Long-awaited reforms to China’s land acquisition and population registration policies that are being considered by lawmakers could be difficult to implement and further marginalize Uyghurs in the far northwestern Xinjiang region, experts warn.
According to official media, China is considering reforms aimed at raising compensation for farmers whose collectively owned land is acquired by the government and improving the household registration system that controls migration between rural and urban areas.
But some warn that in Xinjiang, the homeland of China’s Uyghur minority, the new policies could loosen the group ownership of land as some farmers could be swayed by the prospect of higher compensation and easily give up land critical for their long-term livelihood.
For the government however, more compensation would ameliorate some of the tensions behind the thousands of land disputes that escalate into protests every year, and reforming the household registration, or “hukou” system, would loosen controls on freedom of movement.
This could encourage more Han Chinese migration to the region where Uyghurs are already complaining of discrimination by the country's majority ethnic group, one expert said.
China’s top legislature debated proposed amendments to the national Land Administration Law during the first session under its new leadership last month, and the new draft law is expected to be passed this year.
The draft amendment, already adopted by the State Council but awaiting approval from the National People’s Congress, removes a compensation ceiling for expropriated land and bars the taking of land before compensation has been paid.
The draft amendment followed pledges in November by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to reform the land requisition system and protect rural residents’ rights to farm and residential land, as well as their right to share in the earnings of collectively owned land, in accordance with the law.
One Uyghur farmer from Dong Maza village in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) said many Uyghur farmers welcome the change. He said it gives farmers more control over selling their land.
“Before, when they forcibly took our land we were against it. Now, according to the new policy, we can get good compensation and government housing, so it’s better,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“If they pay good money, we can sell our land. Why not?”
Some 77 percent of Uyhgurs are farmers, according to Chinese statistics.
Another Uyghur farmer, from Karashahr (Yanqi) county in Korla, said Uyghurs were looking forward to profiting from the sale of their land after the amendment.
“If this new law goes into effect, most Uyghurs would be willing to sell their land, because they need money to improve their lives,” he said.
Easily sold off
Exile Uyghur activist Adil Abbas, vice president of the Uyghur Canadian Society, said the new policy could tempt many Uyghurs to sell off their land, causing them to lose power in the region.
“Before, Uyghur farmers were forced to sell their farmland to Chinese immigrants at low prices,” he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“Many residential lands were forcibly confiscated and homes were destroyed. Still, Uyghur farmers fought to keep their lands.”
“But now, the Chinese government will be able to easily get their land with money, because most Uyghur farmers are very poor, and if they can get good payment they might easily sell off their land.”
On the other hand, even if the new policy is adopted, implementation could prove difficult and the new policy could have little effect in practice, others said.
Charles Burton, a consultant and China expert who advises the Canadian government on Chinese affairs, said the implementation of the amendment could be difficult as China has no independent judicial system.
“It is hard for the central leadership to implement meaningful reform, since local officials are very dependent on extremely high benefits driven by purchasing the land cheaply and then selling it at a high rate to developers,” he said.
He added that the law, which was beneficial to Chinese farmers, was being put forward as a way for China’s new leadership to gain support among the population.
He warned that any reforms to the hukou system, which Chinese authorities pledged following a national political and legal work conference last week, could similarly prove hard to carry out.
“Genuinely extending the same benefits to the migrant workers that urban residents enjoy at present, would require massive change in the way that cities are organized. It’s a huge expenditure from the government,” he said.
But he said it would be a positive development for China if it could improve the hukou system, which bars rural immigrants in cities access to the education and social benefits afforded to bone fide urban residents.
Han Chinese migration
For Uyghurs in Xinjiang, however, hukou reform would afford fewer improvements than it would for most of the rest of China’s citizens, Adil Abbas said.
“The situation in East Turkestan [Xinjiang] is totally different” because of discriminatory policies against Uyghurs, he said, using another term for Xinjiang.
“Uyghur farmers who leave their land are unable to send their children to government schools and can’t get other social benefits. Even without any reform of the household registration policy, Han Chinese immigrants are provided all of these social benefit in East Turkestan,” he said.
Uyghurs say that the Chinese government’s efforts to develop the region have brought unfair policies, including the encouragement of Han Chinese migration and economic investment that prioritizes Han Chinese.
Rights groups say that in the face of a rapidly rising Han Chinese population in Xinjiang—which grew from 6.7 percent in 1949 to 40 percent in 2008, according to official statistics—Uyghurs are becoming a minority in their own homeland.
Adil Abbas warned that if restrictions are loosened on where China’s citizens can migrate, this could lead to massive Han Chinese immigrant flows into Xinjiang.
“Before, China systematically immigrated millions of Han Chinese into East Turkestan [Xinjiang] by promising cash, free land, or housing and job opportunities,” Adil Abbas said.
“Now they can flow into East Turkestan [Xinjiang] without needing to be convinced. This could be more dangerous.”
Reported by Rukiye Turdush for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Rukiye Turdush. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.