Title

A Newer New Frontier

Beijing’s Ambitious Plans for Xinjiang

  • Store attendants wait for customers in an underground shopping mall in Kashgar, Xinjiang, near the Heytgah (Id Kah) Mosque. The largest mosque in China, Hetygah serves as many as 10,000 of the region’s Muslims.
    Store attendants wait for customers in an underground shopping mall in Kashgar, Xinjiang, near the Heytgah (Id Kah) Mosque. The largest mosque in China, Hetygah serves as many as 10,000 of the region’s Muslims.
  • Construction continues on the G314 highway, which will provide another link between Xinjiang and Pakistan. As part of its international trade plan, the New Silk Road initiative, Beijing has said it will spend tens of billions of dollars to build stronger trade ties between China and Europe, via Central Asia.
    Construction continues on the G314 highway, which will provide another link between Xinjiang and Pakistan. As part of its international trade plan, the New Silk Road initiative, Beijing has said it will spend tens of billions of dollars to build stronger trade ties between China and Europe, via Central Asia.
  • Children run through the Tailiwei Quke River in Guangzhou New City, Kashgar. New links with Guangdong are spurring growth in this arid region, formerly an oasis on the old Silk Road trade route. The New City takes its name from Guangdong’s capital, Guangzhou.
    Children run through the Tailiwei Quke River in Guangzhou New City, Kashgar. New links with Guangdong are spurring growth in this arid region, formerly an oasis on the old Silk Road trade route. The New City takes its name from Guangdong’s capital, Guangzhou.
  • In the late 2000s, the government demolished much of Kashgar’s Old City, angering many locals.  More recently, the local government is saving some of the Old City’s traditional high platform houses to turn them into tourist attractions.
    In the late 2000s, the government demolished much of Kashgar’s Old City, angering many locals. More recently, the local government is saving some of the Old City’s traditional high platform houses to turn them into tourist attractions.
  • On the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, modern automobiles sit in the shadow of a bazaar in the Old City on a warm spring night. In 2009, Beijing promised improved living conditions for city residents and a new, updated Old City for tourists.
    On the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, modern automobiles sit in the shadow of a bazaar in the Old City on a warm spring night. In 2009, Beijing promised improved living conditions for city residents and a new, updated Old City for tourists.
  • South Xinjiang Venice is a luxury housing development in Guangzhou New City that caters mostly to Han, the ethnic majority in China.
    South Xinjiang Venice is a luxury housing development in Guangzhou New City that caters mostly to Han, the ethnic majority in China.
  • Uighur surveyors measure the future site for a green space near a planned station on a new railroad to Central Asia.
    Uighur surveyors measure the future site for a green space near a planned station on a new railroad to Central Asia.
  • A young man attempts a head stand on the frozen Xiaoyalang Reservoir near a thermal power station.
    A young man attempts a head stand on the frozen Xiaoyalang Reservoir near a thermal power station.
  • Uighur villagers pledge their allegiance to the People’s Republic of China, and its flag, during a weekly meeting led by Party cadres as part of an effort to dampen separatism in the region.
    Uighur villagers pledge their allegiance to the People’s Republic of China, and its flag, during a weekly meeting led by Party cadres as part of an effort to dampen separatism in the region.
  • With all of the new development and construction jobs coming into Kashgar, workers need a place to relax. In this club, a singer crooned in Uighur before the evening crowds filled the dance floor.
    With all of the new development and construction jobs coming into Kashgar, workers need a place to relax. In this club, a singer crooned in Uighur before the evening crowds filled the dance floor.
  • Uighur civil servants and their teachers rehearse a dance to ‘Little Apple,’ a popular Mandarin song.
    Uighur civil servants and their teachers rehearse a dance to ‘Little Apple,’ a popular Mandarin song.
  • The banners in the vast, unfinished Springtime Shopping Mall in Guangzhou New City exhort visitors to ‘Build Up Guangzhou New City, Create Prosperity for the People of Xinjiang’ and ‘Warmly Celebrate Guangzhou New City, Swiftly Complete the Spring Shopping Plaza.’ But the mall, which opened in late 2012 in the desert just outside of the city of Kashgar, remained unoccupied when the photographer last visited in January 2016.
    The banners in the vast, unfinished Springtime Shopping Mall in Guangzhou New City exhort visitors to ‘Build Up Guangzhou New City, Create Prosperity for the People of Xinjiang’ and ‘Warmly Celebrate Guangzhou New City, Swiftly Complete the Spring Shopping Plaza.’ But the mall, which opened in late 2012 in the desert just outside of the city of Kashgar, remained unoccupied when the photographer last visited in January 2016.
  • A plastic covering protects these child-sized mannequins from desert sand at the T.I.T. Lifestyle Store, opened by a textile company from Guangzhou.
    A plastic covering protects these child-sized mannequins from desert sand at the T.I.T. Lifestyle Store, opened by a textile company from Guangzhou.
  • A Uighur child plays with a balloon in a furniture mall in Guangzhou New City. His mother, dressed in an orange uniform, works as a janitor in the mall.
