China's great western development project in Xinjiang: economic palliative, or political trojan horse?

Author:Moneyhon, Matthew D.
Position:Go West development plan, strategy to alleviate poverty and bridge economic disparity gap

The Han nationality has the population, the minority nationalities have the land ... It is thus imperative that the Han assist the minorities in raising their standard of living and socialist ideological consciousness, while the minorities provide the natural resources necessary for the industrialization and development of the motherland. (1)

--Mao Zedong


    In the early 1980s, when Deng Xianping declared that some people and some regions in China should be allowed to get rich before others, (2) he initiated a dramatic departure from traditional socialist economic policies and ushered in an era of economic reforms. (3) Indeed, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Deng's economic reforms made some people and some regions incredibly rich: Others, however, have been left dramatically behind: While coastal Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and "open cities" have flourished in the east, western regions, comprising more than half of China's total land area and approximately twenty-three percent of its population, (6) still languish in dusty poverty. Many of China's fifty-five minority groups live in the west and, especially in Xinjiang, economic disparities fuel ethnic tensions, conjuring frightening parallels to the break up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. (7) The Chinese central government, wary of separatist rumblings in both Tibet and Xinjiang, has endeavored to exorcise the specter of political disintegration with an ambitious development campaign: the "Great Western Development Drive" (alternatively, Go West).

    The Go West development plan, in conjunction with recent revisions of the Law on Regional National Autonomy (LRNA), (8) and accompanying economic incentives, represents China's current strategy for dealing with its restive ethnic minorities. The program, its policies, and accompanying legal reforms may rightly be viewed as the latest incarnation of China's evolving minority policy. Analysis of Go West's implications for Xinjiang demonstrates that the program is intended as a significant step towards greater integration of ethnic minorities and, ultimately, assimilation into the greater Hart framework--a process incongruous with the central government's proclaimed commitment to ethnic regional autonomy. Although construed as an effort to alleviate poverty and bridge the growing gap of economic disparity between the eastern and western regions, (9) Go West is actually an attempt to quell ethnic unrest, solidify the nation, and legitimize the current regime by taming the "wild west."

    This article addresses the Go West development campaign's impact on Xinjiang, specifically as the plan fits into Beijing's greater strategy for integration and assimilation of Xinjiang's restive Uighur population. Section II begins with a brief introduction to Go West's economic impetus--the asymmetric development spawned by economic reforms of the 1980s. Section III explores the volatile political and economic climates in Xinjiang, their role in feeding separatist sentiment, and Go West's attempt to quell unrest. Section IV examines some of Go West's policies and projects, emphasizing how they fit into the political agenda of solidifying the nation through the pacification and integration of Xinjiang. Section V briefly considers Go West as an effort to legitimize the current Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. Section VI provides a historical framework for conceptualizing Go West as part of China's evolving minority policy. Section VII examines the legal wake of Go West--particularly the contraction of the autonomy regime. Finally, the article concludes that even if the central government's economic promises bear fruit, prosperity in Xinjiang may not yield Beijing's desired results.


    Go West, Young Han: China's Manifest Destiny

    Horace Greeley's cry to "Go west young man," epitomizes the dream of American expansion and development of the west in the nineteenth century. (10) America's conquest of the west both helped craft the American ethos and ushered in what has widely been called the "American century." (11) Today, China stands at the beginning of what many scholars predict will be the "Chinese century," (12) and it is believed that sometime within the next twenty years, China will emerge as the world's largest economy. (13) The CCP, maintaining a tenuous hold on power and faced with serious legitimacy concerns, (14) would like, more than anything, to make such predictions realities.

