From the series XINJIANG: Exploring China’s new frontier
China believes prosperity and stability are key to dealing with the unrest in its northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang is home to different ethnic minorities. Border trade is one measure. Under China’s “Belt and Road” economic initiative, China is strengthening cooperation with neighbors, and building transportation routes in Central Asia. As a part of our series Xinjiang: Exploring China’s New Frontier, reporter Han Bin visits the city of Tacheng, on the border with Kazakhstan. He met a Uyghur family whose experience shows why border trade is so important, and what the new initiatives mean for the region.
XINJIANG: Cross-border ties at TachengExploring China’s New Frontier, reporter Han Bin visits the city of Tacheng, on the border with Kazakhstan. He met a Uyghur family whose experience shows why border trade is so important, and what the new initiatives mean for the region.
60-year-old Adil Abdurahman is a retired official from the local land port Bakhtu. For decades, he’s been documenting the city’s past.
In 1962, 60,000 Uyghurs and Kazakhs fled across the border into the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. What’s known as the Yi-Ta Incident has always been a bitter memory.
“I still remember my mother cried 3 days and nights when she arrived at Tacheng city weeks after the incident. More than 50 relatives from my mother’s family, including my grandmother, sister, uncles and aunts, fled abroad through Bakhtu port. It was a ghost city. Such kinds of family separations were so common in Tacheng,” said Adil Abdurahman, one retired leader of Bakhtu Port Management Committee at Tacheng.
Adil says Yi-Ta heightened the vulnerability of China’s border security at the time.
“But my grandmother was determined not to take Soviet citizenship and to retain Chinese nationality. She said the most painful thing and biggest regret in life was to have left the motherland.”
Adil keeps a family photo, taken a year before the exodus. He was 5. After the crossing, China sealed off border, and strengthened the guards. Many in Adil’s family have not seen each other for 25 years. And he never again saw his grandmother, who passed away in 1987.
“Life in Xinjiang has greatly improved. Even if we asked the residents, especially the young, to flee to other countries, no one will do it,” said Adil Abdurahman. Xinjiang re-opened Bakhtu in 1995. Today, it has developed into a window for China’s opening up. It’s simplified visa process and encourages border trade.
Adil’s son Almas Adil goes back and forth frequently. He got his degree in Kazakhstan, and returned home in 2012. His language skills serve him well as a translator and in business.
Bakhtu is one of 15 land ports in Xinjiang. China sees the importance of cooperation with neighbors in maintaining internal stability. The new Belt and Road initiatives are designed to build a commercial corridor to neighboring Central Asian countries.
“The purpose of my return is to seek career development in my hometown. There’ve been a lot of opportunities. A lot of my classmates have come to Xinjiang, hoping to do business. I’ve helped them and my own business,” said Almas Adil.
Bakhtu has opened duty-free shops and business centers. They’re popular with many wholesalers and retailers from both sides.
Though the Belt and Road hasn’t yet brought a tremendous increase in Tacheng’s border trade volume, Almas believes China’s robust economy will bring more tourists and goods through this passageway.
Adil notes Xinjiang had a long trade history before the initiative was announced. And he says Tacheng’s future holds even greater promise.
China continues to promote opening up in its northwest Xinjiang. This is to strengthen ties and boost cooperation with neighboring countries. This policy has brought profound changes to border cities like Tacheng, and to the people living here.
“After the re-opening of the port, border trade has not only boosted economic growth and stability; it has also promoted people-to-people exchanges and trade cooperation between China and Kazakhstan,” said Adil Abdurahman.
Adil says Bakhtu has the longest history of border trade in Xinjiang. What it needs now is to regain pride of place. The stability for that requires a secure border. And long-term peace requires strategies beyond China’s trade initiative.