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 Bharat Rakshak > Security Research Review > In Memoriam


A Study of Infrastructure in Xinjiang


Sohum Desai

Executive Summary

The economic growth in the eastern provinces of China over the last twenty years has resulted in a steady expansion and improvement of infrastructure in the western provinces like Xinjiang (Sinkiang). Recently discovered mineral, petroleum, and natural gas reserves give Xinjiang a lucrative flavor for further investment in 'opening of China’s West' [i]. This nearly explosive growth of Chinese influence and presence in the region however has met with considerable resistance from the indigenous Uighur[ii] peoples. In general the fate of the Uighers evokes strong reactions among many Indians and thus the exploitation of economic opportunity in Xinjiang presents India with a considerable challenge. This challenge cannot be met without building up a detailed knowledge of the situation in Xinjiang. This paper attempts to present major infrastructure developments in the Xinjiang region and the plausible rationale behind the same.


Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps
Transportation Infrastructure
Water Infrastructure
Oil and Natural Gas Infrastructure


The land around the Tarim basin shares a lengthy border with eight countries linking the Middle Kingdom with Eurasia, Central Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent. This region at the crossroads of the great cultures of Asia, became home to the Uighur civilization [iii]. The Uighur people were nomads of Central Asian stock and over time developed a rich and vibrant presence. Though politically they spent some periods of their history under Chinese rule, they retained a strong strain of independence. 

From the Chinese perspective, going back to the Han Emperor Xuan Di[iv] , traditionally the northwestern region has been the dangerous and porous frontier of the Middle Kingdom – a route for invader armies, and home to an independent-minded, and quarrelsome tribal people. By the time of the Song Dynasty[v] however, the troublesome northwestern region became a gateway to riches along the fabled Silk Road. These two opposing notions play a very strong role in traditional Chinese thinking about the region. 

In the late 19th century, Xinjiang played a significant part of the eastern chapter of the “Great Game”, a struggle for dominance between Tsarist Russia, the British Empire and the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China[vi] . The British sought to undermine Qing authority in the region. They successfully courted the Uighur feudal lords and armed several Uighur groups. This policy resulted in several revolts and ultimately coupled with the British sponsored Opium Wars and the Taiping rebellion to create havoc. The British supported Uighurs fostered loyalty among the people by appealing to Islamic and nationalist motifs. This yielded a host of colorful characters like the Islamist despot Yakub Beg, Lord of the Kokand Khanate who served as a British proxy in the region. The enthusiastic response elicited by the British moves in the region, caused a stir in Russia. Tsarist Russia could not stand the growth of British influence in the region, and soon a Russian force entered the region and occupied it. This brought considerable hardship on the people of the region. Finally the Qing Dynasty moved to re-establish its rule in the region. In 1877, the Qing troops loyal to Emperor Guangxu overthrew Yakub Beg and established the province of “Xinjiang” (the New Frontier)[vii] .

Map of Xinjiang

The new name summarized the core of Manchu thinking about the region, a bulwark against invasive designs of the Russian and British empires. However the Manchu Dynasty collapsed in the face of a nationalist revolt in the mainland. The nationalist government under Dr. Sun Yat Sen had a weak control over the region and warlords took over the region[viii] . These warlords participated in opportunistic alliances with the nationalists and the communists. The British for their part supported the Islamist ideologues that attempted to setup a greater Islamic homeland for Turkic peoples in the region. These attempts failed to have the desired results and the region remained under Chinese authority. In later 1945, a revolution most likely influenced by some White Russian officers managed to seize power and establish the Eastern Turkestan Republic. The high officers of this republic carried out their duties for six years, until their mysterious deaths in an air crash near Lake Baikal[ix] . Soon afterwards the Communist Government of the Peoples’ Republic of China exerted its control over the region. 

