Pouring money into Xinjiang infrastructure won't solve problems, experts warn
Xinjiang began testing the region's first high-speed railway this month - a project officials hope will deepen business and cultural links with neighbouring areas.
But critics say there is no guarantee infrastructure spending will resolve claims that Uygurs suffer job discrimination.
The 1,776km high-speed line - known as the Lanxin Railway - links the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi , with Lanzhou in Gansu province and cuts travel time between the cities from 21 hours to about eight hours. Officials hope commercial operations can begin this year.
Erkin Tuniyaz, vice-chairman of the regional government, said the line, one of 10 railway projects either under construction or planned in the region, would strengthen Xinjiang's role as the "transport hub along the Silk Road economic belt". "It will also have far-reaching influence on the opening up towards the west and the long-term peace and order of Xinjiang," he said.
The new projects will extend the region's railway network by 18 per cent, to 5,800km, according to official projections.
Resource-rich and strategically located on the borders of Central Asia, Xinjiang is key to China's growing energy needs. But a lack of infrastructure has limited development, said Lai Xin, a senior official with the region's development and reform commission.
"With the passenger train journey becoming much shorter, the regional transfer of talent will be much easier and it will boost economic development along the rail line," Lai said. "So, some members of ethnic minorities who find it too costly or time-consuming to travel around will now be able to find jobs or travel elsewhere."
Lai said ticket prices were not finalised but promised they would be affordable. Currently a one-way journey from Urumqi to Lanzhou costs between 215 yuan (HK$270) and 600 yuan.
Xinhua described the new line as a "confidence boost" to Xinjiang. The state-run Global Times said it offered the public a different view of the region, one untarnished by terror.
Beijing has blamed a recent spate of violent incidents across the country on Islamist militants and Uygur separatists, who authorities say want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. The central government responded by launching a year-long security campaign.
The government denies the Uygurs are marginalised, and says it is addressing the lack of jobs in Uygur-dominated areas such as southern Xinjiang.
Beijing has ordered state firms in the region to ensure that at least 70 per cent of new staff are hired locally. At least a quarter must be from ethnic minorities.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Britain, said Beijing was correct in viewing regional problems as the result of a lack of development. But improving the economy would not solve all its woes, Pantucci said.
"Building infrastructure, expanding regional trade links, attracting external investment, getting energy companies to pay higher taxes, getting richer parts of the country to support poorer parts - [these] are all part of the equation to resolve the economic imbalance and therefore make people happier, and therefore less likely and willing to rise up and fight against the leadership," he said. "The problem ... is that this economic focus misses the fact that it is not just economic deprivation that bothers people, but also the fact they feel like their culture and land is being taken away from them."
Other critics say increased economic development in the far west will draw in more migrant workers, which could worsen ethnic tensions.
Professor Yang Shu, director of Lanzhou University's Institute of Central Asia Studies, said improving the transport infrastructure in Xinjiang would make it easier for people from ethnic minorities to travel to find work.
"Many Uygurs in southern Xinjiang are farmers but they don't have a lot of land or water, which limits productivity, so letting them go east will open a lot of opportunities for them," he said.
But the government must realise that increased infrastructure investment would not address job discrimination and religious repression, he said.
"Our research shows that ethnic minorities aren't specifically discriminated against in the job market. It's only that many Han companies deal with other Han companies and so their employees have to speak Putonghua. So, we must find ways to help them grasp the language too," he said.