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date: 24 April 2024

Infrastructure Development in Xinjiangfree

Infrastructure Development in Xinjiangfree

  • Alessandro RippaAlessandro RippaRachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Munich


The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region covers one-sixth of the entire territory of the People’s Republic of China and shares international borders with eight countries. Rich in natural resources, Xinjiang is home to several Turkic-speaking, Muslim Indigenous groups. Following Xinjiang’s formal incorporation into the Qing empire as a province in the late 19th century, recent scholarship shows how the region was subjected to a colonial-like civilizing project, in part carried out through large state investments in infrastructure. These covered agriculture, mining, and connectivity infrastructure, as well as a growing number of Han migrants settling into new urban centers. While the last few decades of the Qing administration and the convoluted Republican period that followed them (1912–1949) did not deliver much of what was planned, this phase would nevertheless define the approach taken later by the Chinese Communist Party toward Xinjiang. Since the Communist takeover in 1949, in fact, the way in which the Chinese authorities see Xinjiang has crystallized: as a potential economic outpost and a restless frontier space in need of further integration. This is particularly evident in Xinjiang’s history in the 21st century, as the region is both a backbone of transnational connectivity as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and the site of one of the world’s most severe security apparatuses.


  • China

Infrastructure in Xinjiang: Between Development and Control

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) covers an area of almost 618,000 square miles, which amounts to one-sixth of the entire territory of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Xinjiang shares international borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, as well as domestic borders with the Tibet Autonomous Region to the south, Qinghai and Gansu provinces to the southeast, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to the northeast. The region’s capital and main urban center, Urumqi, sits over two thousand miles from Beijing, while Xinjiang’s western borders lay almost 2,500 miles from the capital of the PRC. Due to its arid climate, Xinjiang has traditionally been—and remains—sparsely populated. Its multiethnic population, comprising approximately twenty-five million as of 2022, is concentrated in rather isolated oasis cities separated sometimes by hundreds of miles of uninhabited land. Xinjiang is notoriously rich in natural resources such as oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, and potassium, and functions as a key transportation corridor for energy imports from Central Asia. Because of this topography and geology, transport and extractive infrastructures have played a key role in the region’s development over the 20th and 21st centuries. Even prior to that, the movement of goods to, from, and through Xinjiang was a defining feature of the region’s economic and social life.1

What is today known as the XUAR has held several names in the past, and for most of its history, it was not governed as a single polity. It was only in the late 19th century that the Qing (Manchu) court decided to turn Xinjiang into a province (sheng). Previously, the court retained Xinjiang as a frontier dependency (fanshu), overseen by a military aristocracy of largely Manchu and Mongol bannermen, working with local headmen (begs). As a province, on the other hand, Xinjiang was administered by Qing officials holding civil service examination degrees. The main idea underpinning this new classification was that a fully integrated Xinjiang, the implementation of a series of agricultural and administrative reforms, and a growing immigrant population of Han farmers and merchants would together guarantee there would be enough taxpaying subjects to solve Xinjiang’s chronic fiscal dependency on the Qing court, as well as easing ethnic tensions. Even if the last few decades of the Qing administration, until the dynasty’s fall in 1911, and the Republican period that followed them (1912–1949), failed to deliver much of what was promised in terms of infrastructure, this phase nevertheless set the stage for the Communist approach to the integration and development of Xinjiang from 1949 onward. This turbulent half-century established the nexus of development and securitization that would later define the approach of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to Xinjiang. Moreover, it reveals a key component of how Xinjiang is seen by Chinese authorities: as a potential economic outpost, and a restless frontier space in need of further integration.

The late 19th century serves as a useful starting point for the history of infrastructure development in Xinjiang. This period not only marks the effective beginning of the region being administered as a single unit, but also the beginning of an unprecedented program of infrastructure development. While the region known as Xinjiang in the 21st century has, throughout its history, been characterized by advanced transportation and hydraulic infrastructure, as well as renowned urban centers and religious sites of pilgrimage, it is only in the late Qing period that we see a state-centric, explicitly developmentalist approach being taken to infrastructure in the region, as part of a broader dynamic of colonial development taking place across the world. Crucially, this is the context in which the modern usage of the word “infrastructure” emerges.2 This understanding of infrastructure includes not only transportation infrastructure such as roads and railways (key means of access for state authorities that increase the possibility of both population transfer and the extraction of resources). It also encompasses critical agrarian infrastructure such as canals and dykes, increasing farmable land, and improving agricultural outputs—which in the case of Xinjiang has been particularly relevant for the cotton industry. Moreover, it comprises various forms of urban infrastructure, from electric grids to waste disposal, as well as of surveillance infrastructure—something that has become particularly relevant in the past few decades of high-paced urbanization and in the most recent securitization of the region. Importantly, none of these infrastructures should be considered as neutral: They affect different communities in profoundly uneven ways, and they underpin political projects of both development and control.

