Xinjiang is still underdeveloped, but is destined to become the future economic highland of China's western region and Central Asia.
Five thousand years ago, nobody could expect that in the hot and sandy North Africa a highly developed civilization of Egypt emerged first in the history of mankind.
Three thousand years ago, no one could have predicted that Persia on a plateau could have so much wealth.
One thousand and five hundred years ago, Japan's aristocrats could never imagine that their offspring could outdo the Great Tang Dynasty that they admired and learned from.
Five hundred years ago, European explorers who discovered the new continent could never imagine that the barbarous wilderness would become the most developed economy in the world in future.
Two hundred years ago, cowboys and pioneers of the United States that went to the Wild West couldn’t expect the economic prosperity in today’s west coast.
One hundred years ago, countries in deserts of the Middle East couldn’t anticipate they can be so wealthy today.
Fifty years ago, no one could imagine that the Great Northern Wilderness would become the Great Northern Granary.
Thirty years ago, even the most imaginative people dared not predict that the remote fishing village Shenzhen would develop to a modern metropolis.
Fifteen years ago, no one believed that the dilapidated Pudong would replace the century status of the Shanghai Bund and become a new landmark in Shanghai.
Five years ago, no one knew that Xinjiang would become the “top priority” of China’s western development program.
I wonder if this is somewhat destined for the law of economic movement.
Looking at a topographical map of Asia, you can easily find that the Pamir Plateau is a huge knot of mountains which the Kunlun, Tianshan, and Hindu Kush mountains extend around from and the Altun, Himalayas, Tangula, Qilian and Altay mountains surround in a distance.
From the geographical point of view, Xinjiang is both the center and the heights of Asia, but at least during the past millennium, its economy has long been low and far below the East Asia, South Asia, West Asia and Russia in the north. Especially in modern history, Western Europe sustained high economic development and the East Asia saw rapid economic rise. A vast economic canyon has been formed between Western Europe and East Asia and Xinjiang is located in the lower valley.
The geographical height and economic low form a strong contrast.
This contrast between geography and economy may be meaningless, but if we understand Xinjiang’s economic future with the help of the concept of geographical heights, it may be more concise and clear.
Although Xinjiang is isolated in the western region and is a relatively independent economic region, it is the throat zone for border crossing of merchandises, transportation and information in the Eurasian continent. It has a wide scope of influence and important economic location.
Since the middle 20th century, with the tides of development, Xinjiang's economy has been in rapid rise. The recent wave of great development again accelerates Xinjiang's economic growth. This uplift will make Xinjiang the economic heights of Central Asia.
No contrast, no sense of difference.
How low was Xinjiang’s economy in the past? Let’s take a look at the situations 50 years ago and everything will be clear. At that time, Xinjiang didn’t even have any very low-level industries and metallurgy, machinery, electronics, energy and textiles were all blank. It could not produce a nail, nor a pound of gasoline and a woven one-meter cloth. There were no railways, telephones, power plants and reservoirs. There was nothing from modern industry and the production method of manual workshop was probably the representative of advanced productive forces then, but those products are always somewhat similar to the unearthed relics.
Although Urumqi (then called Dihua) was the capital, the town only had a circumference of several miles. Streets remained unhardened and were full of mud and dust and on both sides of the streets were low rise houses built with clods. A crossroad called the Big Cross became the downtown of this city, which was more like a small town, and the “false two-storey buildings” at the Big Cross may be unique in the world. The so-called “false two-story buildings” are houses along the streets which look like two-story buildings but the walls, eaves and windows on the second floor are totally fake. Such strange buildings could still be occasionally found not long ago. In the past storied buildings were indeed rare in Urumqi. Until in 1959 Urumqi celebrated the 10th anniversary of China and built an epoch-making eight-story building. This record of eight stories had been held for more than twenty years. No wonder at that time the Urumqi people proudly called the building “Eight Stories” and kept this name till today, but its real name had been forgotten.
A song sings that “there are three treasures in Urumqi, horse dung, sheep dung and Achnatherum splendens”, which is a vivid description without any ridicule. Then one can easily imagine the probable situations in other places.
It’s true that in the past Xinjiang and its beautiful Urumqi looked quite backward.
Today’s Urumqi keeps changing greatly one year after another, but when you take a glance at it, you may always feel that the city is too large with too many tall buildings, too crowded streets, two large shopping centers, too expensive seafood and too many advertisement.
However, after acquainting yourself with the development track of Xinjiang’s economy, you might think it is actually quite natural.
Let’s start from a distant history. Since the Western Han Dynasty set up the Western Regions Frontier Command at Wulei and began operating in Xinjiang, the development of Xinjiang just started. However, during the over two thousand years since then, until the Qing Dynasty, the development mainly focused on opening up wasteland and growing food grain, relocating people for border garrison, and building post houses and checkpoints. Its main purpose was to maintain the stability in border areas and ensure unblocked trade route. As the natural environment there was much unfavorable, the society was complex and changeful, and the local regime alternated frequently, economic development in the region had always been very slow.
