Mobile Menu

A Crazy Idea That Would Literally Reshape Xinjiang, China

February 24 | 4 Comments

I read news this last week about a recent proposal to push the US state of California to divide into 6 different states. It intrigued me for a few different reasons, not the least of which has to do with my current home here in Xinjiang, China.

Dividing California into six states

The California proposal claims that California has grown so big, so inefficient, it’s essentially ungovernable. Despite all the difficulties involved with such a split and the fact that the odds are slim that this will pass, the proposal does have merit.

By itself, the state of California would have the eighth-largest economy in the world yet there are vast parts of the state that are poorly underserved and spending is unbalanced.

What about Xinjiang, China?

If such a proposal makes sense for a state like California in the U.S., why not something similar here in western China?

Xinjiang is the largest of China’s regions and has quickly become one of the fastest growing in terms of wealth (home to China’s richest city) and infrastructure (soon to open a high-speed rail link). Unfortunately it has also been one of Beijing’s biggest headaches in terms of security spending and social stability.

So for the sake of argument, what if Xinjiang were to split into two halves? It’s interesting to think about, especially when you consider:

  • Geographic Division: Xinjiang is naturally divided into a northern and southern half by the beautiful and massive TianShan range that crosses from west to east across the province.
  • Nomenclature: around here it’s quite common to hear people refer to a place as being in 北疆 (“North Xinjiang”) or 南疆 (“South Xinjiang”). The naming has already occurred.
  • Ethnicity: generally speaking, south Xinjiang is home to a vast majority of the Uyghur ethnic group while northern Xinjiang boasts a majority Han Chinese followed by Kazakh and others.
  • Foreign Trade: Currently Xinjiang borders 8 countries with most of the trade occurring across the border with Kazakhstan in the north and Pakistan in the south. Dividing the two could allow the regions to focus time and resources to developing these separate trade links.
  • Historically: due to the geographic division mentioned above, a lot of Xinjiang’s history is also separated into events in the north and events in the south. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s the the current borders began to take a more permanent shape.
Dividing Xinjiang into north and south regions

A rough estimate of the natural Xinjiang dividing line

Concluding Thoughts

Just like California, any changes of this magnitude in Xinjiang would take years to develop, if at all. I’m not promoting this as a great idea – heck, I’ve only entertained the thought for a few days – but it is interesting, isn’t it? The implications of such a change are likely far greater than I realize.

Let’s see what happens to California first. If they can pull it off, you just never know.

What do you think?

Dumb idea or intriguing proposal? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, especially from those who have a more intimate knowledge of Xinjiang.

About Josh Summers

Josh is the author of Xinjiang | A Traveler's Guide to Far West China, the most highly-reviewed and comprehensive travel guide on China's western region of Xinjiang. He lived, studied and run a business in Xinjiang, China for more than 10 years, earning recognition for his work from CCTV, BBC, Lonely Planet and many others.

Continue Reading:

  1. What’s going on here, Josh? A badly understanding-impaired person might be mistaken and find you promoting the idea of splitting the Motherland.
    From an economic and sociologic point of view, I don’t think that this division would bring any good to the region. The current situation theoretically allows the well-off Dzungaria to help directly the poorer Tarim basin. Dividing Xinjiang into two parts would only deepens the economic issues the Southern part is facing.

    Just my two cents…

    Josh on March 1st, 2014 at 2:00 am

    Thanks for the comment, Xemitjan. I was actually expecting quite a bit more feedback on this short piece and was surprised when I didn’t get any. I thought it was interesting to think about, but apparently I’m alone in that.

    The purpose of throwing the idea out wasn’t to cause any controversy but rather to stimulate conversation. As you mentioned, there does exists a huge economic gap within Xinjiang but I think much of the ill-feelings surrounding that gap has more to do with the fact that this theoretical “north helps the south” is hogwash. Why pretend?

    I would also contend that Korla is proof that there is plenty of wealth available in the south if more resources were dedicated to exploiting it.

    I don’t have a strong opinion on either side of this theoretical argument, I just believe that – similar to California – there is merit to the idea even if the chances of it ever happening are slim-to-none.

    Make sense?

    Xemitjan on March 2nd, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    On second thought, what is interesting in your post is the opposite question : what makes Xinjiang one single region in RPC :
    – its history?
    – its population?
    – its geographic situation?
    – its political blackholeness?
    – its being an economic spearhead toward the rest of Central Asia?
    – all above items?

  2. Interesting proposal, and, actually, such a reality would seem to mirror history: according to Rudelson’s “Oasis Identities,” traditional loyalties have been more provincial, tied to hometowns.

    Nah, probably won’t fly, as, according to that same book, the very ethnicity of “Uighur” was revived by Chinese government planners of the 1930s (on Soviet advice) as a way to help prevent then-prevalent inter-ethnic conflict among the oasis dwellers!