The Late Qing Period

During the last decades of Qing rule, the court undertook a vigorous program of reform, as part of which Xinjiang and other outer regions were turned into provinces. In the case of Xinjiang, this move to further integrate the region into the empire had been driven by two contingent factors: the growing Russian threat, and the rise of an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang which de facto expelled Manchu authorities in 1864. It had also been the result of a longer process whereby influential Han thinkers argued for a more assimilationist policy in Xinjiang starting from the early 19th century. This new approach opened Xinjiang up for Han migration, the institution of Chinese language schools, and the imposition of new taxes—and what could be seen as an early attempt at modern state-building. Central to the success of this program were the development of transport infrastructure, the implementation of the prefecture-county (jun-xian) system of local administration, as well as education and cultural campaigns. This approach, which would be continued in different guises through the Republican and Communist periods, has embodied one of the major aspects of infrastructure development in Xinjiang. Far from being solely a technological intervention, infrastructures were (and are) part of a broader mission to civilize what was seen as an unruly periphery.3 In late Qing times, this was achieved through the institution of Confucian schools, and the regulation of everyday practices such as marriage. Material development was thus inseparable from imposing certain moral values onto a linguistically and culturally diverse and distant population: both crucial to ensuring the stability of the region.

Alongside the institution of a Confucian school system, in the first few years following the establishment of Xinjiang as an official province, agricultural reforms became a priority of the Qing administration. Generously financed by the imperial treasury, the authorities undertook an ambitious program of land reclamation, as part of which the irrigation canal network was widely extended into northern Xinjiang, transforming arid grassland into agricultural land. This expansion included a large population transfer into northern Xinjiang of Turkic Muslims from the southern parts of the province, and of Han Chinese from inner China (neidi). Hydraulic projects were also carried out by Qing troops in southern Xinjiang, building embankments along the Aksu River as well as “over a hundred canals along the northern and southern banks of the Kashgar River.”4 This ambitious—and costly—program of land reclamation suffered early on from the Qing financial crisis, which took hold in the late 19th century and lasted until the dynasty’s collapse in 1911. As funds dried up and the irrigation network could not be maintained, many of those who were called upon to settle such “wastelands” (huang) returned to their homes, and plans for agricultural transformation faded. Instead, Qing officials increasingly began to concentrate their attention on the province’s natural resources, leading to concerted efforts to survey, map, and categorize the province’s underground potentials, often in collaboration with Russian and European geologists and investors.

As the example of agricultural development shows, due to the limited resources that could be relied upon, the Qing’s state-building project in Xinjiang remained incomplete and far from linear. As one scholar’s work on Xinjiang’s natural resources shows:

well into the 1950s, faced with high price tags and competing priorities, Chinese officials left much of the work of infrastructural development and institution building in Xinjiang to a shifting alliance of imperial agents, local officials, and Chinese technocrats. The result is not a unified, centralized program of state building, but rather the accumulation of a disjointed mish-mash of infrastructure and institutions that ran counter to Chinese state interests as often as they supported them.5

The infrastructure development work that the state took upon itself as part of its “civilizing” mission was in the late imperial and Republican phases carried out by largely autonomous provincial officials, as well as Russian (then Soviet) and British representatives.

The limited ability of the Qing authorities to implement an effective development plan in Xinjiang was particularly evident in the southern half of the region. Centered around the Taklamakan Desert and the Tarim Basin, oasis rivalries and interdependencies have characterized much of the history of this area. Such relations did not always end at the boundaries of today’s XUAR, but rather extended long into Central and South Asia, through various instantiations of what German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen called the “Silk Road” in the late 18th century. By the turn of the 20th century, two routes still maintained economic and political significance: the route to the west, connecting Kashgar with the Khanate of Kokand (located within the borders of modern Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan) and then Russia; and the route to the south, connecting Yarkand and Khotan with the British empire in Leh and Srinagar, across the Karakoram range. Until the late 19th century, this trade was largely overseen by local begs (in Chinese boke), Turkic elites formally under Qing rule yet acting with a wide degree of autonomy and overseeing highly diversified commercial enterprises comprising agriculture, mining, and trade. Such enterprise depended on the development and maintenance of particular infrastructure. In the oasis towns they controlled, begs “built canals and dikes and organized new land reclamation and mining enterprises.”6 Outside, they would ensure the security of caravan merchants crossing the deserts and mountains of Central Asia, and rely on their political connections to guarantee safe passage. In this context, while the relations between local Turkic elites and the Qing empire might well be defined as “symbiotic,” it also meant that any project of infrastructure development and maintenance remained exclusively in local hands.7 The collapse of the Qing administration of the region in 1864, and the subsequent military campaign to regain control over the region and the institution of Xinjiang as a province, led to a widespread crisis in the oasis economy, and to the demise of the begs system. Transnational trade with the Fergana Valley, as well as Almaty and British India, nevertheless remained active across the same trade routes that drove much earlier growth.8 While transport costs to India were at least four times more expensive than their equivalent to Russia, trading routes from Xinjiang were crucial for merchants from Khotan and Yarkand, mostly dealing in wool, cotton, silk, and tea, as well as charas and opium. While this trade benefited from increased connectivity on the Indian side, particularly with the construction of the railway to Rawalpindi in the 1870s and 1880s, the conditions of the routes across the Karakoram saw little improvement and ultimately relied on pack animals and manpower.9

The lack of central oversight, however, also led to the failure to complete major transportation projects in the region. In the last decade of Qing rule, for instance, authorities drew a plan for a railway line connecting Xinjiang with the rest of China, that would finally replace the pack route through Mongolia that at the time represented the main connection eastward. Authorities estimated the cost of the railway at around 140 million taels, with the plan subsequently scrapped due to the need to take up burdensome foreign loans.10 Ultimately, by the time the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, little had changed in terms of infrastructure development in the region. What had changed, however, was the perception of the immense potential that the region held in terms of natural resources, as well as the interest of neighboring Russia in such wealth. Moreover, Russia’s ability to access Xinjiang’s market had also been enhanced through its much-improved road and rail networks just across its border with China.

