An aerial view of the Kashgar Special Economic Zone. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Tented camel caravans winding their way across trackless deserts and steep mountains of Central Asia might still be a picture in many people's minds when the Silk Road is mentioned.
In reality, the ancient trade route between East Asia and Europe is reviving along with roaring freight trains and trucks, more than a millennium after it faded into obscurity due to frequent wars and the rise of sea transportation.
Located in China's far west but in the middle of the Silk Road, Xinjiang is ready to embrace the revival as China launched the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative two years ago with aims to boost infrastructure and trade between China, Central Asia and Europe.
Yawuz Selim, a 38-year-old Turkish businessman, is one of many who are finding their fortune in Xinjiang.
Selim realized that Turkey's products were very popular in Xinjiang during his first visit to the regional capital of Urumqi in 2012. He set up a children's clothing store in the city the next year after he quit the job as an accountant in Istanbul.
"I hope to bring top quality Turkish dresses to Xinjiang and expand my business eastward, where there is more purchasing power," he said.
PIVOT OF NEW SILK ROAD
When a Han Dynasty emperor sent his envoy Zhang Qian on a diplomatic mission to Central Asia more than 2,000 years ago, he set in motion an economic miracle.
The Silk Road evokes a resplendent past of trade uniting the people and cultures as Asia and Europe. Now, China is pursuing an ambitious plan to revive these trading links with its neighbors, extending all the way to the eastern Mediterranean.
As the bridgehead, Xinjiang plays an important role, thanks to its geopolitical,cultural and resource advantages.
With cargo trains now linking Chinese cities with Europe, trade volume at northwest Xinjiang's Alataw Pass on the Kazakhstan border reached 25 million tonnes last year, after an average growth of 27 percent since 1991.
South Xinjiang's largest city of Kashgar, center of the Uygur civilization and once an important staging post along the Silk Road, continues to attract tourists with its architecture, mosques and craftsmen.
At the same time, impressive buildings are rising to the east of the old town. Eighteen high-rises, including two 58-storey skyscrapers, are planned by the Kashgar government.
Expectations are high in Kashgar. Projects such as the China-Pakistan and China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railways, though still in the discussion phase, have excited government officials and local people alike.
Already with direct flights to Islamabad, there are plans for scheduled flights to central Asia and Turkey. The city has never concealed its intention to emulate the success of Shenzhen in south China, which took the lead in assisting Kashgar's development because of a pairing program.
In 2010, the slogan "Shenzhen in the east, Kashgar in the west" became emblematic of the city's new status as an special economic zone. Just as Shenzhen's success relies heavily on neighboring Hong Kong, Kashgar plans to work closely with its own neighbors: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A tariff-free zone to the north of Kashgar Airport opened in April.
At a workshop in the zone, hundreds of local Uygur men and women assemble data cables and mobile phone chargers. An eye-catching billboard hangs on the wall of the Zhanbo Electronics Co. Ltd, a subsidiary of Guangdong-based Sike Electronics Company. It reads "train 10,000 youths, employ them and help 10,000 households out of poverty."
The company currently exports 30 percent of its products to India and Pakistan. Xiong Fengling, chief financial officer of the company, said, "We come here for the geographic advantages."
"The Silk Road is awakened after a long period of slumber," said Gabriella Bonino, 62, an Italian who arrived in Kashgar after months of travel along the Silk Road.
"Townships along the route have become big cities," said Bonino, who is writing a book about the new Silk Road, is much different from that described by her countryman Marco Polo some 700 year ago.
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, with a population of 22 million from 47 ethnic groups, will celebrate its 60th anniversary on Thursday. A system of ethnic regional autonomy was established in Xinjiang when it was founded on Oct. 1, 1955.
All ethnic groups enjoy the right to vote, education, use their own language and inherit their traditions, as well as the right of equal participation in state affairs and the right to religious belief.
In 2014, the 550 deputies to the 12th People's Congress of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the local legislature, came from 14 ethnic groups, with 66 percent from ethnic minorities themselves, according to a white paper issued by the State Council Information Office last Thursday.
In 1955, the number of ethnic minority officials in Xinjiang was 46,000, which increased to 417,000 in 2014, accounting for 51.4 percent of the total officials in the region. The incumbent head of the regional government is Shohrat Zakir, a 62-year-old Uygur man.
Marked improvement has been observed in Xinjiang's overall strength. Its gross regional product reached 927 billion yuan (146 billion U.S. dollars)in 2014, a 116-fold increase over that of 1955 in real terms, with an annual growth rate of 8.3 percent, 0.2 percentage points higher than China's average during the same period.
Experience has proved that the combination of centralized national leadership with ethnic regional autonomy, and the combination of ethnic factors with regional ones fully accord with the prevailing situation in China and with the realities and needs of Xinjiang.
PURSUIT OF LONG-TERM STABILITY
Though Xinjiang has developed rapidly in the past decade, terrorism in the name of "jihad" has increased since 2009. Terrorism,together with unemployment, are the biggest threats to the region.
At the second central work conference on Xinjiang in May 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for "nets spread from the earth to the sky" to defend against terrorists, stressing long-term stability as the main goal for the region.
The infiltration of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism into Xinjiang, a region with more than half of its population Muslim, threatens the region's stability and economic and social development.
South Xinjiang's Hotan, Kashgar and Aksu are areas overseas separatist forces have penetrated, where the majority of the population are Muslim Uygur. More Uygur women have been observed wearing black Islamic robes instead of their traditional colorful Uygur costumes in recent years.
To fend off religious extremism, the regional government started a three-year program in March 2014 sending 200,000 cadres from urban government departments, public institutions and state-owned enterprises to live and work for a year in 12,000 villages, state farms and communities.
"Young men with little education do not know much about Islam, nor have they read the Quran," said Ablajan Abduwakhi, Dean of the Mathematics and Science, Kashgar University, working in a village in Kashgar prefecture since March this year."They are easily hoodwinked by extremists."
Cadres from Kashgar University organized a month of evening classes for villagers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, teaching them about Uygur culture, Islam, government policy and provided vocational training.
The vocational training, including embroidery, cooking and masonry, has helped many villagers become self-employed and move away from religious extremism, said Ablajan.
"You only receive real respect through hard work," said Amyna Yason, 45, an embroidery student. (xinhua)