China builds new Silk Roads to revive fortunes of Xinjiang

13:33, July 02, 2010      

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For more than a thousand years, camel cavarans carrying silk, jade and porcelain from inland Chinese towns lined the vast deserts in China's far-flung western region.

Chinese, Central Asian traders who crossed the daunting mountain range with loads of saffron and rugs converged at Kashgar, an oasis town east of the Taklamakan Desert and a trading hub along the ancient Silk Road that connected China to Europe.

The route, however, faded into history with the rise of maritime trade in the 15th Century. Since then, Kashgar, along with many Silk Road stops in what is now the ethnic Uygur-populated Xinjiang region, has been left in the dust as the economy elsewhere in China took off.

But the authorities hope that is about to change.

With China's central government planning to ramp up growth in Xinjiang, Kashgar has a good chance of catching up, officials and analysts said.

Authorities aim to restore southwest Xinjiang, near the borders of Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, where Kashgar is located, as a transport and trading hub.

"The prosperity of the Silk Road trade will be gradually restored," said Wang Ning, an economist with the Academy of Social Sciences in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. "For a long time, inadequate infrastructure and transportation hindered the region's development."

To open the doors to investment, China's civil aviation authorities have ordered domestic airlines to launch services between Xinjiang and China's larger cities and economic boomtowns.

By 2015, Xinjiang will have six new airports, bringing the total in the sprawling region, covering 1.66 million square km, to 22, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

Authorities are also in talks with overseas counterparts to launch new flight routes linking Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, to Istanbul, Dubai, Samarkand in Uzbekistan, Yekaterinburg in Russia, and Tbilisi in Georgia.

On the ground, the rail network will be increased from 3,599 km to more than 12,000 km by 2020, an investment of 310 billion yuan, estimates the Ministry of Railways. Lines linking Xinjiang with Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are also in the plan.

Another 120 billion to 140 billion yuan will be spent to overhaul Xinjiang's roads, including 7,155 km of highways.

Wang said the development of Xinjiang would speed up the political, economic, and cultural exchanges between China and Central Asian states and contribute to regional prosperity and stability.

Local governments around the country are expected to pour about 10 billion yuan (1.5 billion U.S. dollars) into Xinjiang in coming years.

Security observers said growth in Xinjiang, especially southern Xinjiang, which has a lower GDP and higher unemployment rate, could prevent recurrences of violence such as the riots last year, and give Xinjiang an edge in fighting terrorists from across its western border.

On July 5 last year, Urumqi was rocked by a deadly riot that left 197 people dead and more than 1,700 injured. Overseas separatists and extremists were blamed for inciting the violence.

After restoring order, the central government decided to ramp up economic support to Xinjiang for it to achieve "leapfrog development."

"It is a major and urgent task of strategic significance for us to boost the economic and social development of Xinjiang to achieve lasting stability in the region," President Hu Jintao told a high-level meeting held by the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee on April 23.


The economically underdeveloped regions of southern Xinjiang - including the Kashgar and Hotan prefecture and the Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture of Kizilsu - will be priority destinations for assistance.

Locals say the talk of building Kashgar City into a Shenzhen in China's west first surfaced in the 1980s, but people who had been to Shenzhen laughed it off.

Designated a "special economic zone" in 1980, Shenzhen has grown into one of China's industrial, financial and technological hubs over the past three decades. Kashgar, however, remains largely a dusty old town sleeping on China's western desert.

But it was waken lately by the central government's decision to set up an "economic development zone" there.

Though no clear plans have been drawn up, local officials are encouraged.

"It means we can use special and flexible policies to build Kashgar into a growth engine of Xinjiang and an important port in west China," said Repkati Nurehman, a senior official of Kashgar Prefecture Administrative Office.

The proposed "economic development zone" would cover 8.5 square km, but the exact location has yet to be decided.

Authorities plan to expand the urban area of Kashgar City to 100 square km with a population of over a million. Kashgar will be a base for textile production, the crude oil industry, agricultural products processing, logistics, and tourism, according to the plan.

On June 28, China Southern Airlines launched the country's longest flight route -- 4,852 km -- linking south China's metropolis of Guangzhou near Shenzhen to Kashgar.

"The news is the talk of the town and even kids know Kashgar will have an 'economic development zone'," said 48-year-old cab driver Usman.

"Does it mean Kashgar will be like Shenzhen?" said 26-year-old vender Amutkhasim. "Well then, my watermelons will sell better, and at a higher price."

Source: Xinhua


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