The Republican Era

The Republican period in Xinjiang was characterized by insecurity, political instability, and transnational connections. With the demise of the Qing dynasty, Xinjiang remained in this period largely cut loose from any state financial support. Rather than falling into the hands of Muslim leaders, however, Xinjiang was controlled by three Han warlords—Yang Zengxin, Jin Shuren, and Sheng Shicai—between 1912 and 1944. As they faced financial uncertainties and Indigenous discontent, they engaged in remunerative trade with Russia and the Soviet Union, exporting fur, pelts, and wool for material and financial support.11

In this regard, the fall of the Russian empire in 1918 was perhaps more consequential than the Qing dynasty’s collapse in terms of the overall economic blueprint of Xinjiang. In particular, the civil war that ensued in Central Asia brought the development of Xinjiang’s extractive industry to a virtual stall. The situation would change only in the mid- to late 1920s when, after consolidating their power internally, Soviet authorities once again turned their attention toward Xinjiang. Soviet envoys soon began financing the construction of necessary transport links, and the Sino-Soviet partnership led to the foundation of the Bountiful Xinjiang Company—a centralized institution entrusted with the task of coordinating the purchase, sale, and transport of Xinjiang products to the Soviet Union, for the benefit of the provincial government—and its Soviet counterpart, the Soviet-Xinjiang Trading Company. The completion of the Turkestan-Siberian railway in 1929 further guaranteed easier access for Russian goods, as well as advancing the Soviet interest in Xinjiang’s resources. In 1931, Jin Shuren signed a treaty with Moscow opening up four new cross-border trading sites (Irkeshtam near Kashgar; Khorgos near Yili; Bakhty near Tacheng; and Jeminay in the Altay), and easing restrictions on the trade and transport of Xinjiang’s resources to Russia. To take advantage of their access to Xinjiang’s resources, Soviet planners envisioned a series of highways connecting these border crossings with the existing rail hubs on the Turk-Sib line. Furthermore, in 1934, during the administration of Sheng Shicai, Soviet and Chinese authorities agreed on a plan to develop Xinjiang’s internal transport network, which was virtually inexistent. In exchange for commodities, Soviet technicians surveyed (and then built) new roads between Dihua (Urumqi) and the Russian border at Tacheng and Khorgos.12 By the time the CCP had won the civil war and set up the PRC in 1949, these were still the only functioning paved roads in the province.

The development of infrastructure resulting from such Xinjiang–Soviet partnerships had two striking characteristics: These were transnational in nature, and hence concentrated along the Soviet border; and they focused on the exploration, exploitation, and export of natural resources.13 This proximity to the Soviet Union was also a hindrance to developing an efficient road network within the region. Chinese authorities outside of Xinjiang feared that improved transportation would further facilitate the expansion of Soviet influence across Xinjiang. The issue was particularly sensitive, as the risk of the region being cut off from the rest of China due to ongoing Muslim rebellions in Gansu was high, not to mention the costs of such an endeavor being difficult to justify.14 In addition, with the declaration of independence of Outer Mongolia and the closing of the border to Chinese merchants in 1922, the most accessible route to Xinjiang from China proper effectively closed. Challenging costs further led to the Republican government’s scrapping of the plan to build a railway, as Sun Yatsen had envisaged as part of a nationwide network. Plans for new road connections suffered a similar fate. In 1930, for instance, a new “auto road” through Inner Mongolia was sponsored by Jin Shuren to counterbalance growing Soviet economic interest in the region, yet Kuomintang (KMT) officials shied away from the project owing to its high estimated costs. A similar plan, this time drafted by the KMT in Nanjing in 1934 for a fully integrated highway network stretching all the way to Xinjiang, met the same fate, suffering from a lack of funding and commitment from the central government. Likewise, despite growing dependency on Soviet Russia a rail connection with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) did not materialize. While road conditions along the border improved, the much-discussed cross-border railway from eastern Kazakhstan to Xinjiang remained only an idea in this period. Similarly, no rail connection with China proper materialized, leaving Xinjiang rather isolated in the 1940s, as it had been for the previous three decades.

Another major transportation project that was discussed during the Republican years but never materialized was that of a road connection between southern Xinjiang and British India. While less concrete than any infrastructural activity proposed with Soviet support, the envisioned road across the Karakoram would have had major strategic significance. This became particularly clear following Japan’s full-scale invasion of China, when Chiang Kai-shek found himself seeking alternative routes to supply his retreating troops. Accordingly, a first plan for a road connecting Kashmir to Xinjiang, via Gilgit and the Kilik Pass, was proposed by Chiang Kai-shek to the British during World War II. Like the Burma Road, which was built during the same period, the main goals were to help the KMT in its struggle against the Japanese and Mao’s Red Army, and also to control Soviet influences in Xinjiang.15 In the absence of a road, the system of caravans crossing the Karakoram remained in place throughout this phase, reaching an all-time high in the 1910s and 1920s, only to decline in the following two decades and ending abruptly in 1949, when the border between newly independent India and the PRC was sealed.

