LUNNAN, China -- The flame from a looming oil tower illuminates the endless desert like a beacon of hope.
Oil and natural gas -- lots of it -- have been discovered beneath the sands near this industrial town in the center of China's isolated western Xinjiang Province. As in Iran and Saudi Arabia at the turn of the last century, the energy boom in the region's Tarim River basin and Taklamakan desert is focusing global attention on an area rich in history but forgotten by the modern world.
To satisfy the energy demands of its fast-growing coastal cities, China is building a 2,600-mile pipeline from here that will traverse the craggy steppes and sparsely populated villages of the old Silk Road, and run directly to Shanghai and possibly to Beijing. But the manner and terms under which the government is extracting resources from Xinjiang angers many of the province's 7.5 million ethnic Uighur Muslims.
Keep in mind the pipeline projects linking far-away Turkmenistan and all the countries in between to Xinjiang. When these projects are complete, gas will be able to be brought from as far away as the Caspian Sea for China's big cities on the coast!
Many Uighurs want independence from China, and they accuse Beijing of using the energy resources to tighten its grip on the province. They also say Xinjiang receives little benefit from its own energy reserves because the province's energy production is controlled by China's state-owned companies, consumed by China's coastal cities, and taxed so that the central government gets most of the revenues.
"The Chinese government is just robbing these resources from us without giving anything to the Uighur people," Alim Seytoff, general secretary of the Washington-based Uighur American Association, said by telephone from Washington. The group, made up of Uighur exiles, is spearheading the quest for independence.
The Chinese government insists that it is committed to Xinjiang's development and that the energy resources will transform life in the remote and poor province, where incomes are one-10th of those in Beijing, according to official census reports.
Wang Le Quan, the secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party and the province's de facto leader, acknowledged that about 75 percent of the taxes collected from Xinjiang's oil fields went directly to Beijing. "But a lot of it comes back as transfers," or federal funding allocated to Xinjiang, he said to visiting Western reporters.
But, the middleman -- in this case, the government in Beijing -- takes a cut. Even if Beijing seeks to send it all back, there are administrative costs of having the taxes collected by Beijing and then allocated by Beijing. And then, those guys in Beijing get greedy, thinking about what they can do with Xinjiang's (or anybody else's) money, so there is no attempt to send all the revenues back to Xinjiang.
And Washington, D.C., works the same way.
Wang spoke passionately about how oil and the development model that modernized other parts of China are now transforming Xinjiang. For example, he said, the state-owned firm that controls most of Xinjiang's energy fields is connecting ancient towns separated by wide expanses of desert by building a network of highways.
Free natural gas is supplied to people who live near the Tarim basin, and Wang said this is preventing people from cutting down protected poplar trees in the area for fuel.
But many Uighurs say the government is handing out crumbs while stealing the cake. Resentment against China and its oil exploration is palpable in the antique mosques and teeming bazaars that crowd the narrow streets of Uighur towns.
"The Han [Chinese] have broken every promise they made to us," said Abdel, a student in Kashgar in southern Xinjiang, who like others here refused to identify himself fully because of fear of reprisal.
Kashgar is a famed town on the Silk Road, the 4,000-mile trade route that ran from the Mediterranean through Persia and Central Asia to China and India. From the time it began around 125 BC to when Marco Polo used it to reach China in the late 1200s to when it ended in the 1600s, the Silk Road created great wealth, which in turn kept states vying for control of strategic areas.
And that same dynamic is at work today, even more so, as China looks eastward to Xinjiang and beyond to Central Asia for energy.
The Xinjiang oil and gas finds already are proving a boon to China's energy picture at a crucial moment. The country's rapidly growing economy has sent the national energy bill soaring. China spent $65 billion on energy imports last year, mostly from Iran, Angola, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, according to the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing. The production from Xinjiang will enhance China's oil security by cutting energy imports from those countries and give Beijing greater control over its energy supplies, officials say.
"Xinjiang used to be remote and backward ... now the Tarim basin has already become China's largest energy-producing region," said Sun Longde, president of the state-owned PetroChina Tarim Oilfield Co.
He said the company's sales from both oil and gas will double to $2.5 billion this year and expects that by 2010 it will be producing about 100 million tons of oil a year -- worth about $50 billion at today's prices.
The disagreement over energy resources is the latest conflict between the government and dissident Uighurs, whom China considers a separatist threat. Rights groups accuse the government of carrying out arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, and torture and religious discrimination in the province.
For a brief time in the 1930s, the Uighurs and other Turkic tribes in the region, who until then had been on the fringes of various Chinese empires, formed an independent state called East Turkestan. Communist China annexed East Turkestan in 1949 and turned it into a Chinese province dubbed Xinjiang, or New Territory.
Beijing flooded Xinjiang with ethnic Han Chinese migrants, pushed locals to learn Mandarin, and restricted the practice of Islam.
In the mid-1990s, Uighur separatists who seek to re-create East Turkestan carried our widespread protests, and even bombings, against Chinese rule in Xinjiang. In some instances, they carried out attacks in other provinces, planting a bomb in a Beijing bus that killed two people in 1997.
China has often been accused by human rights groups such as Amnesty International of using the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism to clamp down hard on Uighur opponents of Chinese rule.
We will be looking at these accusations starting in Part 10, and we will be hearing what Uighur spokespersons have to say about the whole situation.
Divisions between ordinary Uighurs and the Han, who form the majority of the Chinese population, are reflected even in the oilfields.
Most of the oil workers are Han Chinese migrants from surrounding provinces. At the Lunnan oil station in the Tarim basin where the energy pipeline to east China begins, none of the hundreds of workers is Uighur, said the manager, Sun Tai Rong, who spoke to reporters on a recent tour arranged by government officials. Journalists are generally not allowed into Xinjiang without special permission.
"Their education is a problem; and I can't understand any Uighur, and most of them can't speak any" Mandarin, he said.
Rukiye Turdush, a spokeswoman for East Turkestan Information Center, a pro-independence group based in Ottawa, Canada, said Uighurs also believe that Beijing is using its energy infrastructure in Xinjiang to expand its influence in the neighboring oil-rich and strategically important countries of Central Asia.
We have also looked at that in previous posts, especially Part 6 and Part 7.
In 2000, China formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with the central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Russia. Robert Karniol, Asia editor for Jane's Defense Weekly, said that in addition to seeking easy and cheap access to Central Asia's energy reserves, China is also using its ties to the Turkic Muslim states -- who might feel empathy for the Uighurs because of ethnic ties -- to keep them from supporting the independence cause.
For now, the Chinese strategy seems to be succeeding. The pipeline carrying Xinjiang's gas to Shanghai will soon be extended into Kazakhstan, and the offices of many Uighur activists in the Central Asian republics have been closed, according to their governments.
Seytoff, the Uighur activist in Washington, said he has almost come to hate the black gold that gushes up from Xinjiang's yellow sands. "Our oil has become our curse," he said.
Seytoff is on the right in the photo below.
Coming up in Part 10: Chinese Communist oppression of Uighur Muslims, and Uighur denunciation of violence.