    A Uighur child plays with a balloon in a furniture mall in Guangzhou New City. His mother, dressed in an orange uniform, works as a janitor in the mall.
  • Construction of the Apandiland theme park started in 2011 and was funded by a real-estate company from Guangzhou.
    Construction of the Apandiland theme park started in 2011 and was funded by a real-estate company from Guangzhou.
  • Uighur guards patrol an entrance gate of the South Xinjiang Venice villa district, which caters to wealthy residents, many of whom are Han.
    Uighur guards patrol an entrance gate of the South Xinjiang Venice villa district, which caters to wealthy residents, many of whom are Han.
  • A guard rests below inspirational posters of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs at the Kashgar E-commerce Headquarters Base of West China, a government incubator.
    A guard rests below inspirational posters of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs at the Kashgar E-commerce Headquarters Base of West China, a government incubator.
  • Uighur workers labor at the Guangdong Sike Electronics factory, where local workers earn a monthly salary of 1,500-2,000 yuan (U.S.$200-300)—up to three times more than the average income in nearby villages, and slightly more than the average income in the city of Kashgar.
    Uighur workers labor at the Guangdong Sike Electronics factory, where local workers earn a monthly salary of 1,500-2,000 yuan (U.S.$200-300)—up to three times more than the average income in nearby villages, and slightly more than the average income in the city of Kashgar.
  • The businessman Ahmatjan, who only gave his first name, works in the clothing trade between Kashgar and Guangzhou. He lives in a large house in the center of Kashgar, and hopes to send his son to a soccer academy in Guangdong.
    The businessman Ahmatjan, who only gave his first name, works in the clothing trade between Kashgar and Guangzhou. He lives in a large house in the center of Kashgar, and hopes to send his son to a soccer academy in Guangdong.
  • Actors in the TV drama ‘In-Laws, Out-Laws,’ a popular show in Guangdong, film a special episode at Apandiland. The episode focuses on the life of cadres from Guangdong who have come to work on a development project in Xinjiang.
    Actors in the TV drama ‘In-Laws, Out-Laws,’ a popular show in Guangdong, film a special episode at Apandiland. The episode focuses on the life of cadres from Guangdong who have come to work on a development project in Xinjiang.
  • Bricks for sale stand in piles outside of a future industrial park.
    Bricks for sale stand in piles outside of a future industrial park.
  • Twenty-two-year-old Munire, who only gave her first name, works as a waitress at the Adil Performance Center at Apandiland.
    Twenty-two-year-old Munire, who only gave her first name, works as a waitress at the Adil Performance Center at Apandiland.
  • A young tightrope walker entertains tourists at the Adil Performance Center at Apandiland, one of the investment projects supported by the Guangzhou company Yihe Real Estate.
    A young tightrope walker entertains tourists at the Adil Performance Center at Apandiland, one of the investment projects supported by the Guangzhou company Yihe Real Estate.
  • Revelers dance under the surveillance of security guards after midnight at a local club.
    Revelers dance under the surveillance of security guards after midnight at a local club.
  • Police officers stand on duty at a horse race in a village near Kashgar.
    Police officers stand on duty at a horse race in a village near Kashgar.
  • Uighur villagers attend a weekly presentation, led by local Uighur cadres, to discuss development projects. The government hopes that economic development will quell separatism.
    Uighur villagers attend a weekly presentation, led by local Uighur cadres, to discuss development projects. The government hopes that economic development will quell separatism.
  • Thirty-six-year-old Mehmet, who only gave his first name, peddles antiques and jade on a Kashgar street popular with tourists. He says he is a fan of former Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and thinks that Kashgar could benefit from its own ‘Reform and Opening Up’—a policy Deng instituted to liberalize China’s economy.
    Thirty-six-year-old Mehmet, who only gave his first name, peddles antiques and jade on a Kashgar street popular with tourists. He says he is a fan of former Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and thinks that Kashgar could benefit from its own ‘Reform and Opening Up’—a policy Deng instituted to liberalize China’s economy.
  • With a Uighur cadre by his side, a Han cadre from Guangzhou takes pictures of an ornate Uighur restaurant.
    With a Uighur cadre by his side, a Han cadre from Guangzhou takes pictures of an ornate Uighur restaurant.
  • Once arable farmland, this area in the Kashgar suburbs has been converted to accommodate enterprises like this golf course, funded by a Beijing-based company.
    Once arable farmland, this area in the Kashgar suburbs has been converted to accommodate enterprises like this golf course, funded by a Beijing-based company.
  • A former farmer, Tursun, who only gave his first name, tends a small shop he set up near what used to be his fields in Guangzhou New City.
    A former farmer, Tursun, who only gave his first name, tends a small shop he set up near what used to be his fields in Guangzhou New City.
  • A polluted wetland in downtown Kashgar stands near a bazaar that the local government says is the biggest international trade market in northwest China.
    A polluted wetland in downtown Kashgar stands near a bazaar that the local government says is the biggest international trade market in northwest China.

