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China Works to Tame, Populate Its West

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 03/01/08; January 8, 2003.]

Associated Press
Posted on Sat, Mar. 08, 2003

BEIJING - You've seen it in all the old movies: men, progress and cash moving westward into a rugged expanse, laying railroad track and taming the environment to bring the civilization of the east to a hinterland that could only be described as wild.

It happened in America during the 19th century, in Australia during the 20th. In the 21st century, it's China's turn.

Since 2000, the central government in Beijing has been pouring money into a high-energy project to develop its poor western provinces, including the heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang and the mountainous one-time kingdom of Tibet.

Now, as China's new leadership targets low living standards in the countryside as its most urgent problem, it is giving western development more priority than ever - and fitting it perfectly into the agenda of the National People's Congress, the legislature currently under way. It's a staggering task they face.

The west's economic output is a fraction of the east's. Improving its lot involves tackling 2.65 million square miles that are home to 367 million people - 29 percent of China's population, including an assortment ethnic minorities wary of increased central control.

"To implement such a colossal program in such a colossal area in an orderly way is an incredible challenge," Li Zibin, deputy director of the Cabinet office that oversees western development, said Saturday on the sidelines of the legislature.

Part of China's effort - the part it doesn't discuss as much - involves increasing the population of the regions in question by persuading millions of Han Chinese, the country's most populous and patriotic ethnicity, to move west. Hundreds of thousands have already been sent in.

Such migration, leaders presume, will help cement fundamental ties to Beijing in regions culturally and sometimes physically isolated. In the meantime, China is ardently courting foreign investment. Major electricity and gas pipeline projects are under way. And money from every corner of the nation is being sent toward the sunset.

"This year, the strength of western development will be accelerated even more," said Wang Chunzheng, vice minister of the powerful State Development and Planning Commission, the engine of communist China's finances.

Though China has neither stagecoaches nor six-shooters, the comparison to the American West is apt nonetheless.

Both countries faced settlement in western expanses that were dry, thinly populated and - at first - inhospitable. Both encountered minority groups that were, in their governments' estimation, backward.

And that just won't do in The New China, where the words "economic development" are a secular mantra.

And like America before it, China is laying track to connect the nation; a railroad is under construction through the western province of Qinghai, aimed at linking restive Tibet with the Han-dominated east.

Planners in Beijing say they looked at various countries' models of settling and developing "backward areas" - including approaches used by Japan, Italy, Canada and especially the United States.

"They learned lessons from their experience," Li said of American westward expansion. "Their environment was damaged, and they had to spend a lot of money and time to fix it. We want to borrow their successful experiences - but not the unsuccessful ones."

So far, the government reports progress. It cites figures saying the economy grew 9.9 percent in the western regions last year, faster than the national average of 8 percent. And more than $60 billion is being spent to control desertification, protect forests and renew grasslands depleted by grazing, according to Wang Zhibao, another western-development official.

What the leadership wants the most, though, is a west that reflects the prosperous east - with domestic and international brand names everywhere, economic enthusiasm replacing the outpost mentality and communities full of people happy enough not to turn on their government.

"I would like them to see buildings built. I would like them to see the environment protected. I would like them to see people living better lives," Li said.

He paused.

"I would like them to see a better investment climate where they can feel safe putting their money."

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