By Alexandros Petersen
First published in The Atlantic on July 12, 2013
Central Asia’s beating heart, the commercial hub of the region that cultivated the old Silk Road, is neither of the fabled Thousand and One Nights cities of Samarkand or Bukhara. In fact, the center of this region is not even really in Central Asia. It’s in China.
Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, the autonomous region that together with Tibet makes up China’s western edge, is a bubbling, gritty metropolis, and probably the most cosmopolitan place between Shanghai and Istanbul. On the surface, Urumqi resembles most second-tier Chinese industrial hubs. But, with its myriad advertisements, signs and business placards in Chinese, Uighur, Russian, Kazakh and Kyrgyz — written in Chinese, Arabic or Cyrillic scripts –Urumqi is no ordinary Chinese city. In fact, it has emerged as the de factocapital of a revived Central Asia, a region poised to assume a higher profile in the world’s energy, diplomatic, and cultural scenes.
On the street, in the immense electronics, clothes, and kitchenware markets, and in the 24-hour all-inclusive spas used by traders as cheap hotels, the signs of Urumqi’s variety are everywhere. You regularly find pudgy Guangzhou businessmen next to nervous-looking Pakistani merchants from Peshawar, standing across the street from entire Russian families, dressed in white, as if on vacation in the Greek Isles. Iranian truck drivers commiserate with Farsi-speaking Tajiks, and entrepreneurs from Mumbai and Bangkok haggle in English with local Uighurs hocking goods manufactured in Shenzhen. The Turkic peoples of Eurasia: Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks, and even some Turkmen and Azeris, mingle with Uighurs and Turks from Anatolia: all groups who share a language family that is still prevalent in Xinjiang.
They are all here for one reason: to do business. The elderly shuttle trader with her overstuffed cargo bags will buy plastic Chinese merchandise and then, following a flight or bus trip back to a remote region like Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, will re-sell these goods at inflated prices. The mid-range container-owner is here to fill rail carriages with air-conditioners, laptops or nylon carpets to travel back to the bustling bazaars of the Ferghana Valley, where he will re-sell his items in bulk to retailers in affluent Kazakhstan or Russia. The big businessman is here to open a new branch office for his rapidly-growing commercial empire. Urumqi, farther from the sea than any other city in the world, has all of the brands and services available in China’s coastal cities. It is just that they’re a bit more rough-and-ready: The latest Samsung smartphone is still in its bubble wrap, while the flashy BMW is still on the transport truck.
The official population of Urumqi is around 3 million, and the majority of these people are Han Chinese, not Uighur. But the real population is probably substantially higher. GDP per capita, at around $11,000 is almost double China’s average and just below that of cities like Beijing and Shanghai. This isn’t an accident: the Chinese government has cultivated Urumqi at the expense of Xinjiang’s traditional trading cities of Turpan and Kashgar. Anyone flying from coastal China to Central Asia almost always must stop in Urumqi first. The city also serves as the hub for China’s major railway and pipeline arteries, connecting the country’s major cities with Central Asia, Russia, and the Middle East. It’s of little surprise, then, that such a wide variety of travelers find their way to the city.
Urumqi’s cosmopolitan profile hasn’t gone unnoticed in Beijing. For the last three years, the Chinese government has devoted a lot of resources to the China-Eurasia Expo, the region’s premier trade fair and an aspiring Davos. Last year, the six-day event included speeches by Premier Wen Jiabao and a host of regional leaders, from the Central Asian states to Pakistan, Turkey and the Maldives — even professional conference-goers like Tony Blair dropped by. Tens of billions of dollars worth of deals were made, with everything from Kyrgyz kalpak hats to Chinese tractors on display. The Afghans touted their mineral deposits, the Kazakhs their oil and local Xinjiang potentates repeatedly stressed the opportunities of investing in Xinjiang. This year’s expo, scheduled to take place in early September, has been promoted around the world, from Helsinki to Kuala Lumpur.
Urumqi’s role as a regional locus is mainly due a fortuitous location and culture. During the Qing Dynasty, Urumqi became an administrative center because it was here that the Manchu Bannermen crushed the Zhungarian Mongols, who had long threatened to cut eastern China off from its western domain. It is a fertile plain in the middle of Xinjiang’s deserts, and its location on a natural route across the Tianshan mountains into Central Asia and Russia make it as suitable a hub as anywhere nearby. Today, Urumqi is the closest major Chinese city for Central Asians who wish to buy merchandise, and the closest major Central Asian city for Chinese who wish to sell it. And, it is a chief selling point that the two major languages of the region, Mandarin and Turkic Uyghur, are spoken here with equal fluency.
Distant, obscure Urumqi also may loom large for the United States’ plans in the region. At the moment, the major plank of the Obama Administration’s policy for Central Asia after the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan is the cultivation of a so-called New Silk Road consisting of economic integration across the region that will turn Afghanistan into a roundabout for trade and transport. However, Washington’s “North-South” strategy not only ignores the the reality that — at least at the moment — Central Asia generally trades east-west, but also the existence of a major regional trade hub: Urumqi. As opposed to a commercial corridor dictated by geopolitical priorities, Urumqi is a natural focal point that sits between the production in central and eastern China on one side and the markets of Russia, the Middle East and Europe through Central Asia on the other.
This is not to say that it is in the United States’ interest to support the growth of an already booming Chinese axle with various Eurasian spokes. But it is imperative that any American policy take into account the regional realities of commerce and cultural interconnection. Afghanistan and South Asia may well be economically integrated with Central Asia. But when this happens, no city will be better positioned to capitalize than Urumqi.