Autonomous region of northwest China, bounded to the north by Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia; to the east by Mongolia and Gansu; to the south by Qinghai and Tibet; and to the west by Jammu and Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan; area 1,646,800 sq km/635,800 sq mi (the largest political unit of China); population (2013 est) 22,643,000. The capital is Urumqi. Industries include oil, chemicals, iron, textiles, coal, copper, and tourism. Cereals, cotton, and fruit are grown, and there is animal husbandry.
History From the 3rd century BC to the 20th century AD Xinjiang was under Chinese control for short periods under the Han (206 BC–AD 220) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. At that time there was a flourishing indigenous culture in the oases of the Tarim Basin, whose inhabitants spoke an Indo-European language and were Buddhist in religion. The oases formed an important link in the trading routes between China and western Asia and Europe, such as the medieval Silk Road, and were the route along which Buddhism reached China. In the 8th century AD the area was conquered by the Mongols and formed part of a succession of central Asian empires until the Qing dynasty re-established Chinese control in the middle of the 18th century. In the late 19th century Russia, having taken over large parts of the northwest of the region, sought to extend its influence into the rest of the area, which China had made into Xinjiang province in 1884. This was opposed by Britain in the ‘Great Game’, the competition between the two countries for influence in the region.
In the Republican period (1911–49), the province was ruled by warlords virtually independent of the central government, and the USSR was the dominant influence in the area. The communist government took control in 1950, established the autonomous region in 1955, and has linked the area more closely to the rest of China.
Location and topography Xinjiang has some 2,900 km/1,800 mi of frontier with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, and a 65-km/40-mi frontier with Afghanistan along the Pamir Plateau ranges. The Pamirs, with the western Kunlun Shan and Karakoram Mountains, also separate Xinjiang from Jammu and Kashmir. The main approach to the region from the rest of China is from Gansu province across the Gobi Desert.
Xinjiang consists of two basins separated from each other and encircled by high mountains. From north to south these features are: the Altai Mountains, separating Xinjiang from the Republic of Mongolia; the Dzungaria Basin; the Tien Shan system, with peaks to over 6,100 m/20,000 ft; the Tarim Basin, containing the Taklimakan Desert, Lop Nur salt lakes, and the Turfan (Turpan) Depression (around 275 m/900 ft below sea level); and the Kunlun Shan separating Xinjiang from Tibet.
Climate Xinjiang experiences long, cold winters, with January average temperatures ranging from −17°C/1°F in the north to −7°C/19°F in the south. Summers are hot, with July averages varying from 22°C/72°F to 26°C/79°F, and reaching a maximum of 33°C/91°F in the Turfan Depression, the hottest place in China. Rainfall is low; the annual average is around 150 mm/6 in, but this varies widely from the watered mountains to the desert plains.
Economy The main occupations are animal husbandry, by Kazakh, Kirghiz, and Mongol communities; and the production of wheat, rice, maize, cotton, and fruit on rich oases where streams from the mountains reach the plains.
There are oil fields in both the Dzungaria and Tarim basins. The largest is the Karamay field in the north of the region, which produces 8 million tonnes of crude oil a year, and is linked by pipeline to refineries at Dushanzi and Urumqi. There are also significant reserves of non-ferrous metals. Coal for local use is mined at Urumqi, which is also an engineering and cement-producing centre. China's nuclear testing ground is at Lop Nur.
Communications Xinjiang is linked to the rest of China by rail and road routes from Urumqi to Lanzhou in Gansu province. The railway line from Urumqi to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan forms part of the ‘second land-bridge’ linking Asia and Europe. The Karakoram Highway links Xinjiang to Pakistan in the south and there are road connections to its western neighbours and Tibet.
People The population is mainly of Turkish stock, hence ‘Chinese Turkestan’, and Islamic by religion and culture. There are 13 recognized ethnic minorities. The main ethnic group (more than 7 million) are the Uigurs (Turkic Muslim group). Official policy has resulted in increasing Han Chinese colonization here and the Chinese proportion of the population is approaching 40%, much higher than formerly represented.
Ethnic conflict The immigration of Han Chinese, their predominance in senior positions in government and the economy, restrictions on religion (many mosques were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution), and economic development seen as benefitting China rather than Xinjiang, has prompted the growth of a Muslim separatist movement. Declared illegal by the Chinese authorities, some of its supporters have carried out acts of terrorism in Xinjiang and in China itself.
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