Settlers in Xinjiang: Circling the wagons

The Economist: “In a region plagued by ethnic strife, the growth of immigrant-dominated settlements is adding to the tension

MANY hours’ drive along what was once the southern Silk Road, through a featureless desert landscape punctuated by swirling dust-devils and occasional gnarled trees, a curious sight eventually confronts the traveller: row upon row of apartment blocks with vivid red roofs, as if a piece of Shanghai suburbia has been planted in the wilderness (see picture). Following the military-style nomenclature of immigrant settlements in China’s far west, it calls itself 38th Regiment. It is home to thousands of people, in a spot where just a few years ago there was nothing but sand.

The town is the latest addition to a vast network of such communities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China’s biggest province by land area and also its most ethnically troubled. Neighbouring Tibet has long been roiled by ethnic tension, too, but rarely has it witnessed the kind of violence that has troubled Xinjiang: a low-level insurgency involving ethnic Uighurs whose Muslim faith and Central Asian culture and language set them apart from the Han Chinese who dominate places like 38th Regiment. On April 23rd, 21 people were killed near Kashgar during an encounter between police and alleged separatists. An explosion of inter-ethnic violence in 2009 in the regional capital, Urumqi, that left nearly 200 dead, by official reckoning, exacerbated the divide. The expansion of the settlement network is deepening it further.

To use its full name, the 38th Regiment of the 2nd Agricultural Division is part of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. This state-run organisation, usually referred to as the bingtuan (Chinese for a military corps) controls an area twice the size of Taiwan, broken into numerous parts scattered around the province (see map). A few bits are city-sized. Most are more like towns or villages. Of their total population of more than 2.6m people, 86% are ethnically Han Chinese. In Xinjiang as a whole, in contrast, Han officially make up just over 40% of the 22m inhabitants. The rest are Uighurs and a few other ethnic groups.”

via Settlers in Xinjiang: Circling the wagons | The Economist.

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