This was an prescient article by Jamil Anderlini in Korla, Xinjiang, published: August 28 2008 in The Financial Times.
“Offer energy resources as tribute [to Beijing] to create harmony” proclaims a giant billboard outside a petrol station in Korla, in China’s restive western frontier region of Xinjiang.
The increasing importance of the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang autonomous region as a source of the energy and minerals needed to fuel China’s booming eastern cities is raising the stakes for Beijing in its battle against separatists agitating for an independent state.
Unequal rights: in spite of affirmative action programmes, any jobs in the region that wield any real power are held by Han Chinese, who now make up 70 per cent of its population
“The Chinese didn’t want to let Xinjiang be independent before, but after they built all the oilfields, it became absolutely impossible,” said one Muslim resident in Korla, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution by government security agents.
The desert around the city is punctuated every kilometre or two by oil and gas derricks, each of them topped with the red Chinese national flag, an assertion of sovereignty over every inch of the energy-rich ground.
Korla itself is an important junction on the 4,200km-long west-east gas pipeline that carries natural gas from Xinjiang to Shanghai.
A brand new airport, high-rise office blocks and scores of new apartment complexes are proof that the city is reaping the fruits of an energy boom that has seen annual natural gas production in the surrounding Tarim Basin increase 20 times between 2000 and 2007. But the vast majority of profits from the industry are sent back east, along with the oil and gas.
In 2005, Xinjiang’s local government was allotted only Rmb240m ($35m, €24m, £19m) out of the Rmb14.8bn in tax revenue from the petrochemical industries that are based in the region.
In Korla, the oil industry is under the control of a subsidiary of PetroChina, the state-owned energy giant, which answers directly to its head office in Beijing.
“We don’t have the power to tell them to do anything – they only listen to their bosses in Beijing,” said one local government official who asked not to be named.
Many of Korla’s original Uighur residents feel they have missed out altogether on the few benefits that have trickled down to the region from the rapid extraction of its energy resources.
Mineral exploration began in the Tarim Basin at the start of last century but it was not until 1958, nearly a decade after the Chinese Communist revolution and the re-conquest of Xinjiang, that the first oilfield went into production.
At that time Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic people with stronger links to central Asia than the rest of China, were the only inhabitants. Today, Han Chinese from central and eastern provinces make up 70 per cent of the population in Korla.
“A lot of Uighurs say this whole area used to belong to them, and now they are strangers in their own home,” said Xie, a shopkeeper whose parents were sent out to Korla from their native Hunan province in the 1950s to work in a bomb-making factory for the People’s Liberation Army. “Some of them are very angry and they’re causing more and more trouble these days.”
Uighur resentment has been exacerbated by a massive security operation timed to coincide with the Olympic and Paralympic Games period. Under the auspices of ensuring a “peaceful Olympics”, the government has set up roadblocks and security checks and dispatched armed street patrols, all of which has failed to stop a number of attacks by suspected separatists in recent weeks that have left more than 30 dead. Two policemen were killed on Thursday in a clash with armed Uighurs.
At a checkpoint outside Korla, “wanted” posters display the mugshots and personal details of 11 Uighurs, some as young as 17, who are being pursued for the crime of selling banned literature, including DVDs and books on the creation of an Islamic state.
Amnesty International says Xinjiang is the only part of China where people are regularly executed for political offences.
“There are a lot of people who want Xinjiang to be independent of China but we personally don’t even dare think those thoughts,” said one Uighur in Korla when asked what he thought of the separatist cause.
On Petrochemical Boulevard, the main street in Korla, the only visible Uighurs are street cleaners and the odd waiter hanging out in the doorway of a Muslim restaurant.
Locals say Uighurs are sometimes given low-level jobs in the oilfields, but there are none in management positions in Korla. In spite of affirmative action programmes that reserve a proportion of official posts for minority groups, all government and military positions with any real power are held by Han Chinese.
PetroChina and its Korla subsidiary refused to be interviewed, but one former employee said discrimination was rife within the company.
“There used to be two Uighurs driving for the oil company here,” said this former employee, who asked to be known only by his surname, Ma. “But they were moved to a different work unit because the bosses think Muslims are all terrorists and separatists.”
p/s photos: Macy Chan