The first decade of the 21st century witnessed changes in Xinjiang in terms of China’s ruling strategy and development policy. The replacement of the decade-long, hardline party-secretary (or ‘King of Xinjiang’ as he was referred to by local Uyghurs) by the relatively open-minded Zhang Chunxian and the following development of Kashgar 2011 reflects the modification of China’s conservative and harsh policy towards this restive region.
Coming with the new party-secretary are new promises, proposals, and plans to develop Xinjiang, esp the Uyghur-populated geographic, historical, and cultural center of Kashgar. Two months after Zhang’s appointment as the new head of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the first cross-regional conference on the development of Kashgar was held in Guangzhou in June 2011, the forefront of China’s special economic zone where Shenzhen and Zhuhai have represented China’s economic reform and achievement in recent decades.
At the conference, Kashgar officials, researchers, and academics discussed the possibility and prospects of new economic development of Kashgar, proudly heralding the opening of Kashgar as Shenzhen of West China and even the economic center of Central Asia in coming years. Other conferences following this one have reinforced China’s new Xinjiang policy that to some extent has shifted from ideological struggle-centered policy (against the so-called “three forces”) to economic construction-centered strategy (of developing Kashgar as Shenzhen), a policy change that occurred in the rest of interior China 30 years ago.
The result of these conferences and research on the development of Kashgar is concluded by China’s state council announcement in September 2011 that Kashgar, together with Horgos, would be designed as a ‘special economic zone’ in Xinjiang (http://www.gov.cn/zwgk/2011-10/08/content_1963929.htm). According to this state document, certain economic policy and administrative power are to be devolved to Kashgar in order to implement this strategy. To better implement these proposals and plans, Kashgar government, researchers, and academics even co-founded a research center in Beijing (Kasha tequ zhanlue fazhan yanjiusuo) at the end of 2011. The center is based on the Singaporean model and its aim is to build Kashgar as a transportation, service, and financial center of Central Asia or mid-South Asia.
These new policies and proposals to convert Muslim Kashgar into the Shenzhen of West China may be relatively plausible in terms of infrastructure building, such as the expansion of the Kashgar airport and highways, however many challenges remain and many questions have been left unanswered. It is well known that even during Wang Lequan’s repressive rule, A plan to develop Kashgar was already on the table.
To what extent the current development strategy differs itself from Wang’s plan still remains unclear. The new Kashgar does not answer the old question of how to eradicate the Uyghur poverty and balance Han-Uyghur inequality in economic status. It is also important to remember that since the current Xinjiang administration succeeds Wang’s harsh policy against ideological enemies of the so-called three evil forces, how could China or China’s Kashgar attract Islamic central Asia and mid-South Asian Muslims to Kashgar in the context of China’s continuous harsh rule over Uyghur Muslims?
Regarding the role of Kashgar, it seems there is confusion in China’s positioning of Kashgar; it is sometimes defined as an economic center of “Central Asia” and sometimes as that of “mid-South Asia.” If the former is the case, then what is the relationship between Kashgar special economic zone and Horgos special economic zone and between Kashgar and Urumuqi? If the latter is the case, then, the question becomes much more complicated: what role will Kashgar special economic zone play in the mid- South Asian economy (from Afghanistan to northern Pakistan and northern India) given the complicated relations between China, India, and Pakistan? Even if the Chinese development strategy in Kashgar complements regional Central Asian or South Asian economic networks or projects such as Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation or CAREC, how could Kashgar position itself in the US-led new Silk Road strategy which obviously attempts to avoid old commercial and cultural centers under Chinese sovereignty such as Kashgar? If these questions cannot be properly answered, then the so-called Kashgar special economic zone may not help China to break it Malacca yoke, as many strategists have argued, and indeed it may well cause new tension with other competing powers such as India and the U.S. in China’s western borderland.