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A Newer New Frontier

Beijing’s Ambitious Plans for Xinjiang

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