uygur Muqam, the Epic of Manas and the Uygur folk performance Meshrep.

Religious freedom

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the policy on religious freedom has been implemented together with the policy on ethnic regional autonomy, according to the aforementioned white paper. It states that the democratic reform of the religious system and law-based management of religious affairs have helped create and sustain peaceful coexistence among different religious groups in Xinjiang.

"(We should) actively guide religions to adapt to a socialist society, boost lawful religion management, cultivate a team of patriotic religious personnel and ensure the role of believers and figures in the religious circle in contributing to economic and social development," Yu said.

Xinjiang has 24,800 religious venues, including mosques, churches, and Buddhist and Taoist temples with 29,300 clerical practitioners. Most of the 10 major ethnic groups are followers of Islam, and there are a total of 24,400 mosques with 28,600 clerical personnel in the region.

Since the 1980s, the Central Government has allocated more than 10 million yuan ($1.57 million) for maintaining or repairing a number of key mosques and religious sites.

The Xinjiang Islamic Institute itself has trained 634 students since its founding in 1987, and since 2001 has held 132 training sessions for 28,665 clerical personnel. By 2014, more than 1.76 million copies of religious classics, books and magazines, including the Quran, had been published in Uygur and other languages.

Shewket Imin, an official with the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Committee of the Communist Party of China, said that the government has taken a series of measures to guarantee people's freedom of religious belief in Xinjiang, including showing its support by sending thousands of local Muslims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage and providing clerical personnel with allowances.

Shewket stressed that the government has always been supportive of local Muslims, hosting numerous commemorative activities during Islamic festivals such as Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The terrorist threat

Despite the regional social and economic prosperity, however, Xinjiang has faced growing threats from the combined forces of ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism since the 1990s. Working from bases both inside and outside China, terrorists have planned and staged a series of deadly incidents both in the region and in other parts of China.

Of them, the July 5 riot in Urumqi in 2009 killed 197 people and injured over 1,700, in addition to causing tremendous property damage. A terrorist attack in Shache County, Kashgar Prefecture, on July 28, 2014, claimed 37 lives and injured 13, with 31 vehicles smashed or burned.

"Religious extremists have taken advantage of religious freedom to twist and politicize some religious doctrines," said Xu Jianying, a research fellow with the Research Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

According to the aforementioned white paper, religious extremists advocate extreme ideas, incite religious hatred and undermine Xinjiang's social harmony and ethnic solidarity. The paper also asserts that these extremists deny the traditional, peaceful history of Islam in Xinjiang, as well as distort and contravene Islamic theology.

With such radical beliefs that a "shahid (martyr) engaged in jihad (holy war) can live in the garden of Paradise," religious extremism has turned some individuals, especially young people, into fundamentalists, the report said. They can then be manipulated to perform acts of terrorism and harm innocent people of all ethnic groups, even their fellow Islamic clerics and Muslims, it adds.

Li Wei, a security expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, revealed that 95 percent of planned terrorist activities in Xinjiang were aborted, a significant improvement in anti-terrorism efforts. More than 96 percent of terror groups were thwarted at the planning stage, and 112 suspects turned themselves in to the police, according to official statistics.

As of April, a total of 181 terror groups had been dismantled during a year-long campaign, which was launched a day after a market bombing in Urumqi that killed 39 people on May 22, 2014. The tendency of frequent eruptions of violent and terrorist attacks in Xinjiang has been somewhat checked, the white paper concluded.

Still, Yu said at a meeting in Beijing on September 23 on Xinjiang-related work that more resources are needed to invest in enhancing the region's ability to battle terrorism and maintain stability. Xinjiang must receive aid in anti-terrorism efforts at the community level, he noted.

Nationwide assistance

Almost 1.7 trillion yuan ($267 billion) in grants made from the central treasury to Xinjiang over the past 60 years have laid the foundation for the region's development, according to the aforementioned white paper.

With hefty state funds, many major infrastructure and other projects in the region have been completed, including the railway linking Urumqi and Lanzhou in neighboring Gansu Province, as well as oilfields in Karamay and Tarim.

In the 1980s, a cooperative program was initiated between Xinjiang and more than 100 institutions of higher learning in other parts of the country, with the total enrollment of local students studying elsewhere growing from 800 to 6,800. By 2014, these institutions had enrolled a total of 54,000 students of ethnic minority origins from Xinjiang, in addition to providing the autonomous region with 21,000 undergraduates and junior college graduates.

In 2010, the Central Government launched a pairing-up assistance program for 82 cities and counties in Xinjiang and 12 divisions of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), an economic and semi-military organization stationed in the region. Under the program, 19 designated provinces and municipalities are required to invest a certain percentage of their annual GRP in assigned cities or counties in Xinjiang to boost local economic development. The assistance providers also send officials and experts in different fields to work in Xinjiang.

The Central Government has made tangible efforts to take the needs of the recipient region into account. For example, it has paired Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, which is China's first and most successful special economic zone, with Kashgar in Xinjiang. Kashgar is a special zone that is designed to act as a trade hub connecting Central Asian countries on the Silk Road Economic Belt.

Beijing is responsible for assisting Hotan and three counties in Hotan Prefecture in south Xinjiang, as well as the 14th Division of the XPCC. By the end of 2014, Beijing had invested 6.25 billion yuan ($984 million) in 471 projects in Xinjiang, more than 86 percent of the financial budget for assisting the region for the 2011-15 period, said Zhang Chuanwu, Deputy Director of Beijing's Pairing-Up Assistance Office in Hotan.

Officials attending the September 23 meeting in Beijing pledged to continue assistance to Xinjiang, with the focus on creating jobs and improving education and infrastructure in the 2016-20 period. "Our priority is to improve local people's living conditions and upgrade education-related projects," Zhang said.

The new assistance projects must be based on people's real needs and increase efficiency in improving locals' livelihoods, said Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. He also called for concerted efforts to alleviate poverty in Xinjiang, particularly in the poorer southern part of the region.

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

Comments to yinpumin@bjreview.com

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