Qing- and Republican-era “civilizing” projects carried out through infrastructure development did not ease ethnic tensions in the region. On the contrary, these hindered further integration by promoting Han immigration into the region (a major source of local discontent) and disregarding local sacred geographies of connectivity.16 During the Republican period alone, in fact, two revolts took place leading to the establishment of two East Turkestan Republics: in Kashgar in the south (1933–1934) and around Yili in the northwest (1944–1949). Despite their limited achievements, both short-lived republics played a key role in the formation of modern Uyghur identity and nationalism.17

The Maoist Decades

At the time of “liberation,” Xinjiang remained underdeveloped, largely disconnected from China proper, ethnically divided, and under Soviet economic influence. The task of establishing a new socialist order here was an enormous one, and it was largely carried out by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under the direct control of Beijing. As a frontier and predominantly non-Han province, Xinjiang was of high strategic importance and central oversight was deemed necessary. From the very beginning, the tasks of securing the CCP’s territorial control and “transforming” the land went hand in hand. Already in December 1949, a directive from Mao Zedong ordered that the army be turned into a “working force,” and various demobilized troops took up positions across the region pursuing land reclamation, agricultural production, and water conservancy. At the same time,

by locating these troops near the population centres, they could improve the regime’s strategic posture by protecting key transportation routes, guarding against internal and external threats and exploiting nearby natural resources without appearing to be “imposing” upon the local inhabitants.18

While providing backup for the PLA’s border defense, some of these demobilized troops played an active role in the development of local industries and mining operations. They were also engaged in the development of much-needed transportation infrastructure. In 1949, when the PRC was established, Xinjiang had over two thousand miles of usable dirt roads, in addition to the roads to the Soviet border at Tarbaghatai/Tacheng and Khorgos. Thanks mostly to the efforts of the demobilized troops, this rose to almost four thousand miles by 1952. In the mid-1950s, these cadres became even more active in the mass campaign launched by the CCP, and were entrusted with the task of mobilizing the broader population. In road construction, too, this effort led to over 8,600 miles being built by the end of 1957. However, reportedly, much of this was of low quality and barely usable:

In the first decade of Communist rule, road construction was ideologically driven by the strategy of “building with local means, through mass mobilization and throughout the region” (di qun pu). This style of spontaneous road construction produced largely unusable roads of extremely low quality. In the early 1960s, during a period of political moderation, spontaneous construction was criticized and in 1964 “good roads” (hao daolu) became one of the five components of the centrally coordinated plan to “establish a socialist countryside” (shehuizhuyi nongcun jianshe). In 1965, as this period of moderation came to an end, Xinjiang officially had 22,675 kilometres of roads, including 368 kilometres of tarmac roads. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) halted most projects but even during this period about 5,000 kilometres of roads were tarmacked produced largely unusable roads of extremely low quality and some key bridges constructed.19

This burgeoning road network had three clear priorities: to guarantee PLA access to border areas; to improve connections to oil fields and mines; and to establish Urumqi’s logistical and economic centrality (as a counterbalance to traditionally indigenous centers of Kashgar in the south, and Ghulja/Yili in the north). While the integration of Xinjiang into the nascent CCP administrative system and the securitization of the borderlands took priority, some efforts went toward developing transport infrastructure with two key allies, the Soviet Union and Pakistan.

In the early years of CCP rule, the Chinese authorities relied heavily on Soviet guidance in the development of China’s struggling economy. As part of ambitious plans to industrialize a largely rural country, the two communist giants returned to earlier conversations surrounding a cross-border railway connection. Formal negotiations began in 1954 and, following the formal agreement of 1956, the Soviet Union began construction of a connecting line on its side of the border. In China, however, things moved more slowly, to the extent that no progress had been made by the time of the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Once again, the Chinese authorities turned their attention to domestic connections, and the first railway to be completed in Xinjiang was the one connecting Urumqi with Lanzhou, in Gansu province, which was completed in 1962.

However, greater success was achieved in the development of a road connection with Pakistan, one of the first countries to recognize the PRC in 1950 and one of its key allies since then. Following the resolution of their border dispute in 1963, Chinese and Pakistani authorities began discussing the possibility of a road link across the Karakoram. Unlike the caravans, which crossed the Karakoram Pass on their way to Leh (now under Indian control), this new route passed through Tashkurgan and the Khunjerab Pass, to Hunza and eventually Gilgit. A motorable road between Tashkurgan and Kashgar was already established in 1958, providing increased access to a critical border region. Shortly after, work began on the more ambitious project of a highway connecting China and Pakistan. The road on the Chinese side of the border was soon completed, and a first Chinese convoy, including twelve trucks, reached Gilgit in the summer of 1971. The Indo-Pakistani war of the same year, however, slowed down operations on the Pakistani side, to the extent that Chinese engineers and troops were sent to help. In 1974, some 10,000 Chinese road builders, mostly from the PLA, began working in Pakistan, and the Karakoram Highway—as the road would become known—officially opened to traffic in 1982.20 More than the external connection with Pakistan, then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the construction of the Karakoram Highway had an impact on the development and integration of Tashkurgan, which became a key security outpost.21

