China’s Final Frontier

Prospect |

By Parag Khanna

The remote, rebellious western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang are China's poorest, but they hold vast natural wealth which Beijing is determined to control. On a 3,000-mile trek I saw how far the government is bending the whole central Asian region to its will.

The final stretch on the road to Yarkand, about 125 miles from China’s border with Pakistan, feels like the middle east. Each village is a collage of single-storey mud-brick homes with turquoise door-gates. People travel by donkey cart or scooter-rickshaw. Men greet each other the Muslim way (palm to the chest and a slight bow); women wear headscarves. In small villages many signs are still in Uighur, the local language. But for how much longer?

The absorption of China’s far west begins with renaming cities—Yarkand, once a regional capital, to Yecheng, Kashgar to Kashi, Urumqi to Wulumuqi—followed by building a new city around the local population. From three miles outside the bustling tree-lined city of Yarkand, huge gated communities for Chinese army officers flank either side of the road. Propaganda posters depict happily resettled Han, the ethnic majority from eastern China—who are squeezing Uighurs into the ever tighter space around the central mosque and bazaar.

The town of Yarkand was about the halfway point of a 3,000-mile journey I made recently from Lhasa in Tibet through the Chinese border zones with Kashmir, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan all the way to Urumqi near Mongolia. There is no better way to view China’s combination of hard and soft power at work—from the People’s Liberation Army to high-altitude railroads to the sprightly “Han pioneers”—stretching out towards the energy-rich Caspian basin. The west also seeks control here, via Nato and Texaco. But in central Asia, the west must catch up with the east.

Throughout the 19th century, Russia and Britain fought the great game for control of the vast buffer zone between their empires. If the inhabitants of this area had been given any say, two large countries would exist today: the first would be a peaceful kingdom that might be called Shambala, a spiritual homeland for the millions of Buddhists spread across India, Tibet and other Asian nations. The second, the home for the Uighur population and their Turkic brethren, would be Turkestan, a variant of which has been established twice, albeit both times briefly, in the 19th and 20th centuries.

That neither Britain nor Russia prevailed in their battle does not mean there was no winner. Today, China possesses nearly all of this territory, in the form of its two largest and most troublesome provinces: Tibet and Xinjiang. All that exists of “Shambala” is world music and meditation CDs. And China is poised to win the 21st-century version of the great game in central Asia. Many people focus on China’s neo-mercantilist quest for energy and influence in Africa, the middle east and even South America, but every superpower abroad is an empire at home. And China’s internal consolidation is the story of a multi-ethnic empire being reborn using strategies familiar from America’s westward expansion—combined with the more postmodern extension of the EU.

Westerners have come to view the plight of Tibetans and Uighurs as simply the latest in an ugly continuum of Chinese human rights abuses, most visible in Tiananmen Square two decades ago. But the story is actually much more strategic than ideological. Tibet and Xinjiang are as crucial to China’s claims to unity and sovereignty as Taiwan is: weakness from within would undermine its global power projection. In the midst of a worldwide recession, many observers believe China will face not just unrest but major instability. Yet this drastically underestimates the Communist party’s grip on power and its long-term ambitions. China’s $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves mean it can afford to nation-build, industrialise and play geopolitics at the same time. If you only started to care about the Tibetans and Uighurs when you saw the brutal crackdown of the March 2008 riots in Lhasa—when about 100 Tibetans were killed—then you woke up decades too late.

The farther one moves from China’s east, the poorer it gets. While the coastal region has steamrollered ahead and made China into the world’s factory floor, the western provinces have been more exploited than developed—used for their natural resources and as a penal colony, a nuclear testing zone and Lebensraum for China’s people. This colonisation has been underway since Mao unified China in 1949. By the time the region was opened to outsiders in the 1990s, after the Soviet collapse, the subjugation was all but complete.

Both Tibet and Xinjiang have the geographic misfortune of lying either on top of resources China wants, or on the path to resources it needs. Texas-sized Xinjiang has the country’s largest oil, gas, coal, uranium and gold deposits, while Tibet has timber, uranium and gold. Between them they border ten countries: Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan—making them China’s crucial gateway for trade flows outward and energy flows inward, especially oil. Without its western territories, China is a rump coastal power. Psychologically, China without Xinjiang and Tibet would be like America without all land west of the Rockies. Nothing short of an extraterrestrial invasion could convince either country to relinquish its largest, most bounteous possessions.

