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Government study recommends China build second capital in Xinjiang

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (罗布泊/WikiCommons)
May 06, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A Chinese government-funded study has recommended a second capital in the country’s far-western Xinjiang region to rebalance China’s economy, address ethnic tensions and strengthen ties with Eurasian nations.  

Published in the Chinese-language journal “Social Sciences in Xinjiang” on April 21, the report proposes that the purpose-built capital be close to Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, or to Kashgar, one of the westernmost cities of China near the border with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

The report, based on four years of research by Zhou Wen of Fudan University in Shanghai and Mi Jun of Sichuan University, evaluates risks and opportunities of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure development project that seeks to connect China to many other parts of the globe.

But the study does not provide details about how the central government would distribute its functions between Beijing and the potential second capital, according to a report on it in the “South China Morning Post.”

With expansive desert and mountainous areas, Xinjiang is home to more than 11 million predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities who have been repressed by the Chinese government in recent years through detention in “re-educations” camps, torture and forced labor.

The study has raised questions among experts and researchers abroad who focus on the Xinjiang region about possible motives for considering a second capital in the region as well as its impact on Uyghurs and other minorities who live there.

Pressure to Sinicize

Erkin Ekrem, vice president of the World Uyghur Congress and an associate professor of history at Hacettepe University in Turkey, believes that the proposal to establish a second capital in Xinjiang is related to China’s be a global power by 2049, the year that will make the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

“The Uyghur region is critical for China to achieve its dream,” he told RFA. “It is a gateway to Central Asia, Western Asia, Turkey and Europe. Therefore, establishing a secondary capital in the Uyghur region has strategic importance for China.”

At the same time, the plan would create unfavorable conditions for the Uyghur people, Erkin said

“For China to establish a secondary capital in East Turkistan, it must first Sinicize the region,” he said, using Uyghurs’ preferred name for Xinjiang. 

The vast territory’s lack of arable land would require China to bring water into the region, which would necessitate the resettling of more Han Chinese, said Erkin.

“None of these issues are favorable for Uyghurs, resulting in them disappearing by melting away,” he said.

Sean Roberts, an international affairs professor at George Washington University, who has written extensively about China’s Uyghurs and Central Asia said the potential move would have a dual purpose. 

“On the one hand, it’s likely about integrating the northwest of the country more into China’s governance, which has been something that China’s been trying to do since the 1990s,” he said. “I would say it’s something that is one of the motivating factors for the repression of Uyghurs and related peoples in the region now.”

On the other hand, a potential second capital also would be a defensive move, Roberts said.

“For a long time, China has been concerned about integrating the northwest more into the country and under the state’s purview because it worried that it could be a source of instability, perhaps aggravated by external forces.”

“This doesn’t mean that [the Chinese] are concerned about Central Asia or Russia invading, but they might be concerned about there more instability in Eurasia and wanting to have a second capital close by to ensure that China’s borders are secure in that it doesn’t spill over into China,” he said. 

In the end, the plan would not bode well for the Uyghurs, Roberts said.

“If implemented, this would end the historical concept that this region is the Uyghur people’s motherland,” he said. “I believe this also would accelerate the speed of Sinification in the area. This plan would change the entire landscape of the Uyghur Region and its relationship with the central government in Beijing.”

Other factors at play

Abdulhakim Idris, director of the Center for Uyghur Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, has a different take on possible motives for a second Chinese capital in Xinjiang.

If China and the United States clash militarily over Taiwan, Beijing will be vulnerable to a U.S. naval attack because of its location.

“If it moves its capital to our motherland, then it will be safer because it would be farther away from the U.S. Pacific Fleet,’ he said.

China also is hoping to pry Central Asia from Russia’s grip and play a more dominant role in the region to promote Belt and Road projects and to guarantee its energy and trade security., Idris said.