Dispatches From China's Wild West

China's Oil Boom
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 5 2008 6:56 AM

Dispatches From China's Wild West

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Click here for a slide show from day 3: China's oil boom.

KORLA, China—It was morning when I arrived in Korla, the capital of Xinjiang's oil boom, and the sky was dark, the sun obscured by a thick cloud of dust from the adjacent Taklamakan Desert. Many people on the street wore masks against the dust—the Chinese favored surgical-style versions, while many Uighur women wore delicate white cotton masks with lace trim.

Most of the inhabited parts of Xinjiang are dotted around the Taklamakan, an utterly lifeless expanse larger than Colorado whose name, roughly translated, means "Go in and don't come out." It is a graveyard for countless Silk Road caravans and was one of the last unexplored frontiers on the planet—the first time anyone crossed it the longer, east-west way was in 1993. These days, rather than being an obstacle, the Taklamakan is the attraction. Oil was discovered here in the 1950s, and over the last decade, China's speeding economy has created an oil rush in Xinjiang.

Whatever Third Worldliness persists in Kashgar has been driven out of sight here in Korla, the home of the PetroChina Tarim Basin Oil Control Center, which operates the Taklamakan oil fields. The neatly laid-out downtown boasts meticulously tended parks bursting with orange and yellow carnations. In the course of just one day, I saw two free performances of Chinese opera in small outdoor theaters, elderly women doing a synchronized folk dance, and a blood drive. It was all incredibly wholesome.

At Eversun, a Chinese coffee shop chain with a five-star-hotel-lobby vibe and piped-in Michael Bolton, I met a former top city official I'll call Mr. Yi. He explained that Korla's tidiness is not an accident. In fact, the Chinese government has named Korla China's cleanest city, and Korla has made the countrywide rankings in the "most charming," "best relations between the army and public," and even "best overall city" categories.

"The government pays a lot of attention to this. It took us five years to win the title of cleanest city," he said. The city's efforts included deputizing retirees to patrol street corners, bus stations, and other public places to issue on-the-spot fines (of a little less than $1) to citizens found tossing cigarette butts or engaging in China's national pastime, spitting. It worked so well, he said, the fines are no longer necessary—people in Korla have been trained not to spit. And he seemed to be right: To my great relief, Korla's men did seem to manage their saliva.

Yi grew up in Korla in the 1960s, just after oil was discovered in the Taklamakan. "Then, it was like a village. The roads were dirt, and you could see donkeys and carts everywhere. There weren't very many people, and the minorities were a much bigger part of the population. It was a lot more Muslim," he said.

The city's population is now 430,000, and it's growing by an additional 20,000 people every year, he told me. The central government encourages people to come to Korla by relaxing land-use rules, offering tax breaks for businesses, and making it easier to acquire residency permits. "When businessmen come here and see that this is a nice and clean city, they think that the people here must be good," he said.

Of course, as in Kashgar, most of the migrants are Han Chinese, and this urban renewal is pushing out Uighurs. Yi claimed it's not intentional: "We need development from outside Xinjiang. Almost all the businessmen in China are Han Chinese, so there is no choice. That's just the reality," he said.

Later I met Michael Manning, a 27-year-old New Jersey native who moved to Korla in 2005 to work as an English teacher and is now setting up a business exporting sun-dried tomatoes. He also documents life in Xinjiang on his excellent blog, The Opposite End of China. Despite taboos about talking about Uighur nationalism and separatism, Manning manages to broach those topics regularly without any apparent protest from the authorities. "A significant portion of the population isn't benefiting at all from this newfound wealth," he wrote in one post. "More disturbing―and perhaps dangerous for Xinjiang―is the fact that Uighurs are almost completely excluded from the oil boom. I can't even think of a single Uighur I've met whose employment is related to the petrochemical industry in any way. Obviously, this breeds resentment in those people still living in mud-brick huts, which are frequently demolished to build another garish new apartment complex."

"I have no idea why I haven't been kicked out yet," he told me.

He offered to show me around Korla's Uighur district. It's just a couple of blocks from the shopping centers and parks where I'd been spending my time, but crossing over to its unpaved streets, mud houses, and chaos is like leaving San Diego for Tijuana. We passed horribly deformed beggars, a butcher shop with a whole skinned sheep hanging outside the door, and a white-bearded street musician with a sort of Uighur lute.

Manning said that in the last year he has seen used syringes around the Uighur town. Hashish was a common drug; now heroin is becoming more popular. Several of Michael's Uighur friends do drugs, but he doesn't know any Chinese people in Korla who do.

We stopped to visit a friend of Manning's who has a shop in the old town. He said he expects that his shop will be torn down soon to make room for new development, and he doesn't think he'll be able to set up shop again in this neighborhood. "I won't be able to get a new business license—in all the newly developed parts of the city, the licenses are too expensive. So, I'll probably have to move to a village," he said.

"I have no problem with development, but it's the Chinese who get all the benefits," he said. "The government is always talking about how all the nationalities in China are like one big family, but the reality is that the Chinese don't want anything to do with us, especially with the Uighurs. They don't want to work with us, do business with us, be friends with us."

All over the margins of the old town, new 20-story buildings are going up, and the city is extending a pleasant concrete riverside promenade, where I had seen one of the Chinese operas, into the Uighur part of town. In one week alone, two old Uighur restaurants had been bulldozed to make way for the promenade, Manning said.

"The government likes to use Korla as an example of what Xinjiang could be—rich, clean, and harmonious," he said. "The vision is for it to be the Houston of China, and they want a big shiny city, not these dirty old houses."

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