At a sustainable development conference in Urumqi, one speaker listed the region's environmental failures. Xinjiang executive vice-chairman and vice-party secretary Wang Jinxiang said: 'Desertification is threatening 2.3 million hectares of land and one-third of our natural grasslands. Sixty per cent of the Tarim River's banks are now desert, and deserts are spreading at a rate of more than 40,000 hectares each year.' Over the past 50 years, he noted at the conference last month, Xinjiang had lost one-fifth of its forest cover. Mr Wang also listed seven major rivers and lakes that were either extinct or dying. 'Our lakes covered 9,700 sq km in the 1950s. By the end of the 1970s they had shrunk more than 5,000 sq km to 4,784 sq km,' he said. 'Blind development around Ebinur Lake [in western Xinjiang near the Kazakhstan border] has cut off its rivers, shrinking the lake's area and killing the vegetation around it. 'The severe situation now confronting Xinjiang's environment should warn us that protecting the environment and realising sustainable development is our only choice.' One environmental activist said: 'I was so impressed with that wonderful speech. But the problem is that there are very few [government officials] like that.' Mr Wang was followed by Han Xueqi, director of Xinjiang's Planning Commission. While giving lip service to environmental protection, Mr Han made it quite clear where his priorities lay. 'We must give priority to the acceleration of development,' he said. Mr Han outlined bold new targets for the region's water-intensive petroleum and cotton industries and called for the region to build up a dyeing and printing industry. 'We should continue to focus on oil and natural gas development, and build up Xinjiang into China's second Daqing,' he urged, invoking the memory of Mao Zedong's favourite oil field that is today a twilight zone of declining output, bankrupt state enterprises and worker unrest. The activist said: 'This is the kind of mentality we're struggling with. It's not economical to have a dyeing and printing industry and it would be a huge waste of the region's precious water resources. Wang's and Han's speeches are precisely at the crux of Xinjiang's dilemma. The question is: which attitude will prevail?'