The remote, rebellious western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang are China's poorest, but they hold vast natural wealth. On a 3,000-mile trek I saw how far Beijing is bending the whole central Asian region to its willby Parag Khanna / June 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
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The final stretch on the road to Yarkand, about 125 miles from China’s border with Pakistan, feels like the middle east. Each village is a collage of single-storey mud-brick homes with turquoise door-gates. People travel by donkey cart or scooter-rickshaw. Men greet each other the Muslim way (palm to the chest and a slight bow); women wear headscarves. In small villages many signs are still in Uighur, the local language. But for how much longer?
The absorption of China’s far west begins with renaming cities—Yarkand, once a regional capital, to Yecheng, Kashgar to Kashi, Urumqi to Wulumuqi—followed by building a new city around the local population. From three miles outside the bustling tree-lined city of Yarkand, huge gated communities for Chinese army officers flank either side of the road. Propaganda posters depict happily resettled Han, the ethnic majority from eastern China—who are squeezing Uighurs into the ever tighter space around the central mosque and bazaar.
The town of Yarkand was about the halfway point of a 3,000-mile journey I made recently from Lhasa in Tibet through the Chinese border zones with Kashmir, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan all the way to Urumqi near Mongolia. There is no better way to view China’s combination of hard and soft power at work—from the People’s Liberation Army to high-altitude railroads to the sprightly “Han pioneers”—stretching out towards the energy-rich Caspian basin. The west also seeks control here, via Nato and Texaco. But in central Asia, the west must catch up with the east.
Throughout the 19th century, Russia and Britain fought the great game for control of the vast buffer zone between their empires. If the inhabitants of this area had been given any say, two large countries would exist today: the first would be a peaceful kingdom that might be called Shambala, a spiritual homeland for the millions of Buddhists spread across India, Tibet and other Asian nations. The second, the home for the Uighur population and their Turkic brethren, would be Turkestan, a variant of which has been established twice, albeit both times briefly, in the 19th and 20th centuries.
That neither Britain nor Russia prevailed in their battle does not mean there was no winner. Today, China possesses nearly all of this territory, in the form of its two largest…