Traveling China’s New Silk Road

August 20, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaCultureCivilization

Traveling China’s New Silk Road

Chinese civilization has historically been centered on its fertile east. Its expansion into the deserts of Central Asia creates fresh geopolitical opportunities for Beijing—and new dangers.

THE THOUSANDS of terra-cotta warriors from the third-century-BC Qin Dynasty, first unearthed in the mid-1970s, constitute one of the wonders of the world. I stared down into the vast clay pit where these life-sized soldiers, no two of them exactly alike, stand in a state of freeze-frame marching. They are all headed east. For Qin, though in the heart of today’s China, had been the westernmost of the Warring States. Thus, to the east lay all of Qin’s enemies. Beyond Qin, in the opposite direction westward, the agricultural cradle that has always defined Chinese civilization begins to give way to the emptier deserts of Central Asia.

A short drive from the site of the terra-cotta warriors in Shaanxi Province brought me to the Great Mosque of Xian, an eclectic confection of Arabic script underneath a traditional, upturned Chinese roof decorated with peacock-blue Persian tiles. The minaret here is easily mistaken for a pagoda. The result makes for an exquisite aesthetic, mixing the Middle East and the Far East, made even more precious by the dust. The Han-related Hui people, who maintain this mosque, account for the easternmost tentacle of Islam on the main body of the Asian mainland: the medieval Silk Road begins and ends right here—in what is, to repeat, the heart of the current Chinese state. For China’s political borders now encompass much more than the agricultural core of historic Han China.

Next up was Dunhuang, almost nine hundred miles to the northwest of Xian. Twenty minutes after takeoff, the intricate checkerwork of cereal cultivation began to thin out—a rumor of what would soon become a bleached and bony wasteland, the mountaintops like protruding vertebrae. Politically I was still deep inside China; demographically and ethnically less so, though geographically I had already crossed into Central Asia—into the southwest corner of the Gobi Desert, to be precise. By the time the plane landed the terrain had been reduced to a sheet of sandpaper, almost absent of topographical features.

Dunhuang was founded in middle antiquity as a military outpost of Han China, in the drive to establish and maintain protectorates in the desert and steppe lands to the west of the agricultural cradle. Buddhism, which took root during this period in what is now Pakistan’s northwest frontier, would become central to the Silk Road as the belief system of merchants and traders. There are hundreds of caves, their walls covered in medieval Buddhist frescoes, in the friable cliffsides around Dunhuang. In their lace-like delicacy, the tea-rose and mint-green colors of these frescoes seemed washed by milk. The paintings bear the artistic influences of not only Tang China but also Tibet, India and Sassanian Iran. For Dunhuang was a Silk Road nexus.

Just an hour beyond Dunhuang, hard lava-red hills suddenly give way to a horrifying ashy emptiness. This is the Yangguan Pass, where the protection of imperial China officially came to a halt. I thought of what the eighth-century Tang poet Wang Wei wrote of this very place:

Let us empty another cup of wine.

For, once West of Yangguan Pass, there will be no more friends.

But now I do continue west, yet once again, still well within the borders of the twenty-first-century Chinese state.

In Urumqi, beyond stacks of half-finished apartment blocks, I saw the towering, snow-mantled curtain of the Tien Shan (“Mountains of Heaven”) emanating terror and death. I shivered just looking at these gelid mountains. Twenty-one years before, on a previous visit, I found Urumqi a somnolent city of under a million when I arrived on a ramshackle train from Kazakhstan and left on a ramshackle bus for the Chinese border with Kyrgyzstan. No longer. Today Urumqi, the capital of China’s westernmost Xinjiang Province, has a population of 3.8 million. It is bursting with traffic jams on webworks of new highways and overpasses, with gleaming skyscrapers all around. The city is a testimony to Beijing’s attempt to dominate its Central Asian minority areas by smothering them with development, even as the Chinese build urban nodes for a postmodern Silk Road of long-distance highways, railways and energy pipelines linking China with the former Soviet republics nearby. For it isn’t only the Tien Shan that manifests the reality of Central Asia deep inside China: it is also the signs in Arabic script, evidence of the Turkic Uighur language spoken by more than a third of Urumqi’s inhabitants, a language strikingly similar to Turkish proper. (There are, too, signs in the Russian alphabet, indicating the presence of Kazakh, Uzbek and other Muslim minorities.) When one adds these ethnic Turkic areas to Tibet, you have a third of China’s land area. China is a prison house of nations, albeit to a lesser extent than the former Soviet Union.

