Workers Take on Chinas Power in Xinjiang

Small groups of Chinese migrant workers in the northwestern region of Xinjiang are challenging the might of oil powers and paramilitary farming and mining concerns in a bid to win back money they say is owed to them.
2008-02-16
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Xinjiang oilfield. Photo: AFP Photo: RFA
HONG KONG—Small groups of Chinese migrant workers in the northwestern region of Xinjiang are challenging oil powers and paramilitary farming and mining concerns in a bid to win back money they say is owed to them.

Xinjiang petitioner Xiao Yishan, a Han Chinese woman who used to work for the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) in remote frontier regions of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is battling illness and extreme poverty in her effort to win redress.

“I arrived in Beijing last March,” Xiao told RFA’s Mandarin service around the Lunar New Year holiday. “I am suing CNPC.”

You can't just make people redundant against the law.

Xiao, who suffers from late-stage breast cancer and lacks money for treatment, is holed up in a freezing rented room in Beijing in sub-zero temperatures, treating her cancer with over-the-counter remedies.

“The central government sent out an order in 1998 that companies couldn’t lay off workers according to criteria of seniority. The company didn’t have any other basis to make these layoffs because it’s hard to find people to work in the frontier regions of Xinjiang. They are understaffed as it is,” said Xiao, who was made forcibly redundant alongside 20-30 percent of the workforce.

Localized power structure

“You can’t just make people redundant against the law,” she said. “I am in my 40s. I have never in my life had to miss meals, but that is what I am doing now. Because I want to last as long as I can.”

Liang Yixue, a petitioner and former worker from Yuanchuanhuai Co. in Shihezi city, Xinjiang, said he was one of 71 workers lodging a complaint against the 149 brigade of the parmilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), or bingtuan .

The bingtuan , formed from demobilized People’s Liberation Army soldiers in 1954, is charged with securing frontier regions and ensuring central government control of Xinjiang’s farmland and vast natural resources.

It is granted the status of a “special social organization,” handling its own administrative and judicial affairs within the reclamation areas under its administration, according to a government White Paper.

On the eve of the Olympics, the situation is very tense. A lot of officials are coming from Beijing, but they have not been able to solve any of the problems.

Liang and former colleagues from the collectively owned Yuanchuanhuai company said the 149 bingtuan had ignored a court ruling after appropriating a building belonging to the company.

They have written an open letter to President Hu Jintao, circulated online, and reported harassment and threats from bingtuan officials for their petitioning activities. They say they are almost entirely out of resources, with nowhere to live and no income.

Meanwhile, on the southern edge of the coal-, oil-, and gas-rich Tarim Basin, former cooperative miners at the 106 bingtuan have been pursuing that branch of the XPCC for the last decade, after authorities took over a mine they had turned around after it was abandoned, and made it profitable.

Liu Xingyuan, 80, has been writing letters of complaint since 1998, and has received threats and harassment from local authorities.

“They swindled us out of 51,700 yuan (U.S. $7,200). That is the value of the 2,000 or more tonnes of coal produced, of the equipment above and below ground, our houses, vehicles, electric pylons, and cables.”

Mandatory 'contributions'

“They gave us nothing back for any of these things. They just took it away from us, and said we were an illegal organization, and we were causing trouble when we tried to sue them,” Liu said.

He also said bingtuan bosses had taken large sums of money in "contributions" from workers, money that had since disappeared.

“We were told that everyone in the brigade had to contribute a month’s salary, making a total of more than 350,000 yuan (U.S. $48,650). Now we don’t know where that money has gone,” Liu said.

Asked if it had been spent on the highway, Liu replied: “We don’t know. There is no record of such a transaction in the accounts.”

Liu, who has publicized his lawsuit against bingtuan leaders for corruption and embezzlement online, told RFA’s Uyghur service: “After the issue was publicized on the Internet, two government officials came and said that the State Cabinet gave directives to them to deal with this complaint.”

“They are trying to force me to give up. I’m not afraid. I’ll continue to pursue my petition,” Liu said.

He said Beijing appeared to be focusing hard on the situation in Xinjiang, where Chinese rule is already unpopular among the region’s 16 million Uyghurs.

“On the eve of the Olympics, the situation is very tense,” Liu said. “A lot of officials are coming from Beijing, but they been unable to solve any of the problems.”

Official media say more than 100,000 migrant construction workers have poured into Xinjiang, though experts say the real figure may be much higher.

Government figures show default pay to migrant workers in the region totals about 80 million yuan. Many of the construction workers are said to be concentrated in the resource-rich regions of Shihezi and Karamay.

According to Chinese government statistics, the Han Chinese population of Xinjiang increased from just 6 percent in 1949 to 40 percent in 2005, with Han Chinese benefiting disproportionately from government schemes to boost the economy.

In the relatively prosperous regional capital, Urumqi, ethnic Uyghurs have gone from comprising 80 percent of the population to just 20 percent over recent decades, which has spurred further resentment among Uyghurs.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Yan Ming and Han Qing, and in Uyghur by Shohret Hoshur. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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