URUMQI, China -- A week has passed since an explosion caused about 80 casualties at a railway station in Urumqi, once again bringing the world's attention to the capital of China's troubled Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Police have continued on high alert across the country since the April 30 blast. It was another in a string of violent incidents that Chinese authorities blamed on Uighur militants. Outbreaks of violence linked to problems concerning ethnic minorities in the country show no sign of ending. A knife attack took place on May 6 at a railway station in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.
Xinjiang is ruled by China's Han ethnic majority and there is a need to know what is actually happening to the minority Uighur group amid the ongoing confusion.
German automaker Volkswagen opened a new plant in the city's economic and technological development zone surrounded by sand dunes last August. "The plant was constructed after clearing a mountain of sand," said a security guard at the factory. It now sits on a 60,000-square-meter site.
Volkswagen spent 2 billion yuan ($321 million) on first-phase construction of the plant. The factory currently has 400 employees. Volkswagen plans to increase the number to around 1,000 by the end of this year, while 20% of current workers are from ethnic minorities such as the Uighur community.
The plant went online with an annual production capacity of 50,000 vehicles. It assembles the Santana sedan. Volkswagen plans to expand the factory at an early date to boost its annual production capacity to 300,000 vehicles.
The new silk road
Volkswagen became the first major automaker to set up operations in the Xinjiang region. Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn has said that the Urumqi factory will become a base to cultivate the western Chinese market. Urumqi is thought to be the most inland city in the world. It has developed as an oasis town in the desert since ancient times, and now has a population of about 3.5 million.
To the west of Urumqi are resource-rich Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. A cargo railway linking Chongqing, a major Chinese southwestern city, to Europe via Urumqi opened in 2011. The city is an important connection on a modern silk road crossing the Eurasian continent. This strategic location has attracted Volkswagen and other foreign companies to Urumqi.
U.S.-based Coca-Cola and major Chinese construction machinery maker Sany Group have also set up plants within the special development zone. Some Japanese companies, including Sekisui Chemical and Sapporo Breweries, have also established business footholds in Urumqi.
"Urumqi has developed significantly in the past 10-odd years," said a Sekisui Chemical official.
There is a cluster of high-rise buildings in the central area of Urumqi. Except for the dry climate peculiar to desert areas, there is little difference in its appearance to the streets of big Chinese coastal cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.
Many youths can be seen wearing luxury brands such as Gucci and Prada on the streets of Urumqi. But a careful look quickly reveals that they are mostly Han Chinese. The Chinese government has pushed ahead with its policy of "Han-ization." While touting the benefits of economic development, the Chinese government has also imposed the education of Han characters on all other ethnic groups.
Forty-two ethnic groups, including Hui and Kazak as well as Uighurs live in Urumqi. But those enjoying the affluence so far, are mostly Han Chinese. Lined up just behind high-rise buildings in the city are rows of mud-brick houses belonging to poor Uighurs.
Several Uighur people complained about their situation in English at a mosque that Chinese President Xi Jinping recently visited during an inspection tour of Urumqi.
"Please don't use the phrase 'economic development.' Look at us," they said.