The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has been touted by China and its supporters as a groundbreaking initiative, which will bring Central Asia together with increased connectivity and historic prosperity for all. It has been heralded by China as the flagship programme of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, now called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a massive infrastructure project seeking to create a 21st century “Silk Route” connecting Asia with Europe through building and upgrading transportation and communication infrastructure. CPEC is a central component of this plan and consists of constructing a vast network of roads, railway and pipeline stretching some 3,000 miles from Gwadar in Pakistan to East Turkestan. It includes a promised investment of $60 billion from China, over three times the amount of foreign direct investment Pakistan has received since 2008.
However, lost in the astronomical amounts of money being spent and the promises of foreign investments, CPEC and similar initiatives will have the devastating consequences for millions of people along the corridor, including the Uyghurs living in East Turkestan, the people in Balochistan, the Sindhi people and numerous other ethnic groups whose land CPEC will cut through.
Countries interested in securing foreign investment and increased opportunity for trade have largely been supportive of the initiative at the expense of the human rights and well-being of their citizens. It is unconscionable that numerous countries across the region continue to ignore the plight of the Uyghurs.
Security and militarisation
The Uyghurs in East Turkestan have already begun to witness the ill effects of CPEC. Due to its location, East Turkestan serves as the door for China to the rest of Central Europe. To ensure the success of CPEC and OBOR, China has drastically increased military and police presence in the region and has implemented a number of policies to control the Uyghur people and to stifle any dissent. In fact, reports indicate that Chinese authorities advertised over 51,000 police jobs in East Turkestan in the first 6 months of 2017. This is more than all of the jobs posted from 2006-2014 in the region. While the Uyghur people are sadly accustomed to violence and heavy-handed actions from the Chinese military and police, this rapid escalation is extremely worrying for the fate of the Uyghur people in the region.
There strong parallels with what is currently happening in East Turkestan to what has been happening in Tibet. Most notably Chen Quanguo, notorious for the violent and suffocating tactics he employed while trying to suppress and control Tibet, was recently appointed Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (East Turkestan), a clear indication of the Chinese government’s intentions.
Uyghurs are racially profiled and stopped repeatedly at the countless roadblocks across the region where they are searched and their phones and computers are confiscated. Uyghurs are not allowed to move freely, express themselves or peacefully practice their religion, creating a suffocating and oppressive environment. Recently, the Chinese government has also been cracking down on and limiting the use of the Uyghur language. Significant pressure is also being put on Uyghur students to learn Mandarin Chinese through so-called “bilingual education” programmes.
While China continues to violently repress the Uyghur people within its own borders, it also faces a conundrum with how to secure its infrastructure and investments in CPEC outside its borders. China’s reputation as a staunch defender of the principles of non-interference and sovereignty further complicates this matter. Disturbing reports have emerged that as a way to circumvent this situation, China has begun to hire mercenaries to protect its interests at home and abroad, including the security firm Frontier Services Group, which is headed by Erik Prince, the founder of the notorious security firm Blackwater.
Beneficial to the few, harmful to many
In selling CPEC and OBOR, China also often points to the “benefits” its investments have had in East Turkestan and consistently touts the fact that East Turkestan is now seeing the most impressive growth in its history. However, these assertions completely ignore the important fact that this growth and “development” has been incredibly unequal. Disproportionate benefits continue to flow away from the Uyghurs and into the hands of Han-Chinese settlers. Rapidly developing industries in the region that CPEC is set to further invigorate, including construction, the energy service sector and resource extraction, tend to exclude much of the Uyghur people in favour of the Han Chinese.
For example, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a dominant state-controlled organisation in charge of construction across the region among other things, employs upwards of 2.7 million people, but Uyghurs make up only seven per cent of its workforce despite making up nearly half the population of the region. The Uyghur people have been routinely excluded from gainful employment and are forced into low-income jobs due to language requirements to speak Mandarin-Chinese or from outright discrimination.
Unless the Chinese government begins to address the economic grievances voiced by the Uyghur people, CPEC will only further exacerbate the economic divide and inequitable distribution of benefits. So far, there are few signs indicating that this will be the case.
Threat to environment
The Uyghur people have long borne the brunt of damage to the environment caused by the Chinese government. From 1964 until 1996, the Chinese authorities conducted 46 confirmed nuclear detonations at Lop Nor in East Turkestan, with major Uyghur cities only 320 km from the detonation site. It is estimated that 200,000 people died and at least 1.5 million people were affected by radiation from these tests.
In recent years, overdevelopment, rapid resource extraction and natural factors have already lead to increased land degradation and desertification in East Turkestan. This is of particular concern because, due to their exclusion from many sectors of the economy, much of the Uyghur people remain concentrated in the countryside. Uyghurs overwhelmingly work in agriculture, but the effects of land degradation, desertification and the seizure of land by the state has made farming increasingly untenable and CPEC will only exacerbate this further. This may lead to increased tensions as many Uyghurs are forced to migrate from south to north and from rural to urban areas (where many Han-Chinese settlers live). With fewer economic possibilities and the environmental degradation of their ancestral lands, the future looks bleak for many Uyghurs.
Migration and assimilation
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of CPEC is the increased connectivity itself. Connectivity and infrastructural improvements can be a double-edged sword, particularly in the Chinese context. While roads, trade and cooperation between nations can help to bring people together, it can also be used as a tool for assimilation and control.
We just need to look at recent history in China to see evidence of this. East Turkestan and Tibet’s geography and relative isolation have been a blessing in the past. While both areas were still subjected to Chinese control and repression, their remoteness and inaccessibility made it difficult for the CCP to exercise absolute control in the regions. However, large investments in railways and other infrastructure projects, coupled with increasing numbers of Han-Chinese settlers in recent decades, have changed this and lead to growing levels of control by the Chinese government. In 2006, the Chinese government completed the construction of a railway to Lhasa in Tibet, which has brought millions of Han-Chinese tourists and a massive influx of long-term migrants. This has put considerable strain on the culture and identity of the Tibetan people.
China’s investment in roads and improved infrastructure also helps to facilitate migration. This is important because China has been using migration as a political tool since the 1950s to change the demographics in an occupied territory to dilute the identity and culture of ethnic minority groups and to diminish their claims for self-determination.
Since China effectively took control over East Turkestan following the Second World War, the state began incentivising Chinese migration into the region in the late 1950’s and the last 15 years have seen an intense redoubling of this effort. The Uyghur people, who once numbered more than 85 per cent of the population in the region, represent a mere 46 per cent of the population today, with Han Chinese at 40 per cent.
Not only does the demographic shift put pressure on Uyghur self-determination, it has resulted in widespread discrimination from schools to mosques to workplace. Han Chinese migration to the region has created a severe imbalance in both representation in government and the erosion of Uyghur culture and language. CPEC stands to further increase migration into East Turkestan as the massive infrastructure projects and more accessible transportation to the region will surely draw in more Han-Chinese migrants.
CPEC may seem, at first glance, to be a benign infrastructure project, but for the Uyghur people and other ethnic minority groups across China and Pakistan it is a very dangerous and possibly existential problem. China recognises the power of building roads and has repeatedly used them to assimilate, control and dominate. Ultimately, the international community must remain aware of the likely negative impact that the new deal will have on the conditions of Uyghurs in East Turkestan.
(The writer is Secretary General of the World Uyghur Congress and Vice-President of UNPO