The Newsletter 91 Spring 2022

China’s Western Borders since the Reform Era

Hasan H. Karrar

Owen Lattimore famously coined “pivot of Asia” 1 Lattimore, O., 1950. Pivot of Asia: Sinkiang and the inner Asian frontiers of China and Russia. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.  to describe Xinjiang’s position amidst new geopolitical configurations resulting from the onset of the Cold War, decolonization in South Asia, and consolidation of power by the Chinese Communist Party. Seven decades later, Xinjiang remains critical both for how Beijing projects its economic and political influence abroad – China has eight land borders in Xinjiang – as well as for the country’s self-projection as a harmonious multiethnic state. Situating myself variously in north Pakistan and Central Asia, regions adjacent to Xinjiang, I describe how, since the reform era got underway in the 1980s, bordering China has been contoured by frontier capitalism, geopolitics, and recently, securitization.

October 2020. Afiyatabad commercial centre, north Pakistan. “Our livelihoods are tied to the border,” was the matter-of-fact reply when I commented that the bazaar was quiet [Fig. 1]. I had been glancing out from a roadside restaurant. Seventy-five kilometers up the road was Pakistan’s land border with the China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region; throughout 2020, the border had remained closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The last time I was in Afiyatabad, in 2017, container trucks with Xinjiang licence plates had been rolling past on their way to the nearby dry port. Although independent cross-border trade between Pakistan and China had been declining, heavy cargo had increased. Visiting Zharkent on the China-Kazakhstan border later that same year, I had driven past a line of container trucks – my partial count exceeded fifty – coming from China. I had seen these cargo vehicles as evidence, admittedly superficial, of enhanced circulation, undergirded by new or upgraded infrastructure. Since 2013, China had been unrolling the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a broad mechanism for global investment and infrastructure, capital and information flows via economic corridors that transit countries that neighbor China, such as Kazakhstan and Pakistan.

But Afiyatabad in 2020 seemed to suggest a different story. Looking through the frosted window, I saw shuttered shops. A few ambling locals, predictably men. The occasional vehicle, barrelling through the market, horn blaring. Then silence again.

That damp afternoon I witnessed how the Covid-19 pandemic had altered – for the time being, at least – cross-border mobilities. But what to make of this? Had Covid-19 changed bordering? Within a wider vista – going back to the reform era in China, when cross-border mobility between Xinjiang and Central Asia, and Xinjiang and Pakistan began to flourish – would the recent pandemic still be significant?

Although it is tempting to think that Covid-19 has transformed the latest Silk Road, at least three successive border regimes have variously facilitated and restricted cross-border exchanges since the 1980s: frontier capitalism, new geopolitics after the Cold War, and recently, securitization.

Frontier capitalism

The reform era in China saw deepening exchanges between Xinjiang and Pakistan. In 1986, the Karakoram Highway, which connected Xinjiang to Pakistan, opened to commercial traffic. Previously, since 1969, there had only been official cross-border trade. 2 Karrar, H.H., 2021. Caravan Trade to Neoliberal Spaces: Fifty years of Pakistan-China connectivity across the Karakoram Mountains. Modern Asian Studies, 55(3), pp. 867-901.  After 1986, anyone domiciled in Pakistan’s border areas and in possession of a locally issued border permit could travel to Xinjiang for trade.

Similarly, reform in China, accompanied by Sino-Soviet rapprochement, also led to the resumption of exchanges across the China-Central Asia border after a hiatus of about two decades. Besides regulated exchanges, in the mid-1980s, traders and transporters engaged in a parallel trade where consumer goods purchased in the open market were shipped across the border by being declared as “gifts.” 3 Karrar, H.H., 2016. The resumption of Sino–Central Asian trade, c. 1983–94: confidence building and reform along a Cold War fault line. Central Asian Survey35(3), pp.334-350.  By the end of the 1980s, the façade had dropped, and the large number of shoppers arriving from Kazakhstan were reportedly creating bottlenecks at the Kazakhstan-China border.

This frontier capitalism was undergirded by a market economy stripped to the basics: self-financed small traders leveraging arbitrages with minimal regulatory oversight. While some traders expanded their operations – I have heard such success stories in Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan – mostly, traders contended with small margins. Profits financed the next trip. One summer, during a visit to Afiyatabad, I stood in front of a small stall piled with items shuttled across the border: electric pliers, flipflops, thermos flasks, batteries, small toys. Border trade laid out on a table.