And yet, whether it is the new highways, the high-speed rail trains that swept by my bus here in Chinese Central Asia, the unending new wind farms on the steppe or the ceaseless new apartment blocks—or even the very number of terra-cotta warriors themselves—China has always manifested an ambition of jaw-dropping, epic proportions. The sheer scale of it is impressive and frightening, both in antiquity and now. The fissiparous possibilities of China’s geography and ethnic makeup appear more than matched by the unifying force of this ambition.

My journey ends in Kashgar, adjacent to the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Eighty percent of the Kashgar region’s population of 4.5 million are Muslim Uighur Turks. The signature event here is the Sunday livestock market, where throngs of Uighur men in wispy beards and flat brocaded caps furiously bargain amid packed masses of sheep, lambs, horses, donkeys, cattle and furry Bactrian camels. The entire scene is veiled by a greasy film of dust, so that your memory of it is in black-and-white rather than color. But as authentic as it might appear to a first-time visitor, the livestock market in 2015 actually represents a more regulated, sanitized version of what I had experienced in 1994. Then, instead of Chinese-built trucks bringing the animals to market, there had been a chaos of donkey carts; and instead of a vast, rectangular space outside town set aside for the weekly event as exists now, the livestock market in the 1990s had been integrated into the bustling, equally chaotic traditional bazaar of Kashgar, with animals jostling against muddy stalls of brass and copper ware, all making for a deafening panorama of visual splendor reminiscent of earlier centuries.

But over twenty-one years, the ability of the Chinese state to extend its reach into the minority desert hinterlands has advanced so much that Kashgar today is a place of new, regimented apartment blocks, with paved streets and a grid pattern, while the animals are kept far from town. It is modernism, deliberately imposed by the Chinese authorities, that is diluting Turkic Uighur culture here. Kashgar is becoming a city of light industry—plastics and electronics—with the workers often imported from the Han core far to the east and housed in these new apartment blocks. The Uighur population fights back by copying mass culture imported from Turkey—the music and dances in the upscale Uighur restaurants are sometimes right out of Turkish television.

Whereas the medieval Great Mosque of Xian exudes an elegant confluence of civilizations—Chinese, Arab and Persian—here, deeper along the Silk Road in the twenty-first century, there is evidence of a crude clash. One day I witnessed hundreds of Uighur men with their beards and embroidered hats emerge from the fifteenth-century Id Kah Mosque in the center of Kashgar, only to face a well-organized group of Chinese who were engaged in loud line dancing to music from the movie Rush Hour. Their festivities were timed to coincide with afternoon Muslim prayers. Thus was mass global culture employed as an affront to a very traditional one.


MY ENTIRE trip constituted evidence of a postmodern geopolitical drama. The late Harvard China scholar John King Fairbank once said that China’s sense of itself is based on the cultural difference that exists between this surrounding belt of desert and the sown of China proper—in other words, between the pastoral and the arable. China’s ethnic geography reflects, in the words of Fairbanks and his Boston University colleague Merle Goldman, this “core-periphery” dynamic, with the core being the arable central plain of inner Han China, and the periphery being these pastoral frontier uplands heavily populated by minorities. To the early Chinese, agriculture meant civilization itself: that is, the Middle Kingdom, Zhongguo, which owed nothing to these surrounding peoples of the desert and steppe. From this worldview followed the kind of cultural certainty that China shared with Western Christendom.

The fact that the Chinese state today includes both desert and sown reflects the culmination of a long and thus far triumphant historical process, which, in turn, provides the geographical basis for Chinese power. Indeed, the reason why China is now developing a great naval presence in the South and East China Seas is because China, finally, in modern times, has the ability to do so, a luxury afforded by its erstwhile conquest of the desert and steppe-land periphery going counterclockwise from Manchuria to Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang to Tibet, thus protecting the arable cradle of Han culture from hostile incursions. Secure and dominant on land, Beijing can now go to sea.

