By S. M. Hali
Xingjian was once considered as the weak link in China’s developmental plans. However, a visit to the province last month left no doubts in my mind that it is not only rapidly catching up with the more affluent Eastern provinces but may also leave them behind. The erstwhile underdeveloped Xingjian is the largest Chinese administrative division spanning an area of over 1.6 million square kilometers and is officially referred to as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. It has immense geo-strategic importance since it borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and has been blessed with abundant oil reserves, is China’s largest natural gas-producing region as well as jade, the fabled precious stone is also found here. The region has had a chequered history of glory and turmoil, having been exposed to great ancient civilizations, Xinjiang has become a melting pot, comprising 47 different ethnic groups out of which the Muslims are in a majority with the Uyghurs comprising 47% of the total. With the fabled Silk Road meandering through it, over the centuries, Xingjian has seen periods of extreme opulence to abject abysmal squalor. It has been inhabited by nomadic tribes, various renowned dynasties like Han, Ming, Tang, Yuan and Qing to Mongols, Indian and Uyghur Khaganate & Kara-Khanid Khanate and has served as the First and Second East Turkestan Republics. Some of its famous cities like Khotan and Kashgar find their place in Urdu literature and folklore as well as prominent mentions in Allama Iqbal’s poetry.
In 1949 the People’s Liberation Army entered Xingjian, taking over from the Second East Turkestan Republic, which had been propped up by Soviet support. The Xingjian, which I saw in 1974 and on subsequent trips till 1987, remained backward but visiting it now in 2011, I discovered a complete transformation. Besides the visible signs of a modern airport, high-rise buildings and communication infrastructure, education has expanded greatly in the region, with 6,221 primary schools; 1,929 middle schools 21 and institutions of higher learning from but a handful, the illiteracy rate for young and middle-aged people has decreased to less than 2%. Agricultural science has made inroads into the region, as well as innovative methods of road construction in the desert. Culturally, Xinjiang maintains 81 public libraries and 23 museums, compared to none of each in 1949, supported by 98 newspapers in 44 languages, and a remarkable number of TV channels hosting programs in the various languages and dialects. According to official statistics, the ratios of doctors, medical workers, medical clinics, and hospital beds to people surpass the national average.
Kashgar is on its way to becoming a special economic zone, which will transform it into a hub of energy, commerce, trade and communication. Xingjian is far closer to Europe, Middle East and the Americas than Beijing and Shanghai, being located over 4000 kilometers at the eastern periphery. Hence there is logic in Kashgar and Urumqi becoming the conduit for commercial air traffic to and from China. Xingjian is not just the success story of rebuilding historical cities but Shihezi is an epic miracle of reclaiming land from the Gobi Desert and transforming into a green modern industrial metropolis, which has won accolades even from UNESCO.
However, there is a fly in the ointment; some of the misled Muslims of the province, perhaps at the behest of vested interests are fomenting trouble, asking for independence and perpetrating terror attacks. This in my opinion is a mistake. The rapid development and progress I have personally witnessed, is what other countries only dream of. I visited the Islamic Medical and agricultural universities, as well as mosques, seminaries and Islamic institutes. The level of religious freedom and exercise of Islamic rites is remarkable. I personally remember a time in the early eighties, when Muslim pilgrims from Xingjian used to travel to Pakistan with silk, carpets and other items of trade. Only after selling them in the local market, they could raise enough funds to proceed on hajj. That is how Khotan House in Rawalpindi and China Markets in various Pakistani metropolises were established. In 1987, when I tried to converse with a handful of Muslims in an Urumqi mosque, we could only quote a few verses from the Quran and smile. This time we had detailed discourses in English on religion, jurisprudence, economy and current affairs. Xingjian has come a long way but rocking the boat by miscreants is akin to chopping the branch on which their nest is built.