A recent loosening of restrictions on household registration in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region is largely aimed at promoting ethnic majority Han Chinese resettlement to the area, according to official sources who say minority Uyghurs are subject to a much more stringent application process.
Throughout most of China’s larger cities, migration is strictly monitored and only arrivals with advanced degrees or special skills are able to qualify for the “hukou” registration card, which entitles residents to essential social benefits, such as education, health care and insurance.
Seven months ago, authorities in resource-rich Xinjiang—which is home to more than 10 million Turkic-speaking Uyghurs—significantly relaxed rules for obtaining hukous, triggering a mass influx of migrants to the region.
But while Han migrants from Chinese cities have been welcomed with open arms, local authorities acknowledged that Uyghurs hoping to move to other cities within Xinjiang have found obtaining household registration much more difficult.
A police officer in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) city, in northwestern Xinjiang’s Ili (Yili) Kazakh Autonomous prefecture, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that Han applicants simply need to provide proof of address to obtain residential status.
“When a person comes from the Chinese cities, we give them residential status if they buy a house here,” the police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have to look at the address of the property—that is the most important part. Then we have to see the original registration document. They are not eligible if they have a criminal record.”
But the officer said that Uyghurs from other parts of Xinjiang were highly unlikely to be granted residency.
“If they are from Kashgar or Hotan, the higher-level authorities will decide accordingly. But, in short, [granting hukous] is not applicable to people from southern Xinjiang,” he said.
“We don’t know why it is like this. This is an order from the top.”
A second police officer from Hoten (Hetian) prefecture’s Lop (Luopu) county, who also declined to provide his name, said similar policies in his area of Xinjiang had brought Han Chinese in droves, but not many Uyghurs.
“We accept people from Ghulja if they want to come to Hotan, but they have to show that they do not have a criminal history,” he said.
“We have far more people coming from Chinese cities. Since the new policy was enforced, between 50 and 60 people received their household registration in our county seat alone.”
Xinjiang’s Han population grew to around 40 percent of total residents in 2013 from six percent in 1949, when communist soldiers ended the Chinese Civil War and established the People’s Republic of China, and the liberal new policy on household registration is expected to see that percentage grow further.
Attracting migrants to the region is no small task, considering the vast cultural differences between Hans and Uyghurs, who practice customs much closer to those found in Central Asia than in the rest of China.
Additionally, Xinjiang has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
A businessman from southern Xinjiang told RFA that the area—which has traditionally maintained a larger Uyghur population compared to the north—had seen a major shift in demographics since the new policy went into effect.
“The migrants coming from Chinese cities have affected transportation fares in the area, increasing them—no matter whether it is by airplane, bus or train, fares have become prohibitively expensive,” the businessman said.
“Arable land is very hard to find. These days there is not even one mu (one-sixth of an acre) for each person—even the forests and the deserts are all occupied.”
According to the businessman, Han migrants are largely relocating to the main cities of Kashgar (Kashi) and Hoten prefecture, where work is more readily available.
The mostly Muslim Uyghurs have complained about pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by Beijing under its series of “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang in the name of fighting separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.
But experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur "separatists" and that draconian domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
Authorities rolled out the strike hard campaign following a deadly suicide bombing in May 2014 in the regional capital Urumqi, which they blamed on Uyghur separatists.
The campaign has included police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Reported by Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.