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Model Oil Town Fuels China’s Western Dream

KORLA, China (dpa) – Next to the scores of oasis towns that once supplied camel caravans on the ancient Silk Roads through China’s far west, Korla seems to be from a different time and country.

Yet the quiet, spacious model city is another kind of Chinese oasis: A pocket of modern, high-technology affluence in one of its poorest regions, Xinjiang.

Praised by the central government for its clean environment, Korla caters to migrant workers and their families drawn by the nearby oil and gas fields of the Tarim basin.

The city’s low-rise blocks of shops, restaurants and apartments flank quiet boulevards decorated with potted plants. Only dust from the vast Taklamakan desert mars the clear skies and clean air.

“It’s like the Houston of western China,” says Marty Schwantz, a Canadian oil industry executive who spent six weeks in the area last year.

Oil engineers working the Tarim wells earn 800-1,000 yuan (dollars) per month, Schwantz says, a tiny sum by international standards but more than 10 times the income of many Xinjiang farmers.

A few dozen bars, karaoke centres and massage parlours help the oil men spend some of their hard-earned cash in Korla before they return to homes in eastern China.

A giant billboard at a major road junction displays the heads of three generations of Chinese Communist Party patriarchs. Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin fill the heavens above groups of grinning singers and dancers in stage versions of traditional costumes worn by Xinjiang’s Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, Tibetan, Mongolian and other ethnic groups.

The image is meant to reflect prosperity and ethnic harmony, but in prosperous Korla you have to look hard to find the 30 per cent of citizens who are not Han Chinese.

Unmade roads around the central Qiaotou market and a couple of modern brick mosques are some of the few signs that, just 50 years ago, Korla was a small Uighur town.

Stallholders eke out a living selling textiles and second-hand tapes. A few beggars, banished from most of the city by the numerous security guards, also find a home here. Uighur farmers sell mutton, flatbreads, melons, grapes and vegetables from hand-carts or donkey carts. They rely on other Uighurs for their income, since most Chinese shoppers favour Korla’s modern indoor markets and chain stores.

Eight million mainly Moslem Uighurs make up 44 per cent of Xinjiang’s 18 million people, but continuing migration has already pushed the Han population to around six million.

The government has made the development of Xinjiang and other western regions a key part of its political and economic strategy for the next 10 years. It hopes its economically liberal “go west” plan will attract enough new investment to improve the lives of both Han migrants and indigenous minorities.

The extensive oil and gas reserves in the Tarim basin are likely to remain the region’s best hope of prosperity. The oilfield already produces more than 4 million tons of crude oil annually and has yielded more than 25 million tons in the 10 years since commercial exploitation began, according to state media.

Korla has mushroomed into a city of 382,000 people, more than doubling its population since 1990. A rail link opened just over two years ago to China’s westernmost city, Kashgar, and is set to be extended into Kirghizstan and Uzbekistan, cementing Korla’s importance as a freight centre for Xinijang’s oil, cotton and other goods.

A 4,000-kilometre gas pipeline from the Tarim to Shanghai is scheduled to be completed by 2005 to tap estimated gas deposits of 8.39 trillion cubic metres, with explored gas reserves of 562 billion cubic metres.

Yet 80 per cent of workers in the Tarim oilfield are Han Chinese, with local minorities mainly doing menial jobs, says Fang Guiliang, an oil engineer with state giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

Like most engineers working in the Tarim oilfield, Fang lives in Korla and travels out to rigs when needed. He disputes the idea that migrants like him enjoy all of the benefits of Xinjiang’s development.

“We provide jobs for them (Uighurs) indirectly”, mainly through service industries, he says. CNPC funds a small college for educating young Uighurs to replace retiring oil workers. Oil prospectors have also located several new wells under the Taklamakan, which could provide a much-needed boost for local agriculture, he says.

But Professor Dru Gladney of the University of Hawaii argues that Xinjiang has all the features of a colony, with deep ethnic divisions and the Chinese enjoying the main benefits of the development of the region’s natural resources.

“Uighurs, and other indigenous peoples such as Tibetans, now labelled as minority nationalities, have been turned into internal colonial subjects,” says Gladney, who specialises in studying Chinese Moslems and has visited Xinjiang many times.

Whether China is colonising its minority areas or merely, as it says, trying to find the best route to common prosperity, inland areas still attract only about 10 per cent of China’s total investment.

In their more honest moments, Xinjiang’s Communist Party leaders admit that it will take several decades, if not centuries, to develop fully the vast region of deserts, mountains and forests.

Until then, Korla will remain a beacon of Xinjiang’s possible future, leaving Uighurs and other minorities to wonder whose future it will be.

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