The Belt and Road Institute in Sweden (BRIX) held a webinar on Wednesday, July 14, 2021, to address the economic importance of the Chinese province of Xinjiang (Uyghur Autonomous Region) for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and economic cooperation with neighboring countries. The Chinese people call Xinjiang “the wonderful land”, hence the title of the webinar. The webinar was co-hosted simultaneously by the BRIX, the Chinese Embassy to Sweden and the Xinjiang Province Department of Commerce, who held a special event in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.
The Chinese Ambassador to Sweden, Mr. Gui Congyou, officials from Xinjinag, diplomats from Pakistan and Belarus, in addition to current and former government officials, parliamentarians and think tankers from Pakistan, Sweden, Norway, Italy, and the Netherlands, reported their own experience of the economic and social developments in Xinjiang and the neighboring countries of China to the West.
Moderator and Vice Chairman Stephen Brawer pointed to the strategic position of Xinjiang, as the Westernmost province in China making it into the gateway to the West and the hub of most of the land-based logistics and transport from some of the most productive provinces of China, to Central Asia, South Asia, West Asia and Europe.
The launching of the BRI and the massive programs for poverty alleviation made this region a growth hub and a source of stability for the Central Asian region. It has become a model of overcoming terrorism and extremism which has made the Xinjiang experience relevant for the future development of Afghanistan after the recent withdrawals of the foreign military forces, a subject that would be covered in the end of the webinar Brawer said.
H.E. Gui Congyou, Ambassador of the Peoples Republic of China to Sweden, in the keynote speech, pointed to the enormous success of the tourist industry as a result of Xinjiang overcoming the longtime suffering from terrorism. The Chinese government cracked down hard on the terrorists and organized educational programs for people exposed to terrorist and extremist ideas. It has resulted in no terrorism in four years. All the ethnic groups there support that, the Ambassador underlined and then cited investigations saying that no forced labor has been found. “How can there be forced labor in cotton production when the production is mechanized”, he asked. The Uyghur population is growing, he continued and asked: “How is this genocide?”
The vision of Xi Jinping to launch the BRI has led to improvements of the infrastructure, so now Xinjiang, Mr. Gui said, “is the backbone of the BRI entering its most stable and prosperous stage in its history”. He welcomed everyone to visit Xinjiang, and even to study and work there.
A panel of seven high officials from Xinjian participated in the Webinar. Ms. Zhu Yong Deputy Director-General, Department of Commerce of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region gave the main presentation about the vast province of Xinjiang which has one sixth of China´s territory and one quarter of its borders. It is the homeland of 56 ethnic groups, she said, but also of the Chinese nation since ages. The temperate climate makes it a home to fruit production like pears and grapes. It has a huge potential for tourism. It is a world natural heritage and has an abundance of culture.
With the economic development, the stability of society is now maintained. In the period 1990-2016 it was ravaged by terroristic secessionists with thousands of violent attacks. The law is upheld with the method of addressing the root causes of these issues. People’s lives have improved with the help of vocational colleges. The breeding ground of religious extremism and terrorism has been removed. For four years in a row there was has been no incidence of terror, she said. Improvement of the economy and the eradication of poverty makes a good life possible instead of terrorist ideas.
Efforts to remove pollutants and improve the landscape with water reservoirs irrigation projects have made Xinjiang more beautiful. As a result, tourism has increased dramatically to 200 million visits 2019 and the plans are now to reach 300 million.
There has been a number of significant infrastructure projects built. Railways reach most parts of Xinjiang, and 75 percent of all counties have highways. All villages have solid roads, electricity, and broadband connections. Regional centers are developing fast. 2,5 million housing units have been built and many more have been repaired. People have moved into new homes, Ms Zou Yong reported who also showed a video of the improvements in Xinjiang.
Ambassador of Pakistan to Sweden, H.E. Mr. Zahoor Ahmed spoke next, representing a close neighbor and partner of China directly bordering Xinjiang. He underlined the extreme importance of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a flagship project of the BRI. The CPEC was the subject of the most recent webinar organized by BRIX.
Ambassador of Belarus, H.E. Mr. Dmitry Mironchik reported that every day 20 trains between Europe and China pass through Belarus which is on the BRI Eurasian Corridor. He reported about the progress of the industrial park Great Stone outside Minsk, a special economic zone supported by China to become a development hub along the Economic Belt of the New Silk Road. The project (en.industrialpark.by/) has now 71 high Tech companies active there. As of now 500 million USD have been invested there out the 1.2 billion projected. In the future 100.000 people are expected to be living there.
Mr. Hassan Daud, CEO of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province Board of Investment, spoke next from Peshawar in the western province of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. He said he is a witness of the huge development in Xinjiang after many visits there. His region is a place where history and hospitality meet and has hosted trading posts since the ancient Silk Road. There is a need to do just this, to sit together and form long term plans and research, Mr. Daud said. We live in a challenging time in light and darkness. We need to develop this partnership in BRI with governments everywhere. For the success of the people to people exchange. He stressed the importance of the Health Silk Road as health is fundamental to every person. Finally, he requested a similar webinar to be held already in September.
Professor Michele Geraci, Former Deputy Minister, Italian Ministry of Economic Development presented his latest findings from visiting Xinjiang in May this year. He said it is difficult for people in the West to understand what is happening in Xinjiang because of the current narratives. He said people even doubted he was there, and he had to prove that to them with videos. Geraci said: “It is easy to cheat people, more than to convince them they have been cheated.” He believes that the discussion on genocide is not true. “My evidence”, he said, “is that the mathematics is not adding up with 1-3 million people in alleged camps. If so, mothers and children you meet would know. But it is a completely normal situation and life there is similar to other parts of China.”
