The Xinjiang Guang Hui Flying Tigers are back in the Chinese Basketball Association finals. Riding the phenomenal success of their imported stars, Americans Lester Hudson and James Singleton, a Taiwanese player named Yang Jinmin, and the support of national team players such as the Uyghur point guard Shiralijan (Xi-re-li-jiang – pictured above) and the Han center Tang Zhengdong, the team has hit its stride. They are playing on a level that rivals the intensity that Quicy Douby’s brought to the league. There are many reasons for the quality of Xinjiang’s team, but oil and gas money (and the depth which it buys) are the main drivers of Xinjiang’s success.
Where the Flying Tigers’ money comes from
The story of the Flying Tigers begins back in the 1990s with the beginning of large-scale oil and coal development during the glory days of “Uncle” Wang Lequan and Xinjiang oil man turned black-listed thug Zhou Yongkong. During those years Xinjiang became a lucrative place for China’s burgeoning caste of venture capitalists to jump into the ocean of market development and real-estate speculation.
By 2004 a local Han man, a former soldier and seafood restaurateur, Sun Guangxin and his construction company General Assemblage (Guang Hui), had amassed the sixth largest fortune in China. Utilizing connections he had to well-positioned bureaucrats and Party officials such as “Uncle” Wang from his ancestral home in Shandong, Sun came to own more former-state enterprises than any other individual in China. Currently Sun controls sixty percent of Ürümchi’s real estate, vast amounts of construction materials supply networks, natural gas, and one of the two best basketball teams in China. 
Sun, along with a cohort of other entrepreneurs (the vast majority of which were Han) have become fabled success stories which motivate and justify economic governance techniques by utilizing the tautological language of progress that dominates much of Chinese political ideology: development is quality, quality is development. The message they present is simple: Even people in “backward” Xinjiang can become rich first. Even more importantly, as Guang Hui’s leaping-tiger logo and slogan “Always Going Forward” suggests, Xinjiang can also be thought of as positioned on the frontier of the Chinese future.
The Guang Hui Model
In true Ayn Rand fashion one of the best-selling books on Xinjiang economic development published in 2009 has the catchy title Trust Broadly in General Assemblage (Guangxin Guanghui). The Xinjiang economist and Guang Hui consultant Tang Lijiu who wrote the book likened the Guang Hui model to models of success elsewhere. To his thinking what Xinjiang needed at that time was to “Learn Lessons from California.”
The main similarities Tang saw between Xinjiang and California was its potential to become a new breadbasket of China completely dependent on the miracle of irrigation technologies which harness the rapidly draining water table. But he also saw similar potentials when it came to natural resources, military capabilities, and entertainment industries – of which basketball is a key component. By building a diverse economy around both production and consumption, Tang saw a way of both stabilizing the borderland tensions that have troubled the area and building Las Vegas/Las Angeles-style urbanism in the desert.
Backed by Sun’s billions the Flying Tigers can throw a lot of money at players; this alone might be what puts them in competition with franchises in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. Singelton and Hudson are both very well compensated by CBA standards. But they also have a great deal of support from national team level players with the scrappy toughness of Shiralijan and the towering presence of Tang Zhengdong (and Monghbatar).
As Josh Summers has written last week, Flying Tiger games can be rowdy. At Red Mountain arena in downtown Ürümchi under the shadow of Sun’s three glass and steel towers called “Times Square,” people yell. They own their position out on China’s western fringe. Maybe they are “becoming-Californians” or maybe they are just coming into their own. Regardless, the Flying Tigers of 2014 are a point of pride in what has otherwise been a miserable start for the Year of the Horse in Xinjiang.
Although Shiralijan is a household name for most Uyghurs, as Josh mentioned in general basketball is still not that popular in Xinjiang. In some ways the success of the team is symptomatic of the kind of uneven success Xinjiang development has produced. Money moves towards images of a beautiful, victorious future, while the underemployed watch from the sidelines. The Flying Tigers really are Xinjiang’s team.
They’re down 2-0 in finals, but they could still come back. Jiayou Tigers!