In November 2014, the photographer Yuyang Liu saw an article in a Chinese newspaper that caught his eye. “It was the usual propaganda piece,” Liu says. “Quite superficial.” But the story was compelling: it described a government program that was bringing “several railroad cars full” of young Uighur workers roughly 4,000 miles away from their hometown of Kashgar in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. The Uighurs—members of a Turkic-language speaking, predominantly Muslim minority—would become migrant laborers in the much wealthier province of Guangdong, in China’s southeast corner.

Liu wondered why the workers would travel such a great distance, what happened to them in Guangdong, and how their lives would change when they returned home. He saw the program as a lens through which to view Beijing’s investment and development initiatives in Xinjiang. From February 2015 through January 2016, as an Abigail Cohen Fellow in Documentary Photography, Liu sought out participants in the government’s program, visited a compressor factory where many of them worked, and hung around their dormitories. He also traveled to Kashgar, to see how the workers’ experiences in Guangdong affected their communities back home and to gauge Beijing’s efforts to grow Xinjiang’s economy.

Beijing’s relationship to Xinjiang and its roughly 10 million Uighurs has long been troubled. The labor export program is but the latest in a series of sometimes coercive attempts to foster assimilation: In 2009, for example, a fight involving Uighur workers brought to Guangdong as part of this program sparked massive riots in Xinjiang. And over the last few years, several terrorist attacks allegedly committed by Uighurs throughout China have exacerbated tensions between the two ethnicities.

According to a May 2016 article in the regional Chinese Communist Party newspaper Xinjiang Daily, Beijing’s aid program has given Xinjiang almost 22.4 billion RMB (roughly U.S.$3.38 billion) in investment over the last two years—and billions more in the years prior. New malls, roads, and construction projects have transformed the region.

But Liu is ambivalent about whether the government has successfully used economic development to bridge the gulf between Uighurs and the majority Han, and about whether it has quelled extremism and prevented violence. “What struck me most about the young people I met,” he says, “is that despite linguistic, religious, cultural differences, their aspirations are fundamentally the same as those of young people around the country. I hope when people look at my photographs, they’ll ask themselves ‘in aiding these people, what are we actually doing?’”

ChinaFile is publishing Liu’s project in two parts. The first, published here, encompasses his photographs from Xinjiang. The second, which we’ll publish later this year, will focus on Uighur workers in Guangdong.

—The Editors