Geraci, who comes from a nation that was ravaged by terrorism in the 1980-ies, said that “people in the West are not aware of the amount of terrorist attacks carried our earlier in Xinjiang and other parts of China. However, China chose not to give these attacks media coverage and inspiration to the terrorists like the West did.”
In the latest visit, following previous prearranged meetings, he went on his own on a train to travel completely free like in Shanghai. Professor Geraci who is fluent in Mandarin and in meeting people, he found that the problems people were talking about were not targeting any ethnic or religious minority. “Why go only against the Uyghurs out of the 56 minorities? Why would China target only one minority in one province? It is completely unfounded”, he said and showed a video from this visit travelling alone.
Professor Michele Geraci, who is living and teaching in China, has his own videocast series trying to inform about China from his standpoint as an economist:
Mr. Thore Vestby, former member of the Norwegian Parliament and Co-founder of ICHI Foundation, Norway said he could confirm what professor Geraci said. Mr Vestby had been in Xinjiang 2019 and had seen many of the same places. “There were many checkpoints, but he felt as safe as back in Norway”, he said. Mr Vestby is also a board member of the Transnational Foundation for Peace & Future Research -TFF where he, together with Gordon Dumoulin and Jan Oberg, published an internationally significant report in April this year, exposing the Western narratives about Xinjiang. The report is called “The Xinjiang Genocide Determination As Agenda – A Critical Analysis Of A Report By The Newlines Institute And The Raoul Wallenberg Center”. Another report about the smoke put out to hide what is going on in China is planned to come out in September, he finished.
Ms. Huilin Shi, editor of the China-Europe rail transport specialized website Railfreight.cn in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, presented “Xinjiang – a Logistics Hub on New Silk Road”. Among all the Chinese provinces Xinjiang, she said, has the longest national boundaries, most neighboring countries, and most border crossings. It is transiting 141,84 million tons of cargo. The train service China Europe Express connect 29 cities in China with regular train service to 23 countries and 169 cities in Europe. The number of trains per year have increased from only 17 trains in 2011 to 12,406 trains in 2020. A number that is expected to be surpassed this year as already in the first half year 2021 as many as 9,155 trains have been sent.
Of the Northern border crossings of China in the East, Middle and West, Xinjiang to the West has the two border crossings at Alashankou and Khorgos that account for 66.5 percent of the cargo. At these crossings, the trains are pulled up on parallel tracks to be reloaded from or to the broad gauge of the CIS nations to the more narrow European gauge used by China. Alashankou with its rough mountain climate is mostly used for minerals or heavy cargo, while Khorgos on its flat land is used for textiles, shoes, light industrial products. The city of Khorgos has grown from a small town to a trading center for European products, Ms. Huilin said.
Next speaker was Ms. Xuefei Chen Axelsson, Editor of Greenpost.se a publication in English, Chinese and Swedish based in Stockholm, Sweden. She presented an article she had written in 2018 about Xinjiang after a visit there. The impression from 1990-ies of poverty and insecurity had all gone, she said. It was like her home province Dalian in Eastern China.
In the last years she had started to find products from Xinjiang in the shops in Stockholm like the special pears and white melons. She explained that the fruit orchard tradition goes back to the one thousand years old irrigation system where water was brought in underground canals into the Gobi Desert making the fruit growing possible. Ms. Xuefei went in 2019 to the city Turfa which is very dry and hot, It is famous for its grape farming, now being improved to European tastes. It is also famous for its religious and ethnic unity and the Turfan Festival Neighborhood’s meetings where different ethnic groups sit together bringing their owns snacks. Each group displays its dances, sports and songs, making it into a big tourist attraction. Ms. Xuefei said there is the Chinese saying that states “to get rich, you first build a road.” That is what Xinjiang has done, she said. The China-Europe Express has brought a lot of trade. Swedish Minister of Trade Anna Hallberg have thanked it for its continued service in the pandemic crisis bringing a lot of help from China. Before, west-bound filled containers were twice as many as those returning to China. Now the trains are filled to 70 percent of their capacity from Europe to China, Ms. Xuefei reported.
Hussein Askary, Board Member, Belt and Road Institute in Sweden – BRIX in his presentation focused on the economic and strategic importance of Xinjiang as a bridge to the Muslim world, which has a long history, and to the landlocked Central Asian nations as well as Africa. He stated that since he has never been to Xinjiang and not really a China expert, he will focus on the connection to Central Asia along the BRI. There are far too many journalists and think tankers in the West who have never been to Xinjiang nor China, nevertheless they consider themselves as China experts and write all kinds of stories about Xinjiang.
Askary presented the different projects and agreements that China and the Central Asian countries are cooperating around. Many national development plans of these countries are now aligned with the BRI.
In the second part of his presentation, Askary focused on Afghanistan and the proposals to create peace in Afghanistan through economic development and integrating the country into the BRI. He contrasted the failure of Nato and the U.S. in stabilizing the country through military means alone to that of China which uses a combination of security measures and socio-economic development. He referenced an international initiative launched by the Chairwoman of the Germany/based Schiller Institute, Mrs. Helga Zepp-LaRouche which calls for collaboration between the major powers and Afghanistan’s neighbors to rebuild the country.
A lively discussion followed, with questions posed by the European audience mostly directed to the Xinjiang officials who could provide information on many other aspects of development in Xinjiang, such as afforestation of the desert areas, and also how they intend to cope with sanctions imposed by the U.S. on products originating from Xinjiang.
The webinar lasted 3 hours and 40 minutes.