Positioned in China’s resource-rich northwestern region, the city of Urumqi is gaining strategic importance as China seeks to diversify its energy resources. However, ethnic and cultural tensions between the Chinese government and Uighur minority population continue to threaten the region’s stability.

A Unique City

Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang province, which borders eight countries in China’s northwest corner. With a population of over 3 million people, Urumqi is made up of roughly 75% ethnic Hans and 25% ethnic Uighurs. However, the Uighurs—a Muslim minority group within China—make up about half of the greater Xinjiang province. The city and surrounding region boast an abundance of natural resources, including oil and gas, minerals, and farm fields.

Ethnic Tension and Integration in Xinjiang

Xinjiang has a long history of violence between the People’s Republic of China and the Uighur population. Separatists have executed violent attacks within Xinjiang since the PRC re-established control of the region in 1949. In 2009, thousands of Uighurs rioted in Urumqi in response to news of a brawl in southern China in which two Uighurs had been killed. Hundreds died in the riot. In 2014, Uighur separatists attacked and killed over 30 people in attacks within the Xinjiang region in what the Chinese government called a “violent terrorist incident.”

In February 2017, the government held a series of “anti-terror” rallies involving tens of thousands of soldiers and police officers in response to a recent terrorist attack. Attacks and government countermeasures are likely to continue as the Uighur population fights for autonomy and more religious freedoms.

Urumqi’s Role in China’s Strategy Map

In the midst of ethnic tensions, Urumqi and the greater Xinjiang area are growing in economic importance. Xinjiang has significant oil, coal, and natural gas reserves, and is a major route through which gas pipelines from Central Asia traverse. This region will become increasingly important to China, as its demand for energy sources far outpaces domestic production.    

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