Mining boom towns, violent clashes with indigenous peoples, prospectors pushing into foreign lands — welcome to China’s Wild West!
As the country continues to develop, a distinctly Chinese version of the United States’ westward expansion in the 19th century is taking shape. While 19th-century America was obsessed with Manifest Destiny — the idea that predominantly white Americans would conquer all the land from the East Coast to the West — the People’s Republic has its own obsession: the Chinese Dream.
A kind of unifying nationalism promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Dream is the belief that the entire country — urban and rural alike — must become well-off, socially harmonious, and fully developed by 2049.
Driven by this dream to modernize the entire country — as well as by its insatiable demand for natural resources — China is taking a page from Uncle Sam’s old playbook and using settlers, prospectors, and railroads to conquer its restive borderlands.
Go west, young Han
With a population of over 1.4 billion, China is fueling this expansion with its most plentiful resource: people. Using economic incentives and massive infrastructure spending as bait, Beijing has lured millions of Han Chinese migrants and businesses to the country’s most far-flung provinces. This has created predictable tensions with local ethnic minorities.
Take Xinjiang, which lies in the far western reaches of China and means “new frontier” in Mandarin.
Rich in natural resources, Xinjiang has coal deposits that account for roughly 40 percent of China’s total and is home to the country’s largest natural gas reserves. Beijing has invested billions of dollars to extract these resources, enticing hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese to the region, the traditional home of the nation’s Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group that practices Islam. It is reported that 250,000 to 300,000 Han Chinese migrate to Xinjiang each year seeking opportunities, and Uighurs now only make up 46 percent of the region’s population.
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