The domination of a large part of Islamic Central Asia has a basis in Chinese history—medieval Tang armies threaded their way between Mongolia and Tibet to establish protectorates as far away as Khorasan in northeastern Iran, thus further enabling the Silk Road. At the same time, though, we should remember that East Turkestan—the area of Xinjiang—was taken back by the Manchu Qing Dynasty only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is not truly part of historical China to the same degree as the arable cradle.

So the question becomes whether the dominant Han people, who comprise more than 90 percent of China’s population and live mainly in the arable cradle, will be able to keep the Uighur Turks, Tibetans and Inner Mongolians who live on the periphery permanently under control, with a minimum degree of unrest. The fate of the Chinese state will hinge on this geographical issue, especially in the face of economic and political disruptions that loom large.

The next thirty years in Chinese history are not going to be as smooth as the last thirty years. While analysts in the United States might ferociously complain about China’s lack of transparency, about its autocratic system, and about its naval aggression in the South and East China Seas, China, especially since the end of Deng Xiaoping’s rule, has been governed by a collegial group of enlightened autocrats and technocrats, conservative in nature and averse to risk-tasking, so that China has generated relatively few surprises. This has helped encourage a bipartisan consensus on China policy in Washington, with the differences between Democrats and Republicans muted compared to the disputes that envenom Middle East policy. But more than three decades of double-digit growth, in addition to generating vast and profound contradictions and inefficiencies in the Chinese economy, have also created a more sophisticated, restive and socially complex society—one that is harder to satisfy. China is now a crucible. The leadership has become ever more centralized and autocratic, with a personality cult beginning to form around President Xi Jinping, even as the economy requires a never-ending stimulus merely to run in place. The dramatic decline of economic growth in recent years is only the beginning of a tumultuous transformation that will test the rulers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as never before.

The decline and fall of dynasties and empires has always been a messy business. And one should never forget that the CCP is another Chinese dynasty which runs an empire of desert and sown, with non-Han peoples on the periphery dominating much of the land area: an area containing the water, copper, iron ore and other resources upon which inner China relies. Xinjiang, twice the size of Texas, is now becoming a transport corridor for roads, rail and energy pipelines—part of the new Silk Road connecting China with Central Asia and eventually the Middle East and Europe. Not only is the bazaar in Kashgar full of Chinese-made consumer goods, but so, too, are the bazaars in the nearby former Soviet republics, demonstrating the stubborn dynamism of the Chinese economy at the most basic level. China’s economic and strategic reach, moreover, may eventually extend south from Kashgar to the Indian Ocean, as Xi announced in April the building of a major transport system from Xinjiang to the Pakistani port of Gwadar. As a result, Beijing can tolerate no substantial unrest in Xinjiang, even as the security atmosphere features ethnic tension and increasing violent attacks by Uighurs against Han Chinese. Here in East Turkestan is where China’s attempt at empire building is most pronounced and also where the Chinese state is most brittle.

Of course, experts have been discussing the possibility of the collapse of the CCP for years. But what would that collapse actually look like? Would it be merely the conversion of a collegial one-party system into a highly centralized and efficient authoritarianism; or a military coup from within that keeps the party nominally in control; or a slow rot that takes years and decades to play out? Remember, while the fall of the Soviet Union happened within a few short years, the Ottoman Empire, the “sick man of Europe,” took more than a century to expire. In any event, whether the center transforms into something entirely new or crumbles slowly from within, the relationship between inner China and outer China could somehow change. The places that I visited may increasingly comprise a police state controlled from Beijing—or they could be at the forefront of China’s subtle fragmentation, in which China reverts back by degrees to its arable cradle. I believe the former possibility is much greater than the latter one, but the latter one cannot be ruled out.

We have already seen chaos in quite a few Middle Eastern and African states. But China could yet evince unrest of a kind that could engulf not only itself but also other states in Central Asia, which are linguistically and culturally part of historic Turkestan. The adjacent Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union have yet to experience a post-Soviet upheaval, even as their aged leaders will soon pass from the scene, exposing regimes that lack fundamental legitimacy at the same time that the United States continues its withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan. In none of these places do ethnic borders coincide with official ones. A place like Kashgar might normally be associated with back-of-beyond travel writing. But, in fact, it could be at the center of the geopolitical world.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of fifteen books, including The Revenge of Geography (Random House, 2012) and Asia’s Cauldron (Random House, 2014).

Image: Wikimedia Commons/star5112