This troubled history of the region finds reflection in more modern times. Notions of insecurity and opportunity shape Chinese thinking about Xinjiang. There are good reasons for why modern China should feel concerned about Xinjiang. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the pacts of old have passed into history. The Central Asian Republics are now experiencing a resurgence of transnational Islamic fundamentalism. This infectious notion of a Jihad could easily take root among Uighur separatists[x] . Post 9-11 the long-term US deployment in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan holds out a potential for strategic encirclement of China [xi]. This downward trend is however more than balanced by the fact that Xinjiang is slated to become China’s largest producer of natural gas with the opening of the Kela No.2 gas field in December 2004 and, furthermore, it is now believed that the Tarim Basin may contain over 20 billion tons of oil resources [xii]. The exploitation of Central Asian oil and natural gas reserves also seems possible if a route to the same were opened through Xinjiang. China’s growing appetite for hydrocarbons binds it to a serious exploitation of domestic sources.

Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps

The Chinese Communists took over the region after the death of the high officials of the Eastern Turkestan Republic. They quickly replaced key officials with Chinese communists and demobilized the Eastern Turkestan Republic’s Army. This army was converted into agricultural and economic battalions. Fresh PLA units were also sent into the region and by 1954 it was decided that a Production and Construction Corps would be fashioned out of these units. 

In a white paper titled “History and Development of Xinjiang”, the PRC Government ascribed the following purpose to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC)[xiii]

“…Accelerating local economic development, promoting unity among ethnic groups, maintaining social stability, consolidating border defense and shoring up the unification of the motherland”

The role of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) cannot be understated. The PRC white paper has the following to offer about the strength of the XPCC,

“Also known as the China Xinjiang Group, the XPCC has 14 divisions (reclamation areas), 174 regimental agricultural and stockbreeding farms, 4,391 industrial, construction, transport and commercial enterprises, and well-run social undertakings covering scientific research, education, culture, health, sports, finance and insurance, as well as judiciary organs. The total population of the XPCC is 2,453,600, including 933,000 workers.”

This puts the total strength of the XPCC at 14% of Xinjiang’s population or approximately 2.8 million members[xiv] . This corps is even today comprised largely of demobilized units of the PLA[xv] . The task of the corps has not been easy given the underdeveloped nature of the region and the corps has been buffeted by the fickle winds of the Cultural Revolution. It was dissolved once in 1975, only to be resurrected again in 1981[xvi] amidst the Beijing’s ‘western development strategy’ and will continue to grow with China’s increasing prioritization of Xinjiang. 

Perhaps no image quite summarizes the thrust of the Corps’ development strategies than this sculpture out side the XPCC head offices.


Sculpture depicting the nature of XPCC efforts[xvii]

As a result of the efforts fostered by the XPCC several major infrastructure projects have been completed in the Xinjiang region. These projects have enabled the profitable exploitation of Xinjiang’s natural resources. The key projects are addressed in sections that follow. 

Transportation Infrastructure


Geographically Xinjiang is a desert surrounded by mountains ranges. The snow capped mountains in the feed minor rivers and small oases spot the Taklamakan desert itself. Roads constitute the principal arteries in this region. Most of the roads connect the oases and the cities that line the edge of the desert. Highways account for majority of freight and passenger transport in Xinjiang as waterways are nonexistent, civil aviation service is still expensive and limited, and rail traverses the region[xviii] . Some roads were built by the XPCC to facilitate access to military positions along the borders, and others were built to access strategic sites like the Lop Nor nuclear test site, and the oil and natural gas fields. 

Eight national highways form the nucleus of the road network that connect major population centers skirting the Tarim and Jungariah Basins as well as connecting Xinjiang to the Gansu and Qinghai provinces in the east, several countries in Central Asia in west, and Tibet in the south [xix]. Many villages do not have access to highways and only 38% of roads are paved[xx] . Such inadequate infrastructure is a hindrance to power projection of Chinese land forces and inhibits economic growth in the region. In addition, labor force for highway construction is not regarded as well trained as labor available in the interior region or on the eastern seaboard[xxi] . This has resulted in higher frequency of accidents and poor maintenance obstructs traffic. For example, the famed Karakoram highway that connects Kashgar to Gilgit in Pakistan is open from June to October but can be closed due to snow or landslides[xxii] .