Besides the PLA’s direct involvement in the construction of the Karakoram Highway, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed the consolidation of demobilized troops into what would become one of the most powerful institutions in the history of Xinjiang: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. The corps—or bingtuan as it is known in Mandarin—is an almost exclusively Han organization, formally established in 1954 to coordinate demobilized soldiers and early Han migrants. Soon, it became “the main force behind Han in-migration to and cultural transformation in Xinjiang until at least the end of the Mao era.”22 Today, the bingtuan’s population has grown to about 2.5 million, and its farms occupy 30 percent of the arable land of the region. While almost entirely civilian now, the bingtuan acts as a semi-government in Xinjiang, with its own separate budget, universities, schools, research institutes, judicial system, and police force.

Perhaps the two most notable examples of the bingtuan’s might are the cities of Korla and Shihezi. Korla, located in the southern half of Xinjiang, was nothing more than a small farming village at the time of liberation. In 1950 to 1951, a 21.9-mile-long canal was built by some 750,000 laborers, enabling the irrigation of an area of over eight thousand acres. Subsequent waves of Han settlers, now within the bingtuan system, followed key Maoist principles to “struggle” with nature and “open up wastelands,” turning this inhospitable dry outpost into productive agricultural land. Like Korla, Shihezi was founded as a military base for the PLA in 1951. After being taken over by the bingtuan, Shihezi soon developed into a major agricultural and industrial center. In both places, furthermore, the presence of oil fields nearby was key to their long-term success. Even during the “third-front” period between 1964 and 1979, when many resources went to military industrial factories (sanxian gongchen), oil was the only sector where resources were not taken away.23

The Reform Era

Ma Dazheng, one of China’s most prominent scholars of borderlands and frontier issues, remarked that China’s peripheries are, simultaneously, frontlines of national defense and key places for today’s open-door policy. “Prior to the 1980s,” he pointed out, “the frontier served only in the first capacity; since then in both.”24 This is certainly the case in Xinjiang, which since the Sino-Soviet split had been largely relegated to a status of “strategic buffer zone and economic cul-de-sac.”25 Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, CCP leadership moved to simultaneously “open up” the region as a crossroads for further Eurasian economic engagement, as well as to integrate Xinjiang more tightly with China proper.

By this time, in the 1980s, China’s western provinces were markedly poorer and less developed than the rest of the country. On a visit to Xinjiang in 1981, the architect of China’s economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping, himself stressed the importance of raising the standards of living in frontier regions. To achieve this, in 1992 a campaign to “Open Up the Northwest” was launched in Xinjiang. Specifically targeting the development of key infrastructure projects, sustained investments led to annual average growth of 10 percent throughout the decade. Notably, the Taklamakan Highway, crossing the region’s main desert from north to south, was completed in 1995, and the rail link to Kashgar was extended in 1999. Both projects significantly started in the bingtuan city of Korla, also a key node in connecting Xinjiang with China proper.

Campaigns in the 1990s were followed by further national-level strategies explicitly targeting the western regions, particularly in the ninth five-year plan (1996–2000) and, notoriously, with the launch of the “Open Up the West” campaign (xibu da kaifa) in 1999 in conjunction with the tenth five-year plan. The xibu da kaifa represents a significant turning point in the CCP’s efforts to develop Xinjiang, not least because of the discursive attention projected on China’s underdeveloped, minority-populated, and resource-rich frontiers. The motivations behind the program were conspicuous. After twenty years of economic reforms, the gap between fast-growing coastal areas and poor and under-connected internal provinces was widening. As Jiang Zemin put it in March 1999 at the Ninth National Party Congress in Beijing:

The Western area is large, and comprises over the half of the whole of the state’s territory. But the majority is in a state of underdevelopment or wilderness. The West [of China] must sooner or later be developed. Otherwise, how could we reach a modernization of the whole country? How could China become a strong economic state?26

In practice, as part of the xibu da kaifa, most investments were initially dedicated to developing transportation, energy, and communication, and improving the urban infrastructure in the western regions. In Xinjiang, the planning committee for the xibu da kaifa promised some 900 billion yuan (US$108 billion) over the next decade, detailing several large-scale projects. These included massive water conservancy projects and oil and gas explorations, early investments into power plants, dams, and telecommunication facilities, along with improved road and rail connectivity across the region and beyond.27 Between 1999 and 2008, the length of roads in the region almost quintupled, and the coverage of expressways increased from a little over one hundred miles in 1998 to over two thousand miles by 2012. In addition, the railway line to Kashgar was extended to Khotan, further south.

The bingtuan once again played a key role in the implementation of the “Open Up the West” campaign, particularly in the development of three municipalities promoted to city (shi) status by the state (Ala’er, Tumusuke, and Wujiaqu in northern Xinjiang), as well as the expansion of the Shihezi municipal area. Moreover, after experiencing more rapid growth than anywhere else in Xinjiang since the establishment of the Tarim Oilfield Company headquarters in the early 1990s, Korla became “Xinjiang’s ‘second city’ and by far the most modern and economically powerful county-level city in southern Xinjiang.”28 The bingtuan was also crucial in an ambitious project to rehabilitate the Tarim’s lower reaches, which had dried up because of expansive urbanization, as well as agricultural reclamation conducted by the bingtuan itself.

