China tightens grip on restive western region

China tightens grip on restive western region

Paramilitaries expand land reclamation and demographic dilution of Uighurs in Xinjiang

In Hotan county, in the south-west of China’s remote Xinjiang region, where once there was only barren desert, rows of trees have taken root, bearing red dates and pomegranates.

The agricultural project is one of the latest in a decades-long programme of land reclamation efforts in Xinjiang that cost $4bn last year alone, according to Bingtuan, a 3m-strong paramilitary force that is creating the new farmland areas.

“[Before] there was nothing here, not even the date fields,” said Xing Jiewang, a Han (ethnic Chinese) construction worker.

The project is the latest evidence of Bingtuan’s tightening grip on this vast region’s economy and — some fear — driving out the local Uighurs, who are from a Muslim Turkic ethnic group.

Since the annexation of Xinjiang in 1950, Beijing has had a troubled relationship with the Uighurs. The region has seen sporadic outbreaks of ethnic violence. In 2016, fears of domestic terrorism prompted China to dramatically increase surveillance of the Uighurs. Last year an Isis video surfaced of Uighur fighters in Iraq calling for attacks in China.