Hoping to alleviate these problems in areas of economic interest, the regional government with assistance from the World Bank Organization is developing the Turpan-Urumqi-Dahuangshan Highway that will improve access to tourist sights as well as, “significant oil and gas fields.” This corridor contains 20% of entire population and 40% of civilian owned vehicles and it is hoped that Xinjiang will attract more foreign direct investment to the province resulting from this development. In addition, China is also attempting to build a second desert highway through the Taklamakan desert to increase oil exploration efforts in the basin [xxiii].


Rail construction in Xinjiang, a land of deserts and mountains is very difficult. Since 1963, only one major railway line connected Lanzhou City in Gansu to the westernmost point of the Chinese section of the second Eurasian land bridge[xxiv] . This railroad facilitates export of cotton grown in northwest Xinjiang and crude oil pumped from Karamay to refineries in Lanzhou. This railway links Xinjiang to Mainland China but worries some Uighur that Han entry will erode their majority status [xxv]. Currently the capital city Urumqi serves as a rail transportation hub where the Southern Xinjiang Railway leading to Korla and a Northern Xinjiang Railway leading to Wusu Ala Pass originate [xxvi]. In May 1999 a 1,451 kilometer rail line extended the southern line originating in Turpan connecting it to the city of Kashgar[xxvii] . China aims to improve train speeds all over the country, including in remote regions. We can expect to see improvement of existent rail lines through double tracking, which has already been implemented in the Urumqi to Lanzhou City section of the railway[xxviii]


At present, there are total of 11 civilian airports throughout the Xinjiang region, six of which were newly built or renovated since 2000[xxix] . Of these Urumqi’s Diwopu International is the largest civilian airport. Though lacking any really distinctive architectural features, the Diwopu Airport is a symbol of China’s approach to Xinjiang – a monument of glass and steel and it serves as a hub for all flights in and out the autonomous region. This airport is also home to an aviation school that houses examples of Antonov 2 aircraft allegedly for agricultural duties [xxx]. In addition the PLAAF has three other installations in the Xinjiang region that includes surveillance sites at Korla and Qitai setup with international assistance to monitor Soviet missile tests in the eighties as well as a SIGINT facility at Hami[xxxi]. Undoubtedly even civilian airports and airfields have the potential for military use. The primary customer for this air infrastructure includes the several airlines that operate throughout the Xinjiang region, the most prominent being Xinjiang Airlines. The state run carrier founded in 1985 by Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), the service operates in all civilian airports in Xinjiang with a fleet of five Tu-154Ms, five IL-86s, two B737-300s, six B757s, and five ATR-72s [xxxii]. Despite this seeming accessibility of Xinjiang by air, flying is still expensive and out of reach of ordinary people.

Water Infrastructure

Xinjiang region is one of the driest places in the world. The arid landscape forces bulk use of glacial water runoff for consumption, accounting for 20.8% of the regions water supply[xxxiii] . Population growth, attributed to population transfers in 1960s, migration of ‘self-drifter’ Hans, and immigration into Xinjiang from other provinces has among other things greatly exacerbated land degradation, shrinkage of rivers, and drying of lakesxiv. During that time the XPCC constructed over 70 reservoirs to irrigate reclaimed cultivated land in Tarim Basin. This was eventually used to develop intensive cotton agriculture in that region that leads rest of nation in output in 2001[xxxiv] .

As water becomes an increasingly scarce commodity in Xinjiang, the region’s thirst will threaten water resources of bordering countries. A recent proposal to reroute water from the Irtysh River with a canal 300 kilometers long and 22 meters wide has recently worried neighboring Kazakhstan[xxxv] . Increasing usage of water from Irtysh and Ili rivers and certainly diverting the flow of the rivers, both of which originate in Xinjiang, can cripple agriculture, factories, and hydroelectric power stations downstream especially in towns like Almaty [xxxvi]. It remains to be seen how water-sharing rights in the future will shape Chinese diplomacy and their use for Xinjiang.

