Chinese authorities in the northwestern Xinjiang region are forcing tens of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs into producing almonds for the county government without pay, local residents and one official say.
The labor recruiting drive began in Yarkand county near Kashgar on March 6, and it requires every Uyghur household to send one person and a donkey cart to help in a massive expansion of the region’s traditional almond industry.
The wife of a village official in Yaqa Eriq hamlet who answered the phone confirmed the existence of the unpaid labor conscription drive, which is known in the local Uyghur language as “hasha.”
“It’s been seven or eight days since the hasha started,” she told RFA’s Uyghur service. “It’s in the river valley between Yaqa Eriq and the Zarapshan River.”
“There are many places that have to be cultivated. So there are a lot of people there,” she said, confirming reports that around 100,000 people had been forced to take part.
We are now digging pits, and burying dung in the pits...They said 10 days at first. But they say it may take 20 days now.
Asked if the laborers would get paid for their work, she said: “Probably not,” adding that those who didn’t obey the order would be subject to “criticism” from local officials.
A secretary in the Yarkand county government confirmed that there was a major cultivation project in the area. “Yes, they are cultivating land there,” he said. “An almond base.” He said the project was being overseen by the deputy secretary of the county Communist Party committee, Rishat Osman.
A farmer in Yarkand county also confirmed that hasha was under way. “For each hamlet, 20 people are required to go. So far 20 people have left,” he said. “One person from our family went there. My younger brother left yesterday.”
“We are now digging pits, and burying dung in the pits...They said 10 days at first. But they say it may take 20 days now.”
He also confirmed that the labor drive was forced and unpaid. “We will not be paid. We will have to work for free,” he told RFA.
“If we don’t go they will get money from us. They announced that if we don’t go, we will have to pay a fine. They said if we don’t go, or leave early, we will have to pay 50 yuan (U.S. $6.50) a day.”
“They will manage to get money from us by any means. We will have to sell our sheep or cattle. We are forced to pay,” the farmer said.
He also revealed that the conscriptions were discriminatory in nature. “The [Han] Chinese don’t go. There are not many Chinese here. Two here, three there. But they don’t go,” he said.
In 2005, the average monthly income of a farming family in the region was approximately 2,482.15 yuan, according to official Chinese media in the region.
With 29 villages, Yarkand is the largest county in Kashgar, with an economy based on agriculture and horticulture and a population of more than 670,000.
Liu Xiaoxiong, a government official with responsibility for commercial almond-growing in Yarkand, said the project had begun about two years ago, with private investors, including some from Taiwan.
“We mainly started to plant saplings from this year on,” he said. “This base is being established with the beneficial policies of the Party, and with the cooperation of the farmers.”
“Because you and I don’t know how to plant saplings, the farmers have to do it. It is a large area,” Liu said.
But he denied the farmers were working for nothing. “Of course, they will be paid. Besides, they will get a share from the crop,” he told RFA.
Almonds have been a traditional Yarkand crop for more than 1,300 years, with around 700 (metric) tonnes of almonds currently produced yearly. Now, the Chinese government has invested around 300 million yuan in expanding the almond-growing region there to 100,000 mu (16,500 acres).
In a series of interviews with RFA in 2003, Chinese government officials in Xinjiang confirmed that hasha still existed, even though the system had long since been eliminated in other parts of China.
“In the other provinces in China where there has been rapid economic development, hasha was phased out long ago,” an agricultural official in the Xinjiang regional government told RFA’s Uyghur service at the time. “But here in Xinjiang, we still need it.”
Another regional official described the practice as occurring predominantly among peasants in the southern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—one of the poorest regions of China.
“I myself worked on the hasha scheme when I lived there,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
The Kashgar Prefecture Poverty Eradication Web site said alludes to hasha as follows, noting that the families of Uyghur girls who work as part of the hasha program are exempt from hasha themselves:
“Before they travel from Yarkand county, these girls study Chinese for one month. To move these girls into China peacefully and without worry, the County Party Commission grants official city residence status for the girls. The families whose girls are sent to China become exempt from any forced labor themselves.”
Original reporting in Uyghur by Guljekre Keyum. RFA Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.