A group of Uyghur farmers from northwest China will press ahead with appeals to the central government against a policy requiring them to sell produce to state-owned companies for less than market rates, according to the group’s spokesman.
Officials at the central bureau that processes petitions and complaints in Beijing told the 25 farmers from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) to return home to lodge their complaint with local authorities.
The group traveled to the capital by train five days ago after appealing to local and provincial government offices seven times since July, but receiving no assistance.
“We need an urgent solution to our problem, so we want to meet with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to ask him to call or write a letter canceling the regulation that is harming our businesses,” spokesman Abla Ablikim said.
He said the group also plans to speak with a variety of other departments, including the National Affairs Committee, to ask for their assistance in reversing the policy.
“If we do not receive justice, we will return to Tiananmen Square and we won't listen to the police next time. If they try to disperse us, we won’t go.”
The farmers were handed a letter informing them of the central government’s decision after attending a meeting with petitions' bureau officials and authorities from the 14th Division Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), which governs their hometown in Xinjiang.
The XPCC officials offered to pay for the farmers’ flights back to Hoten, but the farmers refused, saying they would prefer to appeal to other agencies in the central government.
The group of farmers was briefly detained on Nov. 6 when they decided to march to Tiananmen Square to air their grievances.
As they reached the square, a group of police blocked them and loaded them onto a bus, a witness said.
The Uyghur farmers were then taken to the Majialu Community Center, a facility commonly used to detain petitioners that travel to Beijing from across China, where they spent the night before being sent to a hotel by authorities the next day.
Abla Ablikim said he was unsure for how much longer the authorities would foot their accommodation bill.
The Uyghur farmers had traveled from Karataghiz (in Chinese, Pishan) village in Hoten’s Guma county to protest a policy requiring them to sell red dates and cotton to state-owned companies at anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent lower than market value.
The policy, already in place for several years, had been enacted by the 14th Division of the XPCC, which governs Karataghiz village.
Mutellip, a farmer from the area, said he had been refused the right to sell his annual harvest of produce to private buyers that had offered him far more money.
“I own 18 mu (3 acres) of red dates. A private fruit company offered to purchase them for 190,000 yuan (U.S. $28,500). A state-owned company offered only 80,000 yuan (U.S. $12,000),” he said.
“I wanted to sell it for the best offered price, but the authorities would not allow me to do that.”
“We’ve obeyed the rule for red dates and cotton for the past three years, but this year we lost our patience,” said another farmer named Ablet Kasim.
“Private companies pay cash and will do all the work of collecting and transporting the produce, but state-owned companies won’t pay cash and require us to transport our produce to their warehouse,” he said.
The farmers originally numbered more than 100 when they first took their complaints to higher authorities in July.
Since then, they have filed protests four times to division officials and three times to provincial officials in the XUAR capital Urumqi.
Abla Ablikim said police from Karataghiz village tried to block the group from boarding the train to Beijing at the Urumqi train station and threatened them with imprisonment upon their return.
Eventually, Abla Abilkim said, Uyghur merchants at the station protected the farmers from the police and allowed them to board the train.
“Twenty-five of us arrived in Beijing, but the rest returned home because they feared retaliation from officials,” he said.
Abla Abilikim said authorities at both the local and provincial levels told him they could do nothing to help the farmers because the XPCC has the right to implement a planned economy instead of a market economy.
“Some of them said, ‘The state is building roads, schools, and hospitals for you, so you must support the state companies,’” he said.
Calls to both local and provincial officials went unanswered.
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and the Xinjiang region.
Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers have simmered for years, and erupted in riots in July 2009 that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written for the Web by Joshua Lipes.