Inside China’s troubled far west

Ethnic Uighurs say they face economic difficulties and worry their culture will be wiped out by assimilation.

Security forces have a heavy presence in China's far-west Xinjiang province [Andrey Kovalenko/Al Jazeera]

Urumqi, China – Police regularly patrol the streets of almost every significant town in China’s troubled Xinjiang province. China’s far west remains among its most unstable regions, with frequent clashes between ethnic Uighurs and the government, which is dominated by Han Chinese.

The most recent incident occurred in the town of Serikbuya in Bachu County. “On the 16th of November, at around five o’clock, nine people attacked the police station and killed two auxiliary officers and injured another two police officers,” Zhang Zeqiang, the head of the Kashgar government’s media and propaganda office, told Al Jazeera. All the attackers were killed, he said, and the situation in the town is now “under control”.

Many residents of Xinjiang province have gotten used to the sporadic fighting, especially after a wave of ethnic violence in 2009 left almost 200 people dead and more than 1,500 injured.

Uighurs have long complained of Beijing’s policy towards Xinjiang province. Millions of Han Chinese have moved to the province in the past several decades, causing its proportion of ethnic Han to rise from 6.7 percent in 1949 to 40 percent in 2008. Uighurs – who are predominantly Muslim – complain that the migrants take their jobs, making it difficult for them to raise their standard of living.

Xinjiang is believed to have one-third of China’s oil reserves and more natural gas than any of its other regions. Accordingly, the Chinese government has made large investments in the province, with the exploitation of raw materials one of its top priorities. The government has also launched major infrastructure and road-building projects. 

Tension high in Xinjiang after dozens killed

According to the most recent statistics, published on the official Xinjiang Statistical Information website, economic conditions are gradually improving. For instance, income in the region is increasing by 6.3 percent. Jiang Fuqiang, 28, is a migrant worker from Sichuan province who has been working in Xinjiang for three months on a construction site. “I came to Xinjiang, because they pay here more. The salary is 7,000 yuan ($1,150) a month. It’s high because we worked longer hours, which we can‘t do anywhere else in China,” he says.

The Chinese government has justified the influx of Han migrants by claiming it will help the province to develop. Meanwhile, China’s restrictive hukou system imposes restrictions on citizens wishing to move to other cities. Although Uighurs are not prohibited from moving to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, many face hardships in finding work there.

‘Maybe he comes back next year’

Aixie, 60, said her son was sentenced to death for his role in the clashes in 2009. Two years later a court changed the sentence to life imprisonment. “Probably if he had a job this would have never happened,” says Aixie, who declined to give her last name. She keeps a small picture of her son, which he tore from his prison robe and gave to her. Because of problems with her feet, she cannot visit him in jail.

She believes in his innocence and thinks he was at the clashes by accident. “I was angry with him. He shouldn’t have gone there. But I believe that he comes back home before I leave this world,” says Aixie. She lives in a small house in one of the poorest areas of Urumqi with her daughter, her daughter’s husband and her granddaughter. She says she is “very poor” and that the government pays her a pension of just 370 yuan ($61) per month. Half of it goes to pay for electricity and water.

“Maybe he comes back next year. Tomorrow. Tonight. I don’t know, but I know that he will get out of the jail. I believe that there’s the truth in our country,” says Aixie, trying to choke back her tears.

Economically marginalised

Like Aixie, many Uighurs in Xinjiang face difficult economic conditions. Sultan Hamit, 59, is wearing a thick, shabby jacket and a warm sweater underneath. His narrow face is red: The weather outside is freezing. He spends the whole day in the open air, working as a driver or carrying various goods with his motorcycle.

Every morning, after praying and eating breakfast, he takes his motorcycle with a small vehicle attached to the back and goes to the centre of the city. Sultan earns around 50 yuan ($8) per day. “I never went to school. For me, it’s the only way to earn some money,” says Sultan.

The government plans to build a new complex on the territory where Sultan lives, and promised him money and a small apartment as compensation. But Sultan doesn’t want to move anywhere else. His dream is to open a small factory producing flour. “I was born here, this is my land,” says Sultan. He has no education and has spent all of his working life as a farmer. The only thing left for him, he says, is to “pray for a small business to get the money”.

Weekly meetings

Many Uighurs are convinced that the government is trying to wipe out their culture through assimilation and education policies. Every Monday, Sultan is required to attend a meeting for the “heads” of nearby villages, organised by local authorities. During the meeting they discuss the problems faced by villagers, and are instructed how to “live together” with Han Chinese. Sultan says he has to be there at 1pm every Monday, and that if he doesn’t show up he will be fined.

“At the meeting there must be one person from every nearby village, so the meeting gathers at least ten people. We stay in a tiny room where an authority gives us a lecture,” says Sultan, who was chosen to attend due to his popularity in his village. “They teach us how to live peacefully with each other and tell us not to fight, but they still have some regulations that are against us,” adds Sultan.

Sultan Hamit’s son Geni, 38, says he worries about his children’s future. “I hope they will go to college, but I am not sure if I am able to pay for them,” says Geni.

Source: Al Jazeera