This cross-border trade was enabled by public infrastructure: borders, open to the public; regular public transport; cargo forwarding services for those times when the merchandise could not be self-imported by traders on buses and trains.

New geopolitics

In 1991, five new states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan –  appeared along (or just beyond) Xinjiang’s borders. New geopolitics, which included settling the disputed borders and acquiring energy security, initially framed Chinese policy towards Central Asia. While cross-border trade by independent traders in fact increased in the 1990s, it was eclipsed by wider strategic concerns, as China and newly-independent Central Asia built regional diplomacy.

In the unipolar world of the 1990s, China led the way in assembling a confidence-building multilateral mechanism between itself, Russia, and Central Asia. In 2001, this mechanism was institutionalized as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that was described as a model for broad multilateral cooperation, which allowed China to extend assistance to the Central Asian states, including in the commercial realm.

The new century was also when China started “going out,” that is, Chinese State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and private businesses were encouraged to invest abroad. Xinjiang became a bridgehead for investment in Central Asia and Pakistan. Some were large-scale investments requiring extensive injections of capital, such as the 2006 partnership between China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Kazakh KazMunayGas to import Caspian oil. Other investments were comparatively modest, such as the partnership between logistics provider Sinotrans Xinjiang and hereditary elites in north Pakistan to build and operate a dry port. This dry port also became operational in 2006.

Such engagements came to be seen as the realization of a “new Silk Road,” a term that was popularized following Premier Li Peng’s visit to Central Asia in 1994. In the quarter-century since, the Silk Road narrative has become curated. Today, historic figures such as Han dynasty envoy Zhang Qian (d. 114 BCE) and Ming admiral Zheng He (1371-1433/1435), along with images of camel caravans, reference a past prior to European imperialism in Asia, and they signal a present, Chinese ascendency.

Photo courtesy of the author, 2017

Fig. 2: Silk Road imageries – here depicted on the outskirts of Zharkent, Kazakhstan – are commonplace in Central Asia.


Silk Road tropes are becoming commonplace in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan, suggesting how neighboring countries are adopting this particular geopolitical aesthetic from China [Fig. 2].

But the new Silk Road is markedly different from past connectivity in one crucial respect: earlier, the so-called Silk Road brought communities together. But now, under BRI, it is primarily finance and heavy cargo moving between distant nodes. Traders and shopkeepers I have spoken to in Afiyatabad – I have visited five times in a decade – describe how, under BRI, independent cross-border mobilities have declined, both due to stringent tariff regimes and, more recently, to increased securitization in Xinjiang.

Securitized borderlands

The large-scale internment of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang has mostly remained out of public conversation in Pakistan, a result of how Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership has deliberately steered clear of the topic. But for small traders who cross into China overland, heightened vigilance, security checkpoints, and heavily armed security personnel in Xinjiang are impossible to overlook. 4 Rippa, A., 2020. Borderland Infrastructures: Trade, Development, and Control in Western China (p. 307). Amsterdam University Press.  I have also heard traders grimly describe the internment of Uyghur women married to Pakistani traders, complaining that Pakistani authorities should have done more to secure their release.

The pall of security hanging over Xinjiang discourages independent trade. Small traders I spoke with complained of long waits and humiliating body searches at the border. They also face increased restrictions on mobility within Xinjiang, and in terms of where they can stay once they are there.

Similarly, cross-border mobilities between China and Central Asia have changed. Although Chinese authorities had long been cautious about independent cross-border ties fomented by Uyghurs and Kazakhs, until a few years back, Uyghur and Kazakh small traders were shuttling goods between Xinjiang and Central Asia. In my fieldwork in bazaars in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2013 and 2014, I met Uyghur traders who were importing garments and shoes from Xinjiang; this was a cross-border commercial network rooted in ideas of community and social well-being. 5 Steenberg, R., 2016. Embedded rubber sandals: trade and gifts across the Sino–Kyrgyz border. Central Asian Survey35(3), pp.405-420.

But in 2017, I began hearing how it was becoming difficult for Uyghurs and Kazakhs from Xinjiang to leave China. Thus, while container trucks, railways, and ports are one face of the BRI, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that another defining feature of the current Silk Road – taking shape in the fifth decade since the reform era began in China – is securitization. In this long, complex story, Covid-19 may end up being little more than a wrinkle.

Hasan H. Karrar, Lahore University of Management Sciences,