KASHGAR, China >> The brochure promised “a piece of heaven,” but Shangri-La, a half-built apartment complex on the dusty outskirts of this oasis town, was hardly that. The landscape was parched, and the most notable sign of life was a pack of goats chewing their way through a mound of trash.
Beneath a plastic canopy marked “sales center,” the young Chinese saleswomen in ill-fitting miniskirts reassured prospective buyers. “Don’t worry, there’s a man-made lake coming and all those houses will be torn down,” one said, gesturing to the mud-brick homes occupied by Uighurs, members of the Turkic-language ethnic group that predominates in this far western corner of China known as Xinjiang.
If the saleswomen seemed unmotivated, it was because they had little to sell. The first phase of Shangri-La, which includes 900 apartments, was snatched up soon after workers broke ground this summer. An additional 600 planned apartments are mostly spoken for.
The situation is repeated across this faded Silk Road pit stop, where a skyline once dominated by minarets and a huge statue of Mao is now flecked with cranes and balcony-trimmed high rises. The real estate boom, much of it fueled by speculators from other parts of China, was ignited last spring by a central government directive lavishing Kashgar with economic aid and the creation of a special development zone.
“We can’t build apartments fast enough for the demand,” said Han Cunliang, a salesman at European View Gardens, a high-end apartment complex where prices have nearly doubled in recent months. “Come back here in five years, and you won’t recognize the place.”
The city’s sudden change in fortunes is striking given the realities of Kashgar, an impoverished backwater encircled by desert that is closer to Baghdad than to Beijing. Per capita income in Xinjiang’s urban areas is about 30 percent less than that in Chinese cities as a whole. Jobs are scarce and water is in short supply.
Then there is the unhappy marriage between the governing Han Chinese and the governed Uighurs, a Sunni Muslim people who have more in common with those living across the border in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. That tension has persisted since 1949, when Chinese troops crushed a nominally independent Uighur nation, known as the East Turkestan Republic.
The discontent flares up periodically and violently. Last year, nearly 200 people were killed and 1,700 wounded in ethnic rioting in the regional capital, Urumqi. Many of the dead were Han migrants, whose growing presence has stoked anger among Uighurs worried about the dilution of their culture and a job market that mostly excludes them.
In Kashgar, two men armed with homemade bombs and knives attacked a column of Chinese soldiers out for a morning jog in 2008, killing 16 and wounding 16 others.
Alarmed by the unrest, the central government has sought to pacify the region with a combination of largess and an iron fist. At least nine people accused of being involved in the Urumqi riots were executed.
But the authorities also replaced the region’s hard-line leader with a gentler one, Zhang Chunxian, the former party chief of Hunan province. Soon after his appointment this past spring, he described himself as a son of Xinjiang and declared his commitment to “the people’s well-being.”
The softer stance has been accompanied by a promise of tens of billions of dollars in aid for education, six new airports, highways and a rail line that would make Kashgar a way station between South and Central Asia.
The plan’s most unorthodox component will shift more than $1.5 billion in aid from 19 eastern cities and provinces to Xinjiang over the next five years. Kashgar will receive nearly half that, much of it coming from its designated sister city, Shenzhen, in southern China.
The association with Shenzhen has electrified residents — and real estate speculators — with the hope that Beijing plans to make Kashgar the next Shenzhen. In 1980, when Deng Xiaoping declared Shenzhen a special economic zone, it was a fishing village whose greatest attribute was its proximity to Hong Kong. Today, it is a manufacturing leviathan of 9 million people.
“They say we are going to be the Dubai of Central Asia,” Alim Turkash, a taxi driver, said with a broad smile.
But the frenzy is based partly on misinformation. Part of Kashgar, and not a large part, will be designated an economic development zone, not a “special economic zone,” the pixie dust that transformed Shenzhen. In fact, the zone will be little more than an expansion of the sleepy industrial park that until now has been hobbled by a lack of reliable electricity and water.
There are other obstacles, including Kashgar’s long distance from the dynamism of eastern China and the fact that its western neighbors — among them Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan — are not exactly economic behemoths.
Then there is the destruction of Kashgar’s ancient quarter, a 2,000-year-old maze of adobe courtyard homes that was once the primary draw for tourists. The government says the demolition is part of a plan to earthquake-proof the city, but many local residents complain about the forced relocations and the loss of their architectural heritage. “Once the Old Town is gone, who will want to come to a place that looks like every other Chinese city?” said the waiter at a cafe that caters to foreign tourists.
Boosters of the government’s economic package, nonetheless, say the extra money and attention will go a long way toward transforming a region whose economic mainstays are cotton, melons and ornamental knives.
Gardner Bovingdon, a professor of Eurasian studies at Indiana University, said Beijing’s new policies tried to paper over an underlying problem: the Uighur aspiration for increased autonomy. He also believes that the government mistakenly associates anti-Han sentiment with the paucity of jobs and material wealth.
“The truth is, when people have satisfied their basic needs, they are more likely to contemplate their political aspirations,” he said. “The Uighurs have been demanding greater autonomy for a long time, but Beijing pretends it doesn’t hear what they’re saying.”