Since most of the ethnically dominant Han Chinese are in the east, and most of China’s resources are in the west, this ongoing westward march is inevitable. And it has meant the wholesale, systematic repression of the indigenous inhabitants by a mix of military, economic and, above all, demographic means. Like the native Americans, the Tibetans and Uighurs have been cornered, corralled and relocated under a system which condescends and harasses at every level. Han Chinese have been taught to think of Tibetans and Uighurs as barbarians, viewing their mission civilatrice today the way American settlers did: they are bringing development and modernity to people and places that have always lacked them.

In March 2008, the Tibetan capital Lhasa made a last, desperate effort to capture the world’s attention on the eve of the Olympics. But the riots subsided and both Tibetans and Uighurs continue to receive roads, telephone lines, hospitals, schools, jobs—and the Chinese language. They will be lifted out of the third world whether they like it or not. ***

To understand how China tames its wild west, you need only to look at the world’s highest railway line. Opened in 2006, it connects Beijing to Lhasa over mountain passes of 4,000 metres, using pressurised cabins and oxygen supplies for each passenger. (After taking delivery of the train cars from a Canadian company, the Chinese government promptly issued a stiff démarche against the Canadian decision to grant honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama.) The train itself pulls into an ultra-modern European-style station on Lhasa’s outskirts, which is surrounded by a perfect lattice of streets and gardens. Already 1.4m out of the 1.5m annual visitors to Tibet are Chinese, and Lhasa no longer feels like Tibet. Billions of yuan have been spent to replace the Tibetans’ crumbling stone quarters with comfortable single-family homes. But a city that once symbolised cultural authenticity now seems more a gateway to it.

I would have to head west to look for Tibet as it has existed for centuries. I set off on a hot July morning with my guide, Gamba. In his mid-twenties, sporting a cowboy hat, G-Star Raw T-shirt, wraparound shades, a wispy chin-beard and prayer beads dangling from his wrist, Gamba was emblematic of the globalised ambitions of disaffected Tibetan youth. Losang, our driver, dressed like a Tibetan version of Jason Statham as “the Transporter” in head-to-toe black leather.

As we drove out, everyone we passed seemed to be wearing cowboy hats. The hats are the sartorial statement of the new Han pioneer, who moves westward to secure gold and timber in jeeps and buses that grind their way across fields of boulders and raging, ice-cold rivers. The roads, at best, half-exist—but in ten years’ time will be as smooth as an autobahn. Swarms of Tibetan and Chinese labourers live in tent camps along mountainsides, led by Chinese foremen who bark mercilessly at jeeps that stray from the dirt tracks.

If China’s expansion is built on roads, it is consolidated by its army. There is a huge military presence not only in Lhasa but throughout Tibet. Vast tracts designated as environmental areas are nevertheless being used for army training and weapons testing. Every inhabited area has a garrison; the largest building in a settlement is always the army headquarters, with its reflective façade and satellite dishes. Drada, near the Indian border, is a typical example. Perched on a narrow plateau in the middle of China’s equivalent of the Grand Canyon, the once sleepy monastery town is now a small paved city. Soldiers line up in formation outside the village’s ancient Buddhist stupa (sacred mound) and practise karate in full view of locals twice a day. Government offices stand next to mud-brick Tibetan huts. Every store is either a video shop or noodle house run by an army wife or daughter, who frown upon Tibetans stopping even for change. They watch fuzzy television programmes, such as an American Idol-inspired show in which Chinese children compete to demonstrate their knowledge of American idioms. Contestants are rewarded with Statue of Liberty-style torches. Much as America’s west was a place to seek a fortune, towns like Drada have become a place for out-of-luck Han Chinese from poorer eastern provinces to try to make a living selling beer or rice.

Yet life in these towns and villages was much rougher before the Han came. Without adequate roads, peaches and bananas didn’t make it to markets before rotting. Power came mostly from car batteries and noxious, noisy generators, and there were no large water tanks to serve as community reservoirs.

These material benefits may have lessened resistance and given China a growing sense of territorial security over Tibet. After decades of brutal excesses, China may even conceivably relax its grip in future. Thousands of Tibetans, including the exiled Dalai Lama, have fled to Dharamsala in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, making it the new global centre of Tibetan Buddhist learning and politics. “Tibet Power” signs on Beijing Road in Lhasa refer not to the independence movement but to the electricity company.