As far as external connections are concerned, the opening of China’s western borders in the late 1980s and early 1990s ended Xinjiang’s de facto forty-year isolation from its neighbors, leading to the renewal of trade and contact with the rest of Central Asia. In this period, the idea of a cross-border railway with Central Asia was revived, with the transnational connection eventually materializing in the form of a track interconnecting the already-existing Aktogay–Dostyk line with the Urumqi–Lanzhou line. Construction was completed shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union in September 1990. In 2011, an additional cross-border railway became operational between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. Further south, roads to Kyrgyzstan through the Irkeshtam and Torugart Passes, and to Tajikistan via the Kulma Pass, were built and upgraded. Ports of entry to manage immigration and customs facilities were subsequently built, expanded, and rebuilt further inland over the 1990s and 2000s to monitor ever-expanding overland trade between China and Central Asia. The Karakoram Highway itself went through several facelifts, which over two decades reduced the travel time from Tashkurgan to Kashgar from two days to just a few hours.

Besides trans-national transport infrastructure, Chinese builders constructed a 2,400-mile gas pipeline from Xinjiang to Shanghai, which became operational in 2004 and is still known as one of the most expensive xibu da kaifa projects. With continued growth in Chinese gas demand, new pipeline projects were developed in partnership with Central Asian governments, particularly Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The year 2009 thus saw the inauguration of the Central Asia–China gas pipeline, a system that was later strengthened through several additional pipelines.29 The scale of investment further accelerated in 2008 when, to cope with the negative impact of the global financial crisis on the Chinese economy, the central government announced a fiscal stimulus program of four trillion Renminbi (RMB). The majority of the stimulus package went into infrastructure projects, including public utilities and affordable housing in rural areas. While not only focused on western provinces, this new stream of financial transfers, combined with ongoing development projects initiated as part of the xibu da kaifa, led to major constructions across the Chinese borderlands, from Xinjiang to Yunnan, and from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to Inner Mongolia. In the process, not only transport, but also real estate, as well as industrial and technological infrastructure were developed throughout the region.

Despite major investments, infrastructural projects in Xinjiang remained in this phase characterized by a marked security component. Similar to the Mao era, Xinjiang’s underdevelopment, combined with the presence of sizeable ethnic minorities, continued to be viewed by Beijing as a security risk. State-led development agendas, like the xibu da kaifa, explicitly sought to pacify social unrest by encouraging local governments to boost economic growth through developing transboundary economic ties. Jiang Zemin himself made this connection clear in 1999:

The minorities are quite concentrated in the West [of China], and it is also a border area. Hastening development of the West would preserve political and social stability. Therefore, promotion of national unity and safeguarding of border security is of great significance.30

This tight connection between security and development is also evident in tourism infrastructure, and particularly the reconstruction of Kashgar’s old town. An initial plan for the renovation of the old town was undertaken by the city government in 2001, when about five thousand households from the Idgah mosque area were relocated to suburban residential compounds. A more ambitious six-year plan was launched in 2009 as part of the “Uyghur Historical and Cultural Preservation Project.” Under this plan, three million RMB (US$445 million) was allocated to make older buildings earthquake resistant, improve sanitary standards, alleviate poverty, and even promote Uyghur culture. It directly impacted approximately 31,000 households. In practice, however, security and tourism considerations shaped much of the actual reconstruction. Small alleyways and cul-de-sacs were eliminated to make access and maneuvering much easier for nonresidents (both police and tourists), while thousands of surveillance cameras were put in place. With the exception of two small sections entrusted to the Beijing-based Zhongkun Group to be managed as scenic touristic areas, Kashgar’s old town has been almost entirely demolished and rebuilt in a style that authorities have labeled “ancient Islamic architecture.”31

Overall, the xibu da kaifa and subsequent investments failed to reduce the (still growing) wealth gap between the country’s western and eastern regions. As a top-down project, it focused heavily on a few showcase projects, and failed to foster investments in education and effective poverty alleviation policies. Moreover, it also strengthened discrepancies within the region, as Urumqi and the northern part of Xinjiang have developed at a much faster pace than the southern part of the region, exacerbating inequalities between the Han and Uyghurs. These disparities were undoubtedly part of the underlying factors for the unprecedented violence that erupted in Urumqi in June 2009. On July 5, protests broke out in Urumqi over the killing of two Uyghur factory workers in Guangzhou. The protests escalated into violent clashes with the police in which several hundred people died.32 The incident triggered a moment of reflection for CCP authorities both inside and outside of the region, and led to a revised development plan decided at a high-level Central Work Forum on Xinjiang held in Beijing in late March 2010. The “stability above all else” formula that had defined the period of 1994 to 2010 was abandoned in favor of policies designed to expedite development in the region. To this end, a “pairing assistance” program was launched in which nineteen affluent provinces and municipalities in the east and south were each paired with a region in Xinjiang and obliged to assist with development efforts. Kashgar, for instance, was designated as a special economic zone (SEZ) and paired with Shenzhen. At a follow-up conference, a process of “leapfrog” economic development was emphasized as the best way to solve Xinjiang’s ethnic conflicts. Partner provinces and cities were ordered to allocate between 0.3 percent and 0.6 percent of their annual budgets to Xinjiang. By the end of 2015, cities such as Beijing and Shanghai had invested some US$8.5 billion in the region, further pushing the integration of Xinjiang with the rest of the country. At the same time, Chinese authorities stepped up their efforts to culturally assimilate the non-Han residents of the region, and increased government spending in security and surveillance infrastructure. In a pattern that echoes the history of state-led development projects, security and economic incentives in the region continue to go hand in hand, with tragic consequences for Xinjiang’s Indigenous communities.

