East Turkestan: Bursting Boom Town Holds Key to a Stable China
At the tiny, primitive airport, where people have to wait outdoors in biting cold for their luggage, a billboard over the shabby terminal announces the arrival of change clearly enough: "Petroleum Hotel," it reads, in Chinese, English and the Arabic script used by the region's Uighur ethnic minority.
By night, flares from new oil fields blaze on the horizon along bleak roads that lead in every direction from this city on the edge of one of the world's largest deserts, the Taklimakan.
By day, trains disgorge passengers: newly arriving ethnic Chinese migrants from the country's crowded east or, in the harvest season, day laborers by the tens of thousands who pick cotton and fruit grown on spreads owned by big east coast investors.
Thriving "insta-cities" are common on the prospering eastern seaboard. But in many ways what is happening in Korla and cities like it in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is even more impressive. And to a degree little suspected back east, the country's future depends on their success.
China has a bottomless thirst for oil and gas, and Xinjiang is producing both in ever greater quantities. Moreover, because of its proximity to Central Asia, the region has become the favorite route for pipelines from Kazakhstan and beyond.
Since this is China's largest region or province in terms of area, and home to the largest Muslim minority population, what happens in Xinjiang is crucial to the country's future stability. As it is in Tibet to the south, China's hold on Xinjiang is recent. Elements of the Uighur and Kazakh minorities have long yearned for independence.
Beijing has cracked down harshly on separatists and has banned religious schools in Xinjiang, for fear they might foment Islamic radicalism and separatism. But for now, as elsewhere in China, the government seems to be betting that strong economic growth is the best way to consolidate its control.
The region's recent oil discoveries have certainly created an air of confidence among government leaders and businesspeople, most of whom are from the east. Natural gas output has doubled in the past five years, and oil production is also rising fast, especially in the nearby Tarim Basin.
"This place is blowing and a-glowing," said Jim Scott, an ebullient American who spends much of the year in Xinjiang, selling high-pressure valves and other oil field equipment to Chinese companies. "I guarantee you, there's a boom on here. There's more drilling and exploring around here than you can imagine."
Beyond foreign oilmen, the explosive growth in the petroleum sector is drawing thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs from coastal cities like Shanghai.
Some arrive wealthy, ready to invest. Others, like Qian Bolun, 36, who has been here for 15 years, sought their fortunes in Korla when it was little more than a dusty township.
Once Qian's living was in the markup of one-fifth of a yuan, or about 15 U.S. cents, on one-yuan drinks. Now he deals exclusively in big-ticket items like industrial generators, tractors and mining equipment.
The new petroleum economy has left its mark all over Korla, from the smart department stores and shopping malls that line the broad streets of the central city to a large nightclub district that bathes in flashing neon after sunset.
A city of 420,000, it is growing by 20,000 a year.
For all of these economic successes, Korla's problems with minorities have not been solved so much as pushed aside. On the streets of the central district, Uighur-owned shops are a rarity and Uighurs themselves are few. Across the river that divides the town into old and new, that balance is reversed.
"Uighurs usually don't have a storefront. They'll rent a place in a corner," said Hao Lin, 32, a personal computer merchant in a new computer mall. "Their main customers are Uighurs. Very few of them have business with the Tarim oil company. Those who do are Han," members, as he is, of China's main ethnic group.
In a barbershop across the river from the city center, three Uighur men sat near a coal-heated stove.
"I studied at the university in Urumqi," the province's capital, "for three years, majoring in mechanical engineering," said the Uighur barber, Yasen Keyimu, 25, "but I can't find a job with the oil industry. Such great skills, and I can't get work."