The real enemy of China’s army is not the Tibetan people, but the region’s desolate geology. Over weeks of tough driving on the “roof of the world,” Gamba and I jolted any number of times across brisk rivers to reconnect with the tracks of previous jeeps that served as the road. There were no real towns, just 400-metre strips of connected supply rooms, with kitchens but no sanitation. We spent each night in brick huts, paying about $7 and shivering despite heavy blankets. One evening, we were slurping on yak and potato stew when the electricity came on at 9pm for its three-hour daily quota. There was enough light left to play a game of tennis—but one empire, one time zone.

Coming down one pass into a valley, a jackknifed truck blocked the road at a bend. Losang reversed half a mile along the narrow cliffside, then turned right, put on the parking brake and slid our Land Cruiser down the side of the mountain as if we were slow-motion snowboarding. Eventually we came to a low riverbed, across from which, out of nowhere, appeared a road paved so freshly (with yellow lines up the middle and red-and-white striped guard-rails) that it allowed us to glide the final 50 miles to the junction city of Ali.

Just 125 miles from India’s Kashmir border, Ali is a bustling distribution hub for the throngs of Chinese entrepreneurs reviving the southern silk road. It is the last major town before the high frontier between Tibet and Xinjiang: it is the place where the two territories meet but don’t communicate. The food changes here—after two weeks of forcing down oily Tibetan pork, I was lured by the scent of lamb shashlik emanating from a restaurant where, outside, a young Kashmiri boy carried a stack of naan. Later that night, I went to the 24-hour internet café. Dark and smoky, it was filled with bored Chinese teenagers and twentysomethings: the younger ones playing video games in curtained booths marked “VIP,” while others watched amateur Chinese soft-porn in the open parlour. Even here, Han Chinese already hugely outnumber Tibetans. There are hardly 5m Tibetans to begin with, spread thin across a vast territory, a smaller population than that of dozens of mid-size Chinese cities sprouting today.

Xinjiang and Tibet have evolved largely independently of each other. Tibet is hedged in by its northern mountains and the Han, and is tied more to Nepal and India, while Xinjiang’s Uighurs are Muslims, more linked to the post-Soviet “stans.” Crossing into Xinjiang took us to a pass 6,700 metres high, marked by a large granite plaque and a blue arch.


Xinjiang is a vast wilderness covering one-sixth of China, with regions of tundra and mountain so remote they can take up to a week to reach. But such obstacles haven’t checked China’s drive to exploit its resources. Han first arrived in the 1950s and their migration intensified during Mao’s “develop the west” campaign. During the cultural revolution, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region was sealed and a massive pogrom began. Xinjiang was also closed off during the cold war, but has flourished since opening to international tourism and investment in the 1990s. That said, with a restive population of 20m, around seven times as large at Tibet, the Chinese military needs a much greater presence—and many more roads.

As we drove towards Yarkand the road forked: left to Pakistan, right to Yarkand. Caravans of trucks were here adorned with decals in Arabic-scripted Uighur. With so few airports, trucks are needed to supply the far-flung villages and depots in this corner of China’s inner empire.

After the province’s first army checkpoint, all signs suddenly appeared in both Chinese and Uighur. Passing a tour bus decked out with sleeping berths, I saw Chinese teenagers wide-eyed in disbelief at seeing a China they never knew existed. Raised on tales of Uighurs as barbarians who have wandered into their ancient land, Chinese soldiers and tourists alike must feel a bizarre cognitive dissonance at not hearing their language in their own country. Whether or not the Beijing leadership sees Tibetans and Uighurs in this way is unclear—but they only appear in Chinese newspapers when being referred to as terrorists, or “splitists” in the case of the Dalai Lama.

Wandering the centre of Yarkand, I watched Uighurs scoot around on mopeds and women in Afghan-style burqas crouched on street corners begging, much like in Kabul. In the old bazaar in front of a central Asian-style mosque I browsed the offerings of boiled corn, sheep’s heads, knife sets, gold-embellished Korans and multicoloured pakols (hats). Yet the Chinese presence is unmistakable even when unseen. Every morning, public service announcements blare through speakers mounted on buildings and roving vans, and though Islam is no secret here, the mosque feels like a place to approach with discretion, looking both ways before entering.

Large empires have always been maintained through a combination of force and law. Since 1949, China has alternated between controlled pacification and brutal subjugation in this region. While many Uighurs are grateful for the economic opportunities and development the Chinese provide, Han domination of the economy has sparked sporadic discontent. By the 1990s the idea of a peaceful Islamic culture prevailing in a Chinese-dominated environment had proved wishful thinking. China suspended all mosque construction and began a “strike hard” campaign against suspected Uighur separatists, executing dozens and imprisoning hundreds.