The Belt and Road Initiative and the Xinjiang Prison Camps System

In 2013, across two speeches in Kazakhstan and Indonesia, Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping famously launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Envisioned around two main routes and six economic corridors, China’s most ambitious global initiative is set to span the whole of Eurasia. At its core, Xinjiang plays a seemingly crucial role, being traversed by three of the initiative’s six main corridors: the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor; the China–Central Asia–West Asia Economic Corridor; and the New Eurasia Land Bridge Economic Corridor. As part of this vision, Xinjiang’s transnational connectivity infrastructure received a further boost, with heavy investments going into Khorgos, the Kashgar SEZ, and the Karakoram Highway, among other places.

This expansion of the region’s role as a crossroads for Eurasian economic integration through infrastructure-led development has been accompanied by heightened securitization. Starting in the mid-2010s, shortly after Xi’s rise to become general secretary of the CCP, the authorities laid out a “strike-hard” strategy in the form of a state of emergency called the “People’s War on Terror” to eradicate the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.33 At around the same time, speaking at the Conference on Confidence-Building Measures in Asia in Shanghai, President Xi outlined a new Asian security concept—something that was to have a significant impact on Xinjiang. Xi characterized this as a “common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable” security framework, ultimately revolving around the three main pillars of development, cooperation, and inclusiveness.34 In Xinjiang, the implementation of this Asian security concept emphasized security and political stability over economic concerns, and led to extensive investments being made in security and surveillance infrastructure. The number of police and military checkpoints in southern Xinjiang increased dramatically, street checkpoints for the inspection of mobile phones and bags became common, and house searches were conducted on a regular basis (often at night).

This development of new security infrastructure as part of the “People’s War on Terror” has rapidly transformed Xinjiang into one of the most tightly controlled places on Earth. As part of this effort, dozens of Chinese tech firms are developing facial recognition software and machine-learning algorithms, profiting from the data collected by omnipresent cameras, chips inside mobile devices, and biometric data on Uyghurs systematically collected by county-level authorities across the region.35 With generous state support, the People’s War on Terror has allowed Chinese tech startups such as Leon, Meiya Pico, Hikvision, Face++, Sensetime, and Dahua to achieve unprecedented levels of growth—and to become global actors in the export of surveillance technologies across the world.

There is more to the People’s War on Terror than surveillance though. Officially framed as “poverty alleviation,” it aims at making ethnic subjects not just politically docile, but also economically productive. Since 2017, this has occurred within a system of camps into which over one million Uyghurs, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz have been transited, and in which hundreds of thousands remain unaccounted for at the time of writing. Presented in official communication as “re-education” facilities, the “training” taking place in the camps leads directly to low-paid work in onsite factories, where detainees are forced to work.36

This emphasis on policing and surveillance did not bode well for Xinjiang’s economy overall. Its gross regional product growth rate, which had averaged more than 10 percent annually from 2010 to 2014, fell to under 1 percent in 2015 and 3 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, the total value of exports from the region dropped from US$23.5 billion in 2014 to US$17.7 billion in 2017—lower than in 2012. It would, however, be wrong to infer a contradiction between China’s security priorities and its development objectives pursued through initiatives such as the BRI. Infrastructure for CCP leaders, as much as it was for Qing’s authorities in the late 19th century, is not only economically beneficial: it entails “civilizing” technologies. Infrastructure development thus invokes “the self-image of the Chinese state as carrier of a mission civilisatrice in frontier regions inhabited by backward minorities.”37 For the BRI corridors and the Xinjiang prison camps, the aim is explicitly transformational: While borderland territories are secured through radical infrastructural intervention, ethnic minority subjects are redefined according to the CCP’s vision of modernity.38

Ultimately, the development of security infrastructure amid the promises of the BRI symbolizes the CCP’s broader approach to the governance of the country’s peripheries, revolving around the two pillars of development and security. One, in contemporary China, cannot exist without the other. Or, as Xi himself put it: “Development is the foundation of security, and security the precondition for development.”39

Discussion of the Literature

Historical scholarship on modern and contemporary Xinjiang has largely attempted to understand the roots of the ethnic conflicts that characterize the region today. To this end, important work has been dedicated to studying the formation of a modern Uyghur identity, Chinese state-led ethnic policies in the region, and localized forms of resistance. Only recently has more attention been paid to the socioeconomic, political, and infrastructural systems that have shaped and informed Chinese state power in the region. A new generation of scholars, drawing on multiple sources from China, Taiwan, Central Asia, and Russia, have begun to uncover the different layers underpinning Chinese state power in Xinjiang. Specific attention has been devoted to the region’s infrastructural history, from agriculture, to resource extraction, to connectivity infrastructure.

