The Active Participation of Ethnic Minority Areas in the Belt and Road Initiative _ Qiushi Journal

The Active Participation of Ethnic Minority Areas in the Belt and Road Initiative

By: Wang ZhengweiFrom:English Edition of Qiushi Journal January-March 2016|Vol.8,No.1,Issue No.26 | Updated: 2016-Mar-8 13:51
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The establishment of a Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the Belt and Road) represents a major boon for the development of China’s ethnic minority areas (generally regions of western China where large concentrations of ethnic minorities reside), especially border areas. The initiative will help border areas to open up and develop at a faster pace, thereby creating a new dimension to underpin China’s development.

I. The Belt and Road Initiative represents a new opportunity to accelerate the development of ethnic minority areas.

Over the past 30 years, China has captivated the world with the achievements of its opening up drive. However, its opening up drive has generally been faster and more thorough in the country’s east, particularly in coastal regions; while the opening up of inland regions in the west has been slower and less intensive in comparison. Most of China’s ethnic minority areas are located in these western, inland regions, and the extent to which their economies are open to the outside is comparatively low. The introduction and implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative has created new prospects for the comprehensive opening up of China’s economy and provided a boost for the opening up of western regions and border areas, giving a new strategic dimension for the development of ethnic minority areas and bringing these areas a large number of benefits.

1. New opportunities for ethnic minority areas to develop an open economy 

The Belt and Road Initiative has brought ethnic minority areas from the peripherals to the forefront of China’s opening up, turning them into a pivotal point and key hub in this drive. This will completely redefine the role of ethnic minority areas, providing a massive boost for the development of open economies in these areas.

2. New opportunities for ethnic minority areas to participate in regional cooperation 

The Silk Road Economic Belt will link China’s vast northwestern region, which includes such provinces and autonomous regions as Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, and Xinjiang with China’s heartland, placing these areas at the geographical center of regional development in Eurasia. At the same time, the belt will accentuate the geographical advantage that Inner Mongolia enjoys as a passageway to Russia and Mongolia. In particular, the development of Xinjiang as a core area on the Silk Road Economic Belt and Ningxia as an experimental zone for an inland open economy will provide huge opportunities for the development of these areas. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will link the southwestern provinces and autonomous regions of Guangxi, Yunnan, and Guizhou with the developed regions of China’s southeast, allowing the former to become a bridgehead for regional cooperation with South Asia and Southeast Asia. The initiative will also bring Tibet good opportunities for exchanges and cooperation with neighboring countries such as Nepal.

3. New opportunities for ethnic minority areas to adjust and improve their economic structure 

As a priority of the Belt and Road Initiative, infrastructure connectivity will help to resolve the problem of inadequate transportation in ethnic minority areas and connect these areas more closely with major international and domestic markets. With the comprehensive advancement of connectivity initiatives, the cost of trade between ethnic minority areas and other regions will be significantly reduced, and conditions for promoting new models of industrialization and developing modern service industries such as finance, trade, and logistics will be massively improved. Meanwhile, with the development of a green Silk Road Economic Zone, our efforts to put economic growth on an ecological footing and ecological progress on an economic footing will accelerate economic transformation in ethnic minority areas. Cities that are heavily reliant on natural resources, in particular, will have greater room for maneuver. These cities will be able to address their current over-reliance on energy resources, and optimize and upgrade their industrial structure to realize diversified development.

4. New opportunities for ethnic minority areas to promote a new type of urbanization 

A major difficulty confronting urbanization in ethnic minority areas spans from the vast size and scattered populations of these regions, which make it difficult for cluster effects to be formed. As the Belt and Road Initiative advances, ethnic minority areas will be able to introduce a new type of urbanization by emphasizing the role of key cities and city belts in stimulating urbanization over a broader area, thereby forming an urban framework in which regional central cities such as Urumqi, Nanning, Kunming, and Yinchuan serve as growth poles, and city clusters and key cities on the Belt and Road, economic corridors, and the new Eurasian Continental Bridge play a major role. Meanwhile, the Belt and Road Initiative and the Yangtze River Economic Belt will come together to form several golden belts on the Chinese map, closely integrating several city belts and city clusters across the country. These initiatives will connect border areas more closely with inland regions, thus allowing ethnic minority areas to be better integrated into China’s new type of urbanization.

A flash-butt welder belonging to the No. 9 Group of China Railway welds together a stretch of track on the Hami section of the Ejina-Hami Railway in Xinjiang, October 28, 2015. XINHUA / PHOTO BY CAI ZENGLE

II. The advantages of ethnic minority areas in the Belt and Road Initiative

1. Historical traditions

Established in ancient times by the peoples of China and other countries on the Eurasian Continent, the Silk Road was a trade and cultural transmission route that linked the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa together. Historically, the various ethnic groups of China migrated, communicated, and integrated on the Silk Road, a major route that extended in all directions, transmitting the essence of Eastern and Western civilizations, creating glorious cultures, and forming two “ethnic corridors” in northwest and southwest China. It can be said that China’s ethnic minorities and ethnic minority areas have shared a profound connection with the Silk Road since ancient times, and that people of various ethnic groups in China have long had an emotional attachment to the Silk Road.