The first wave of Xinjiang’s economic development emerged in the 1950s. At that time, just after the peaceful liberation of Xinjiang, the new regime was determined to completely change the face of Xinjiang. Thus, more than 100,000 soldiers undressed their military uniforms and were transferred to local civilian workers of the Production and Construction Corps. A huge number of young intellectuals from various provinces were transferred to Xinjiang. Massive construction of canalling, land reclamation, road construction and building factories was then started. With scrimping and saving, human sea tactics, and unimaginable endurance, Xinjiang made the miracle by establishing many farms, highways, reservoirs, channels, hospitals and schools, and factories and workshops, large or small, such as the Qiyi Cotton Mill, Bayi Iron and Steel Plant, Shiyue Tractor Plant, Weihuliang Electric Power Plant, Xinjiang Cement Plant, and Karamay Oilfield etc., in a very short period of time. These new things not only built the framework and outline for a modern economy in Xinjiang, but gave necessary impetus to economic take-off. After the first wave of tide ran over, Xinjiang’s economic map was changed overnight.
With the movement of educated youth going to and work in the countryside and building the frontiers, Xinjiang welcomed the second batch of developers and builders. Singing popular songs in revolutionary years, writing down passionate poems, sticking to the pledge of settling in the border areas, a steady stream of school graduates came from places like Shanghai, Nanjing and Changshai one group after another. They lived and worked together with farmers and workers and accumulate wealth and experiences by the sweat of their brow. Although their passion to change the world cooled down rapidly with the end of the Cultural Revolution, they ultimately brought in fresh vitality to Xinjiang. Their spirit is still revered by people till today. This second wave was insipid but concrete. The wave was not spoondrift, and it had to change something and end one momentum to start another.
When China started the reform and opening up, the protagonist of economic development is the eastern coastal areas. But when peacocks and even sparrows were flocking to the southeast ern economic zones, a group of people went toward the opposite direction to the northwestern Xinjiang. They were oil workers, businessmen and labor workers, as well as a few college graduates distinctive personality. With their arrival, Xinjiang's oil and natural gas production increased several-fold, and proven oil reserves and good prospect promoted Xinjiang to be China’s strategic successive base of land-based oil; their arrival brought again Xinjiang's prosperity in commerce and flourish in trade market facing the Central Asia, and Xinjiang was viewed as a bridgehead of China’s Western Development; with their arrival, construction sites blossomed everywhere in Xinjiang and projects in water conservancy, transportation, communications, energy, city construction and farms were carried out simultaneously, and thus Xinjiang's infrastructure had been effectively improved. Thanks to all these efforts, the highways opened to traffic; the international air routes started operation; the double-track railways sped up trains; fiber networks were built for communications; large reservoirs stored water and extra long channels started water diversion; the farms began drip irrigation and the cotton was no longer picked by hand; oil gushed from oil deep well and petrochemical factories started production; new towns emerged here and more people passed through border ports, and Xinjiang's economy had also been developed. The third wave of development impelled Xinjiang's economic acceleration to going higher. The current height of Xinjiang’s economy ensures that anybody, understanding the economy or not, can no longer look down Xinjiang.
Although the most recent wave is taking a full landing, its force and strength can already be vaguely felt. This wave of course originates from the implementation of the country's western development strategy. The western development project includes a dozen provinces, but its "top priority" is Xinjiang, just like Shenzhen at the age of special economic zones and Pudong in the opening up. This is a policy trend, and also a strategic objective. It’s not only a realistic assessment of Xinjiang’s potential, but also specific plans for the future of Xinjiang. The policymakers certainly believe that the rise of Xinjiang can not only solve its own problem, but give impetus to the development of the western region; it can not only echo with the east, but also radiate the Central Asia, West Asia, North Asia and South Asia. Such a strategic priority status blesses Xinjiang's development prospects. Therefore, state leaders have already predicted that in the regional competition, "Xinjiang will catch up from behind." And in the prospects for development, "Xinjiang will become China's new economic growth point". Xinjiang is asked to transform policies, resources and geographical advantages into the industrial advantages, and then economic advantages. Then, the flows of people, goods and capital flood into Xinjiang to pursue after this huge wave of chance. Large-scale projects are being established one after another and a number of funds are poured in. This effect of hot spots has spread rapidly, and Xinjiang becomes newer now.
Now, the entire Xinjiang is more like a huge economic construction site. High-rise buildings in the cities are continuously built; the transformation of roads and highways are carried out one after another; the airport runways are constantly expanding; dams and reservoirs are constructed everywhere; new plants scatter throughout the region; newly-opened wasteland has a good harvest at the very first year. Xinjiang that used to be deserted now become vigorous and vibrant with gas pipelines, oil pipelines, channels, high-voltage lines, cable lines, air routes, and highways, already constructed or being laid.
China's economic development strategy is a cascade concept starting first from the east, then the west, and finally the central region following the east and west.
If Shenzhen and Shanghai are the frontiers of China's marine-oriented open-up and have led the economy of the eastern coastal areas to win a long-term high-speed growth, Xinjiang is a bridgehead of China’s opening toward inland Asia and Europe, and will help get the western region out of the disadvantageous situations of economic development.
Twenty years open-up has completely changed the coastal areas, and the present has outshines the past so much that the desolate scene in the old coastal frontlines can not be found any more.
Now, the western development has just begun. Looking to the future in another twenty years, the western region represented by Xinjiang, together with the eastern region, will become a pair of wings for China’s take-off.
The western development is the long-awaited opportunity of Xinjiang and this huge wave is now running to Xinjiang.
It is foreseeable that when the tide recedes, an economic highland will emerge from the water and attract the attention of the whole world.