    In June 1999, President Jiang Zemin emphasized the need to "seize the historic opportunity at the turn of the century to accelerate the development of western China." (15) An integral part of Beijing's strategy for ushering in the "Chinese century" is the "Great Western Development Campaign," an ambitious effort designed to direct state investment, outside expertise, foreign loans, and private capital into vast, and comparatively backward, western China. (16) When launching the project in early 2000, Chinese authorities drew comparisons to the development of the American west in the early 1900s. (17) Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao, leaders of the campaign, even commissioned a detailed study of the "take off of the American West in the early decades of the last century." (18) Indeed, the central government has high hopes that the Go West project will tame China's Wild West. The growing economic disparity between east and west has fueled ethnic unrest in the region, thereby threatening China's stability and security. (19) Jiang Zemin declared that the development of the west is crucial to China's stability, the Communist Party's hold on power, and the "revitalization of the Chinese people." (20)

    Although it makes for good rhetoric domestically, comparisons between China's Go West drive and the development of the American west are somewhat suspect. In fact, there are more differences than similarities between the two "projects." First, there is a dramatic difference in prevailing economic systems. The pursuit of property drove the development of the American west. (21) In China, however, land still belongs to the state and the central government has no plans to cheaply sell, or freely distribute, land to "pioneers." (22) Second, although China's west abounds with natural resources, it suffers from a severe scarcity of fertile land--one of the great incentives to westward development and migration in the United States. (23) Finally, in the twenty-first century, the international community generally does not tolerate conquest and subjugation of minority rights. Thus when China goes west, it must do so with sensitivity to local populations. Although there are significant differences between the two endeavors, similarities between China's Go West drive and the conquest of the American west do not go unnoticed. Critics of the Go West plan have pointed out that just as America's thrust westward translated into sweeping, and often negative, changes to the lives of Native Americans, (24) China's Go West campaign also has serious implications for the indigenous populations of China's west. (25) For the CCP, however, these implications are actually a major impetus for Go West, and the overt economic goals belie the underlying political agenda.

    "Two overall situations"

    The very notion of the Go West drive provokes a preliminary question: Why is developing China's west suddenly such an imperative? The answer lies in the past two decades of asymmetric economic development. In the late 1980s Deng Xiaoping put forth the strategy of "two overall situations." (26) Essentially, this meant that the coastal regions in eastern China would be encouraged to develop first, and only after they achieved a measure of prosperity would the central government give the west special help. (27) Since its implementation, the strategy of asymmetric development has created a vast wealth gap between east and west. In line with Deng Xiaoping's strategy, central policies overwhelmingly emphasized development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and "open cities" located in coastal provinces. (28) The coastal regions capitalized on natural advantages and favorable economic policies by developing town and village enterprises (TVEs), cultivating export-oriented ventures, and by successfully attracting foreign direct investment. (29) In contrast, the interior remained comparatively backward and impoverished. (30)

    While coastal provinces continue to reap the benefits of greater integration into the international economy, the west scrambles to climb out of poverty and debt. In 1978, the beginning of Deng's economic reforms, the difference in per capita income between eastern and western China was two hundred yuan. (31) Today, more than half of the eighty million people living under the poverty line are in the west (32) and the income differential between coastal and interior provinces stands at greater than 1:15. (33) Other economic indicators also tell the interior's rather dreary tale. The western region accounts for only fourteen percent of the national GDP (34) and in the past two decades the west has attracted less than five percent of foreign investment in China. (35) The western "poverty belt" sweeps across almost two-thirds of China's landmass--from Yunnan in the south to Xinjiang in the north--and includes 285 million people, twenty-three percent of China's 1.3 billion. (36) The Go West initiative, covering six provinces (Yunnan, Gansu, Sichuan, Guizhou, Qinghai, Shaanxi), three autonomous regions (Ningxia, Xizang (Tibet), Xinjiang), and one provincial level municipality (Chongqing), (37) strikes at the heart of the western "poverty belt" and hopes to redress the effects and implications of asymmetric economic development. Go West's economic goals, however, are window dressing for the underlying political agenda of quelling unrest, solidifying the nation, and legitimizing the current regime.

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