2. Uniquely advantageous locations

China’s ethnic minority areas represent important nodes on the Belt and Road and key hubs for the connectivity of infrastructure. Of China’s 22,000-kilometer land border, 19,000 kilometers are located in ethnic minority areas; and of the country’s 138 border counties, districts, and cities, 109 are located in ethnic minority areas. Almost all existing or proposed railway and highway connectivity projects between China and neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Tajikistan, leave China through ethnic minority areas. In particular, following more than ten years of large-scale efforts to develop western China and initiatives to boost development in border regions and improve living standards there, significant progress has been made in the development of infrastructure in China’s western region. A number of key open cities and trading ports have been established in border areas, and the flow of people, commodities, funds, and information between China and neighboring countries is already taking place on a significant scale and growing rapidly, providing a sound foundation for the westward opening up of border areas.

3. Same languages and cultures

There are over 30 ethnic minority groups in China that live in close proximity to people of the same ethnic groups in neighboring countries, while many ethnic minority border areas are linked to neighboring countries by the same natural environments, languages, cultures, and customs. For example, many people in Xinjiang and Ningxia share the same Islamic beliefs as people in Arab countries, while many people in Tibet and Yunnan share the same Buddhist beliefs as people in countries on the Indo-China Peninsula. These similarities serve as a bridge for communication and exchanges between people of the countries in question, creating favorable conditions for developing the Belt and Road.

4. Vast markets

China’s ethnic minority areas are vast in scope and boast abundant natural resources, but their infrastructure has lagged behind. Their markets are potentially vast, but remain underdeveloped. And they boast an abundant supply of labor, though its employability needs to be raised. The overall demand for development is therefore considerable. The unique natural and cultural environments in ethnic minority areas have been attracting more and more tourists. In recent years, the government has implemented differentiated regional policies in order to provide ethnic minority areas with a major developmental boost. At the same time, countries located along the Belt and Road, with their abundant natural resources and broad markets, are highly complementary with China economically, and interested in China’s market, funds, and technologies. This means that ethnic minority areas have great potential for both “going global” and “bringing in.”

III. What can ethnic minority areas do to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative?

1. Using the development of major international routes as an engine to enhance infrastructure capacity

Underdeveloped infrastructure represents a major bottleneck that has held back the development of ethnic minority areas. In light of this, ethnic minority areas should devote themselves to the opening up of major international routes, lay emphasis on developing logistics centers and standardized, integrated air, rail, road, and ship transportation, and ensure smooth inward transportation and convenient outward transportation in all directions, so that infrastructure development can be seamlessly linked and fully integrated with the Belt and Road.

2. Boosting comprehensive connectivity with a focus on promoting regional cooperation

With the goals of facilitating the coordination of policies, the linking of facilities, the opening up of trade routes, the circulation of funds, and the fostering of friendship with neighboring countries, China should actively participate in the establishment of mechanisms to facilitate multi-level, highly frequent cooperation with other Asian countries as well as Arab countries, in a bid to remove non-physical obstacles to connectivity. Giving play to the advantageous resources of China’s ethnic minority areas in ecotourism, we should also join hands with the related countries to create premium international tourism routes and tourism products with Silk Road characteristics, establish mechanisms for trans-regional cooperation in environmental protection, and promote comprehensive regional cooperation.

3. Innovating investment and financing systems and upgrading economic and trade links

In an effort to comprehensively deepen reform, ethnic minority areas must be courageous in exploring new territory, adept at researching new possibilities, and brave enough to try new things. We should prioritize financial innovation, encourage the establishment of private financial institutions, and actively link these institutions to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund, so as to address the current lack of funds. We need to promote the establishment of regional financial settlement centers in Urumqi, Nanning, Kunming, and Yinchuan, and enhance the development of experimental zones for comprehensive financial reforms in the border areas of Guangxi and Yunnan, gradually settling our trade with Central Asian, Southeast Asian, and Arab countries in RMB and ensuring the convertibility of RMB during this process. Moreover, we need to step up the development of trading ports, and promote the establishment of experimental zones for economic and trade cooperation as well as free trade zones, with a view to further facilitating trade and investment. We also need to develop high-standard demonstration zones for accommodating the relocation of industries, and guide and support enterprises in participating in outward investment, project contracting, and labor services to increase trans-regional economic and trade exchanges.

4. Strengthening ethnic solidarity to create favorable international and domestic environments

In today’s world, different cultures, ethnic groups, and religions are increasingly communicating and integrating with one another. We need to safeguard amicability, solidarity, and harmony between China’s various ethnic groups. To do so, we need to actively participate in international exchanges and cooperation, facilitate dialogue between different cultures and religions, and prevent extremist ideas and forces from creating a rift between different cultures. We also need to make joint efforts to crack down on and eliminate non-traditional security threats such as smuggling, drug trafficking, transnational crime, and terrorism to create favorable international and neighboring environments.

5. Encouraging Chinese culture – including cultures of all ethnic groups – to conduct exchanges with other cultures so as to enhance China’s cultural soft power 

Ethnic minority areas should exert their unique cultural strengths to create more first-rate cultural products, to show the world through multiple channels and from multiple perspectives a China where people of different ethnic groups help one another like brothers and sisters, and where the splendid cultures of different ethnic groups interact with one another. We also need to promote cultural exchanges and communication at the governmental and non-governmental levels, strive to publicize the Silk Road Spirit, which coincides closely with Chinese culture, and boost the affinity and appeal of China, so as to safeguard the Belt and Road Initiative with the soft power of Chinese culture. 

Wang Zhengwei is Vice Chairman, National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Deputy Director, United Front Work Department of the CPC Central Committee, and Minister, State Ethnic Affairs Commission.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.14, 2015)