China, Climate Change and the Uighurs

China’s new national objective of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 depends on bringing the remainder of its population out of poverty and then focusing on carbon-neutral technologies to achieve full sustainability. To support this ambition, China is counting on the economic and political success of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for foreign investment and development, and especially the New Silk Road transportation system connecting Chinese manufacturing and markets to consumers in Central Asia and Europe. This geographical pivot in trade and investment draws heavily on the vast spaces of western China — particularly the province of Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority. The clash of cultures between ethnic Chinese and Uighurs has led to violence that threatens the BRI-New Silk Road initiatives. This resistance has been put down by China using tactics such as mass imprisonment of Uighurs that have opened China up to international condemnation. These harsh security measures and the international response to them could threaten the long-term viability of the BRI and China’s goals both for future economic growth and carbon neutrality.

In an address this month to the UN General Assembly, delivered remotely because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, China’s President Xi Jinping announced his country’s embrace of the goals and objectives outlined in the Paris Agreement on climate change, describing them as the “minimum steps to be taken to protect the earth, our shared homeland, and all countries must take decisive steps to honor this agreement.” Accordingly, Xi said, “We [China] aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”

While most climate change analysts have welcomed Xi’s statement, they note that the Chinese president provided no details about how China would accomplish this goal over the course of the next 40 years. Issues such as what precisely constitutes China’s definition of “carbon neutrality” have yet to be resolved, and nothing remotely resembling a concrete plan, let alone short-term measures, have been articulated by China.

China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, using more energy than any other nation and consuming vast amounts of coal, oil and natural gas. Transitioning away from this carbon-intensive energy mix to one that is carbon neutral will require deployment on a huge scale of alternative energy technologies that are still developing, which could cost upwards of $5.5 trillion.

The key for China rests in its plans to bring poverty rates to near zero, which is the byproduct of nearly a half-century focus on elevating the standard of living for all Chinese people. Indeed, China has already pulled more people out of poverty than the rest of the world combined. Once China completes this monumental task, it will at the same time have raised the collective technological and economic level of society to the point that future development depends less on carbon-heavy strategies. Then, China’s ability to focus its resources on the kind of sustainability necessary to achieve carbon neutrality would become an achievable goal, not simply a pipe dream.

Given the scale of China’s economy and carbon emissions, its new goals could be singularly responsible for reversing the course of global climate change. Experts such as Niklas Hoehne, a partner at the German-based New Climate Institute, one of two organizations behind the research consortium Climate Action Tracker, predict that if China can, in fact, become carbon neutral by 2060, then this accomplishment alone could curb likely global warming by 0.2°-0.3°C by the end of this century, a stark departure from alarmist warnings that the world faces temperature gains of up to 2.7°C if nothing is done to address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions.

Belts and Roads

What makes this ambitious climate goal remotely feasible is another bold Chinese project, the BRI, and in particular the New Chinese Silk Road connecting China with Central and South Asia, and Europe. The aim of this $900 billion project is to simultaneously fuel a China-centric era of globalization while keeping China’s national economy strong. Over time, China anticipates lending some $8 trillion for infrastructure development in 68 countries comprising some 65% of the world’s population and one-third of the global GDP.

But the BRI is much more than a vehicle for development loans. As the world develops, markets will open up that can be exploited by Chinese manufacturing and technology, with many Chinese domestic companies, especially those in the transport and telecoms industries, on the cusp of becoming global brands. China’s massive overcapacity in critical industries such as steel and heavy equipment would be able to service these new markets, and open up the Chinese manufacturing base to convert to higher-end industrial goods. The net effect for China would be to underwrite not only this massive economic development endeavor, but also to provide the huge sums of money needed to make this expansion carbon-neutral.

This growth is far from theoretical. Take, for example, the international train traffic out of the historic Chinese city of Xi’an, once an important part of the original Silk Road and the capital of the central Chinese province of Shaanxi. Starting in 2013, Xi’an began serving as the point of departure for international freight trains carrying Chinese goods to Central Asia and Europe. By 2016, less than 100 of these freight trains left from Xi’an. By 2019, some 2,133 trains were dispatched. Even under the conditions of Covid-19, the trains have kept rolling. In the first half of 2020, some 1,667 trains were dispatched, putting the expected total for the year at more than 3,200.

Oppression of the Uighurs

But Xi’an’s success hides a dark secret that could undermine international enthusiasm for China’s international development goals and its ambitions for carbon neutrality. Press reports show that Shaanxi province, among others, is the location for prisons and concentration camps housing Uighur Muslims brought in from western Xinjiang province. This is part of a larger persecution of China’s Uighur minority, which is estimated to have resulted in the involuntary incarceration of over a million Uighurs in hundreds of prisons throughout western and central China.

While Xi’an serves as a critical hub for the New Silk Road’s outreach to Asia and Europe, the western Xinjiang city, Kashgar — further along the Silk Road — serves as the departure point for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a multibillion-dollar venture linking China with Pakistan and Pakistani ports for onward connection with the Middle East and Africa. Given the importance that Kashgar plays for the CPEC, there should be no surprise that it is impacted by China’s ongoing troubles with its Uighur minority.

In 1950, the Uighurs were some 75% of the population of Xinjiang province; today, they are less than half. The transition from majority to minority status has put the Uighurs on a collision course with the ethnic Chinese, resulting in numerous acts of violence and the radicalization of a portion of the Uighur population. The explosion of ethnic-based violence and China’s goals of using western China as the springboard for the New Silk Road have put a premium on security, and China has opted to use a strong hand to suppress any resistance.

The human rights issues created by China’s suppression of Uighur unrest do not, however, exist in a vacuum of Chinese paranoia. Tens of thousands of Uighurs have fled China to take up arms in Islamic militant insurgencies in Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. There, they have received training and experience which, if allowed to migrate back into China, would radically alter the nature of the security threat, as well as its impact on China’s plans for BRI-related economic development, inclusive of its commitments regarding a carbon-neutral future.

The success of the BRI initiative hinges on a stable and prosperous Xinjiang, both in terms of reality and perception. One of the greatest challenges facing China going forward is how it will handle the issue of its Uighur minority. Will its harsh, security-intensive policies drive away the foreign investment and international enthusiasm needed to make the New Silk Road the economic engine needed to power China’s ambitions regarding carbon neutrality by 2060? Given the dire predictions for global climate change by 2100, to say that the future of the world hinges on the outcome of China’s handling of its Uighur minority seems no exaggeration.

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