This renewed focus on infrastructure has at least two key drivers. On the one hand, it stems from a broader interest in infrastructure studies emerging from various disciplines to interrogate how politics, societies, and subjectivities are bound up in material infrastructural forms. While often “invisible” and neglected, scholars within this interdisciplinary field have pointed out that studying infrastructure is crucial to understanding the logics behind contemporary state formation, the emergence of standards, and patterns of injustice and marginalization. In Xinjiang, an analysis of sociotechnical infrastructure development has the potential to reveal the structural logics fostering ethnic tensions and discrimination. On the other hand, growing interest in infrastructure is undoubtedly connected with the growing role of the PRC as an exporter of infrastructure projects, and the key role that Xinjiang is set to play within the BRI. As this particular initiative gains momentum, a fine-grained analysis of infrastructure projects in China’s border regions has become especially relevant and urgent, gaining increasing scholarly attention across the social sciences and humanities.

Importantly, both historical and social sciences studies of Xinjiang’s infrastructure are increasingly going beyond a certain Sinocentrism that characterized some of the earlier work on the region. This includes making use of indigenous sources, as well as archival material from outside of China. Moreover, and significantly, a new generation of indigenous scholars is contributing importantly on various underrepresented facets of Chinese state power in the region, such as the impact of ecological and language policies on non-Han communities.

What remains largely missing however is a more precise understanding of how infrastructural systems within Xinjiang developed during the Mao era, and the role that Indigenous knowledge played in shaping such developments. Unfortunately, the impossibility of accessing most archives from the period and the increased difficulties in conducting any kind of qualitative research in the region represent major and enduring hindrances.


I would like to thank the ROADWORK team at the University of Fribourg, and particularly Agnieszka Joiak-Lüthi, Judd Kinzley, Verena La Mela, Galen Murton, Björn Reichhardt, Eric Schluessel, Emilia Sulek, Zarina Urmanbetova, and Tom White for their constructive feedback and generous comments on an earlier version of this entry. This contribution would not have been possible without the support of the Volkswagen Foundation (“Environing Infrastructure” project, reference number 96110).

Primary Sources

Access to archives in the PRC has become increasingly difficult in recent years, including the “Diyi lishi dang’anguan” (First Historical Archives) in Beijing, and particularly the Xinjiang “Weiwuer Zizhiqu Dang’anguan” (Archives of the Xinjiang Uyghurs Autonomous Region) in Urumqi. The difficulty of securing access to such records means that much historical work on Xinjiang has come from colonial archives in the United Kingdom (particularly the British India Office Collection and the British National Archives), as well as archives in Moscow (for instance, the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, the Russian State Archives of the Economy, and the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History) and Taiwan (particularly the Academia Historica Archive and National Palace Museum in Taipei). Chagatai sources are also available in various locations outside of the PRC, namely, Leiden University Library, Lund University Library, and the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Science, among others. An important source on road development in Xinjiang is also the volumes edited by the Xinjiang Jiaotong Shizhi Bianzuan Weiyuanhui on Xinjiang Gonglu Shi [The History of Xinjiang Roads], and published by Renmin Jiaotong Chubanshe in Beijing.

Students interested in studying contemporary infrastructural politics in Xinjiang can find ample documentation of local government portals, as well as on the BRI portal of the Chinese government. For firsthand data on the prison camp system, however, the Xinjiang Victims Database is a fundamental resource. Finally, to understand the impact of contemporary infrastructure on Indigenous communities in Xinjiang, an element of ethnographic research is necessary. As access to Xinjiang is increasingly limited, research among diasporic communities in Kazakhstan and Turkey has become a viable alternative. This fieldwork requires familiarity with multiple languages, predominantly Uyghur and Kazakh.

Further Reading

  • Becquelin, Nicolas. “Staged Development in Xinjiang.” The China Quarterly 178 (2004): 358–378.
  • Bovingdon, Gardner. The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
  • Byler, Darren. Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021.
  • Cliff, Tom. Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • Joniak-Lüthi, Agnieszka. “Roads in China’s Borderlands: Interfaces of Spatial Representations, Perceptions, Practices, and Knowledges.” Modern Asian Studies 50, no. 1 (2015): 118–140.
  • Kim, Kwangmin. Borderland Capitalism: Turkestan Produce, Qing Silver, and the Birth of an Eastern Market. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.
  • Kinzley, Judd. Natural Resources and the New Frontier: Constructing Modern China’s Borderlands. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
  • Kreutzmann, Hermann. Pamirian Crossroads: Kirghiz and Wakhi of High Asia. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015.
  • Lavelle, Peter. The Profits of Nature: Colonial Development and the Quest for Resources in Nineteenth-Century China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.
  • Millward, James. Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, Revised and Updated. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.
  • Rippa, Alessandro. Borderland Infrastructures: Trade, Development, and Control in Western China. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020.
  • Rizvi, Janet. Trans-Himalayan Caravans: Merchant Princes and Peasant Traders in Ladakh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Schluessel, Eric. Land of Strangers: The Civilizing Project in Qing Central Asia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.
  • Thum, Rian. The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.