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UPDATED: August 20, 2015 Web Exclusive
Open and Connected
The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region embraces the outside to develop itself
By Liu Xinlian

A high-speed train passes through Urumqi on May 27 (XINHUA)

For many people who have planned to travel in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, safety problem is one of the major concerns of them before departure. Their worry comes from the terrorist attacks that occasionally occurred in the northwestern region.

"I hope it will no longer be a concern for people in the future," said Li Xuejun, Director of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Committee. "We are all working devoutly to achieve this goal."

Security concerns

A terrorist attack on a market in Urumqi, capital city of Xinjiang, on May 22 last year left at least 31 dead and 94 injured. Another attack in Kashgar Prefecture's Shche County on July 28 last year claimed 37 lives and injured 13 people.

After the attack in May last year, the number of tourists to Xinjiang dropped sharply. In the first half of 2014, the number of tourists visiting the region fell for the first time in two decades. It may take years for the number to recover.

In August, Xinjiang simplified its passport application procedure and shortened the application time for local residents. The passport application process became tougher after a terrorist-inspired riot in Urumqi on July 5, 2009, which killed 194 people and injured more than 1,000 others. Xinjiang residents had to fill in more paperwork and wait longer than people in other parts of China. For someone living in Beijing, it took one week to receive a passport; in Xinjiang it took more than three months.

"I understand the former policy was necessary for the safety of Xinjiang, given that some people crossed the borders in an illegal manner," said resident Wang Se.

On July 9, Thailand repatriated 109 illegal immigrants from China who had been on their way to Turkey, Syria or Iraq to participate in the so-called "holy war," according to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security.

"Xinjiang's new policy shows its growing confidence in maintaining its security. The innocent should not pay price for those illegal immigrants,"said Shan Renping, a commentator with the Global Times.

It is still hard for Xinjiang to achieve a balance between security and convenience. Xinjiang has the strictest security checks in China. They are conducted at the entrances to public places, including department stores, supermarkets and hotels, even parks. In Beijing and most other cities in China, security checks are only carried out at the entrance to subway stations and the airport.

"I have become accustomed to strict security checks here," said Kaiheman, a resident of Aksu Prefecture in southern Xinjiang.

Bringing closer

Safety concerns have not hindered Xinjiang's development. Like most other provinces and regions in China, it tries to develop its economy through opening up and being connected both domestically and with foreign countries.

In 2014, Xinjiang launched its first high-speed rail link from Urumqi to Hami, Xinjiang's easternmost prefecture, cutting the traveling time from six to three hours. A high-speed rail link from Beijing to Urumqi is due to open by 2017, reducing the traveling time from 48 to 19 hours, maybe even shorter.

"The traveling time of 19-hours is based on an average speed of 200 km/hour, but the rail link is designed for speeds of up to 350 km/hour per hour. The possibility of a shorter traveling time exists," said Zhang Weimin, General Manager of Urumqi High-speed Railway Hub Construction Company.

Urumqi used to be the terminal of major railway route in China. Looking at the city in a wider context, it is a central point connecting China, central Asian countries and Europe. In March 2014, Xinjiang launched a freight train service to Kazakhstan, Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Chelyabinsk in Russia. China also proposed a high-speed rail link between Beijing and Moscow, during Premier Li Keqiang's official visit to Russia in October 2014.

"Urumqi will become China's gateway to Asia and Europe," Zhang said.

The China-Russia high-speed rail corridor would be a key project in the Silk Road Economic Belt China plans to create. The idea was introduced in 2013, and it aims to deepen the connection between China and Central Asian countries.

Emotional link

Xinjiang has also realized the importance of openness and connection in ways other than physical terms.

Eliminating estrangement and improving understanding among people from different ethnic groups in Xinjiang are crucial to the future of the region and China, said Zhang Chunxian, Party Chief of Xinjiang.

Since March 2014, a plan has been initiated whereby 200,000 officials from local government departments, state-owned enterprises and academic institutions will be sent to work in villages. The first batch of more than 70,000 officials have already finished one year of working and living in villages and communities. The officials were divided into more than 10,000 work groups, each assigned to a village, community or farm.

Yang Hang from the information office of the Xinjiang regional government was one such official. During his stay in Hotan, where Uygur people make up 90 percent of the population, he and his colleagues visited the villagers frequently and helped them solve their difficulties, including water shortages, poor housing and inadequate funding.

"This program has made our link with villagers closer," said Yang.

(Reporting from Xinjiang)

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