Oil and Natural Gas Infrastructure

As China’s thirst for hydrocarbons grows, the Oil and Natural Gas holdings in Xinjiang and Central Asia will become the focus of Chinese efforts. This is the most widely publicized area of economic undertaking in the region. Presently natural gas consumption comprises a very small part of China’s energy, but as the cities grow in the mainland the desire for a cleaner fuel grows with it [xxxvii]. Xinjiang’s extensive natural gas reserves totaling many trillion cubic meters could meet a large percentage of his future demand[xxxviii] . With that in mind infrastructure to access these resources is also being developed. A multibillion dollar 4200 kilometer pipeline project extending from Tarim basin to Shanghai in the east was recently completed in August 2004. Extraction of resources from Xinjiang poses a problem the vast Taklamakan desert creates accessibility issues and the fruitful strata are often located over 5,000 meters in depth[xxxix] . This must temper Chinese notions about turning the Xinjiang reserves into the mainstay of the economy. In any case the Chinese are also investing in pipeline infrastructure and resource fields in Central Asia. Currently two main pipelines are under consideration, the first going to the Caspian via Kazakhstan and the second going to the Daulatabad reserves in Turkmenistan. A third pipeline running to Iran itself via Turkmenistan doesn’t seem implausible. Several key agreements are being inked with Central and West Asian states for oil and natural gas supplies[xl]

Table 1: Major Oil and Natural Gas Pipelines[xlvii]

Area Major Fields Estimated Oil Reserves Estimated Natural Gas Reserves Area of Reserve
Tarim Basin[xli],[xlii]



10.8 Billion Tons 8.4 tcm 560,000 sq km






- - -

Turpan and Hami Basins (Tuha)[xliv]



0.28 Billion Tons 26 bcm 53,500 sq km



8.6 Billion Tons 2.1 tcm 130,000 sq km
Santanghu[xlvi] Hatu N/A N/A N/A

Pipeline Basin or Refinery Length Substance Transported
Lunnan to Kuerle Tarim Basin 191.79 km Oil
Karamay Field t o Dushanzi, Karamay, Urumchi Karamay Basin - Oil
Tazhong to Lunnan Tarim Basin 302.15km Oil and Gas
Shanshan to Urumchi[xlviii] Shanshan 310.78km. Gas
Atasu-Alashankou-Dushanzi Atasu (Kazakhstan) 1,240km Oil
Turkmenistan-Almaty-Urumchi[xlix] Various fields (Turkmenistan) 1,000 km Natural Gas
West-East Pipeline[l] Tarim 4,200 km Natural Gas


Xinjiang, the land of the Taklamakan desert, home to the Uighur people may seem like an arid wasteland forgotten in the pages of time. However great resources lurk beneath the desert sands and profitable exploitation offers a chance for considerable fortunes. Xinjiang’s geography also offers many advantages. China is keenly aware of the strategic importance of the Xinjiang region. Xinjiang not only provides an avenue for gaining energy security but also an opportunity to engage regional powers like India and Pakistan, and a gateway to West Asia and Russia. For these reasons, China has invested considerable amounts of money in its infrastructure to avoid a repeat of regional history, when benign neglect of the province invited international challengers. From an Indian perspective, a deeper exploration of Xinjiang and the opportunities it may provide is desirable.

References and Footnotes 

[ii] Pronounced `Yee-gur'.  
[ix] [x]   
[xi] [xii]    [xiii]  
[xxvii] Mackerras, Colin. "China's minorities and national integration." Nationalism, Democracy, and National Integration in China. Pages 148-166

[xxx] Conversations with a traveler to the region.
[xxxi]   [xxxii]   


© 2005 Bharat-Rakshak