9/11 allowed the Chinese authorities to label the Uighur agitators Islamic fundamentalists and wage their own war on terror. “If we don’t do anything to anger the police, they won’t hurt us,” a man selling wood in a bazaar told me. “But I cannot imagine that we will have Turkestan again, the way we thought was possible when the Soviet Turkic republics were liberated in the 1990s.”

Our journey’s destination was the city of Urumqi. Lying in the basin of the Gobi desert, Urumqi is the hub where the road from the south and the roads from the east will eventually meet to form a perimeter loop around China’s wild west. As the unofficial capital of the new northern silk road, the city is buzzing with traders from Russia to Pakistan buying cheap goods. With major transport links and western hotel chains, a perpetual onslaught of Chinese tourists crowds the few local attractions. It seems not to matter if no trace of what once was is left standing—everything can end up in the Urumqi provincial museum, a propagandistic collection of regional artefacts. As in Tibet, nature is no obstacle: where once a river flowed through the city there is now a six-lane freeway. At the large Sinopec and PetroChina gas stations around the city, the (now over 80 per cent) Han majority fill up new Japanese cars. Against such a backdrop, the Uighurs seem out of place, incorporated into the Chinese scenery but deluged by its demographic superiority. After two months and 3,000 miles, China seemed even stronger than it had been where I started.


The history of central Asia seems formed by alternating east-west imperial sweeps. In the 8th century, Arab armies conquered as far east as Kashgar, forcing the Tang dynasty to retreat. Four centuries later, the Pax Mongolica incorporated the whole region into Genghis Khan’s Eurasian empire. The best part of a millennium after that, high in the Pamir mountain range in 1891, Britain’s Francis Younghusband encountered Russia’s Colonel Yanov. He remarked that the Russians were “opening their mouths pretty wide.” Yanov replied that it was “just a beginning.” Now, a century later, the collapse of the Soviet Union has opened the door for China to extend its influence like no eastern power since the Mongols. A Pax Sinica in central Asia is emerging, one in which China does not conquer countries: it simply buys them. But just how wide is China opening its mouth?

China has not won over the hearts and minds of its Uighurs. But decades of communication with its own Turkic-speaking Muslims has been good preparation for its diplomacy farther west with the central Asian republics, whose markets China increasingly dominates with its low-cost goods, and from which it seeks oil and gas. A direct oil pipeline from Kazakhstan already links to China’s western energy grid, while China has bought into Uzbekistan’s modest gas reserves in the restive Fergana valley and discussed construction of a new pipeline from Turkmenistan via Kazakhstan to China.

These deep infrastructural and political ties—negotiated both bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (sometimes known as the “Nato of the east”) mean that China’s influence in central Asia will eventually eclipse Russia’s. If anything, China is gobbling up Russia too, employing the same strategy of demographic encroachment and resource plunder in Russia’s rapidly depopulating far east as it has in Tibet and Xinjiang—a task made easier as global warming thaws the Siberian permafrost. For all its diplomatic bluster, Russia is little more than a cantankerous geopolitical gas station, and China is sparing no effort to take direct control of Siberian oil and gas through aggressive corporate buy-ins. Only if Russia wakes up to this reality and turns to the west will the real Nato—and therefore the west—have access to central Asia, let alone the capability to compete with China.

It is not only Tibet and Xinjiang that China views as essential to its security. With the spread of Chinese people across its own territory and into neighbouring central Asian states, Chinese foreign policy is increasingly understood to be like Russia’s “near abroad”: anywhere its people are, its interests lie. Of today’s superpowers, only China continues to cling to the inviolability of national sovereignty in forums such as the UN, arguing against humanitarian interventions in Darfur or sanctions on Iran (both major suppliers of energy to China).

But as China softens its borders with the spread of its own people into its periphery—from Russia and Mongolia, to central Asia, to Burma and Laos—its mantra of non-intervention will also soften. For those nations that are becoming Chinese in content if not in form, their best hope is to develop while absorbing as few Chinese characteristics as possible. But for the Tibetans and Uighurs, Shambala and Turkestan will never exist anywhere but in the mind. Some people say demography is destiny; others that geography is. After traversing its nearly infinite frontier, I have seen that China has both on its side.

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