The northwest China skyline emits a peculiar glow. It is the flames of giant oil refineries, whose heat is matched only by the level of local resentment toward the presence of the Chinese government.
This region, known as Xinjiang and largely occupied by the Uighur people, poses many new difficulties for both China and the international community. While the Chinese government seeks to increase its control there by whatever means necessary, the outside world has yet to take any real notice of the region.
Xinjiang is similar to neighboring Tibet in several ways. The Uighurs are ethnically, linguistically, and religiously distinct from the ethnic Chinese and, like the Tibetans, they suffer under severe repression from Beijing. However, the Uighurs differ in that they are Muslim, lack a charismatic leader like the Dalai Lama, and occasionally resort to violence. Most importantly, their homeland possesses far more natural resources. Xinjiang holds some of the world's largest oil deposits, with which the Chinese government hopes to fuel the country's economic growth for the next 30 years.
The importance of the oil to Beijing is clear. The government scoffs at talk of alternative energy and the environmental harms of development. It intends for every Chinese family to own a car and aims to urbanize a population that is 70 percent rural. Oil and gas are essential to China's petrochemical, national defense, transportation, and aviation industries. Xinjiang contains China's largest oil reserves and second-largest reserves of natural gas. Unofficial sources reveal that Beijing has recently discovered even larger reserves in western Xinjiang. The government unofficially claims that the new deposits are equivalent to Saudi Arabian oil fields, though other sources revise this estimate to around one-third to one-half the size of Saudi deposits--still colossal.
Oil is not the only natural resource in Xinjiang that has commanded the Chinese government's interest. The region is rich in copper, gold, and rare minerals, and it is the country's largest cotton-producing area. Nevertheless, an analysis of fund allocation in the region reveals that the most important resource by far is oil. The Chinese government will soon commence construction on a US$14 billion pipeline, the country's largest public works project after the Three Gorges Dam. The 4,000-kilometer pipe will carry gas from Xinjiang to Shanghai and is expected to provide energy to industrializing eastern coastal regions.
Before construction on the project begins, however, the government is attempting to "secure" the area. Military might, religious restriction, and population dilution have been China's primary modes of suppression in Xinjiang. Kashgar, a major city in the region, is currently experiencing a military buildup. In addition, local Chinese officials have made explicit their policy of bringing in migrants to double the size of the city from 250,000 to 500,000 people by 2010.
Oppression is not new to the Uighurs. In the years before 1949 and Chinese communist rule, the Uighurs had a democratic government, and Xinjiang was called the East Turkestan Republic. The communists subverted the republic, and its leaders were killed in a mysterious plane crash on the way to discuss autonomy with Mao Zedong. …