China’s Belt And Road: A Closed Gateway

Many of China’s Belt and Road projects run through Xinjiang Province, home to the Muslim-minority Uighurs who live in intense security. Many sense Belt and Road and Xinjiang’s problems are connected.

Heard on Morning Edition
Date: April 26, 2019



We’re here on a day when China is showing off to the world. President Xi Jinping welcomed foreign leaders to the Belt and Road Forum. In a vast convention center, he’s promoting infrastructure linking China with much of the world.

The walls here are covered with immense photographs of Chinese landscapes, Chinese pagodas, and immense, modern-day construction projects.

The pictures of bridges and skyscrapers advertise Chinese skill at building. Now let’s discuss something not pictured. Many of China’s new roads, railways, and pipelines point westward toward Pakistan and Central Asia. To get there, they passed through a province where China has imposed some of its harshest security measures. Many ethnic Uighurs have been sent to camps. Infrastructure meant to open the world passes through an area that is emphatically closed. NPR’s Rob Schmitz has been visiting the province for years. So, Rob, what is it like to travel to this really remote province?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, Xinjiang is nearly the size of Alaska. It is huge – it’s the farthest place on Earth from an ocean. It’s home to one of the largest deserts in the world. It’s got snow-capped mountains, thousands of glaciers. And underneath all of that, you’ve got mineral and fossil fuel deposits. And that’s why China’s government is interested in the development of the area.

The region’s been occupied for millennia by a variety of Central Asian ethnicities, most recently dominated by the Uighur people. And just 75 years ago, Uighurs made up 75% of Shinjuku’s population. Now they make up less than half. And that gets to the nature of the problems there. Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim and whose culture and language have more in common with Central Asian cultures than Chinese culture, have become the minority. Beijing sent millions of Han Chinese there to fortify control over the region. And this influx of Han Chinese has led to tensions and violence between two very different ethnic groups.

INSKEEP: Well, how intense has the security been in recent years as Chinese authorities have played up fears of terrorism?

SCHMITZ: Well, in the past five years, it’s developed a security presence that’s sort of on par with a place like North Korea. In Xinjiang cities, cameras are everywhere. You can never really escape them. Police stations are a few hundred feet apart from each other. Police constantly check IDs and routinely ask people to open their phones, so they can check photos, messages. The government has its own app that’s used to spy on people’s personal data. And police at these checkpoints force people to download that.

In 2017, before we knew the government was about to detain hundreds of thousands of people, I spoke to local residents about what all of this meant for their daily lives. One ethnic Kazakh businessman who, for his own safety, did not give me his name, told me he used to regularly travel outside of China on business, but not anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The police have now taken our passports from us. We can’t travel, so it’s impossible to do business or make money. Even if they do give your passport back to you, when you come back from a foreign trip, police will interrogate you about what you did there. It’s troublesome. And it makes me not want to leave anymore.

INSKEEP: So that’s the situation that has evolved in Xinjiang province, Rob, but what does that have to do with the Belt and Road project?

SCHMITZ: Well, the success of the Belt and Road project hinges on a stable and prosperous Xinjiang. China will need that in order to convince foreign companies to come and invest there and in order for its own economy to do well.    [FULL  INTERVIEW]