Minority Uyghur farmers are being forced to do jobs without pay for local authorities in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region despite an official declaration from the central government abolishing the practice, according to residents.
Farmers in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, said that the free labor is being touted as part of an effort to promote “national unity” by Chinese authorities and that those who choose not to participate are slapped a hefty annual penalty of about 1,500 yuan (U.S. $240).
One farmer, who spoke to RFA’s Uyghur Service on condition of anonymity, said that he and a group of other farmers had recently been forced to clear a 100 mu (16.5 acre) plot of land in his village.
He said land in the area was being prepared for the farming of wheat, corn, and cotton.
“Some workers from other parts of China worked here [with us] and even the graveyards were moved away,” the farmer said.
Local officials make the Uyghur farmers who do not perform their free “labor duty” pay a fee, which they then use to pay Han Chinese migrant laborers for the same work, he said.
“If we do not go we are forced to pay for the days we are absent. In our group we have about 150 laborers. Seventy of us go to labor duty and the other half pays so that they don’t have to go,” the farmer said.
“[The ones who don’t go] pay about 1,500 yuan (U.S. $240) [per year] so that village officials can pay the Chinese workers.”
The farmer said that residents of the region had been informed through state television and radio programming that free labor programs had been abolished, but that local officials required them to participate regardless.
“Chinese workers came to our town and worked on irrigation canals and other projects,” he said.
“They were paid, so we were not allowed to work at those sites.”
A woman from Hotan’s Qaraqash (Moyu) county who also spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA that instead of abolishing labor duty, local officials had simply “diversified” the practice.
“[Local officials] use all kinds of methods to make money. We are really unhappy with this kind of thing, but the poor farmers don’t have much of a say in anything,” she said.
She said that women have also been forced to participate in the free labor system.
“I am a female farmer. We are forced to sweep the streets when higher-level officials come to town. But even after we clean the roads, they make us sweep it again,” she said.
“We are so disturbed when the higher-level officials come through. We can only catch our breath after they leave because we aren’t allowed to rest or even eat our food comfortably while they are here. This is what the government is doing to us.”
According to the male farmer, local officials have singled out for punishment people who question why the Chinese laborers are being paid for the same field preparation work the Uyghur farmers are being forced to do for free.
“If we raise that question it would be deemed an issue of national unity. They accuse us of being separatists and illegal religious practitioners,” he said.
Uyghurs, the majority of whom are Muslim, say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness in Xinjiang despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities often link Uyghurs in Xinjiang to violent separatist groups, but experts familiar with the region have said Beijing exaggerates what it calls a terrorism threat to take the heat off domestic policies that cause unrest.
Land for Hans
The male farmer said that his labor group had been “furiously preparing land,” including a number of lots near the 14th Division of the Chinese Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC)—a semimilitary governmental organization that holds administrative authority over several medium-sized cities, settlements, and farms across the region.
He said that laborers are not only forced to work for free, but have to pay for the items they use to do the job. After the work is done, the newly cleared lots are sold or given to Han Chinese migrants to the region.
“If we use bulldozers, we must pay for them. If we plant trees, we pay for the trees ourselves,” he said.
“In theory, [the land] should be given to us since we prepared it. But it is not given to us.”
The farmer said that from spring to fall last year he was forced to plant trees alongside China National Highway 315 from Kargilik (Yecheng) county in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture to Guma (Pishan) county in Hotan.
“It was 25 days of free labor. At end I could not bear it any longer and paid for it.”
He said that he and other Uyghur farmers in the area have been pressed into labor duty assignments for decades.
“I was enlisted in the army from the age of 17 to 22, and since I was 22 I have been participating in labor duty,” he said.
“It has been 40-odd years since then.”
In December, a resident of Kargilik told RFA that Uyghur farmers had been pressed into providing free labor on a road building initiative for rural areas in Xinjiang, despite a state media report that the Chinese government had allocated 90 million yuan (U.S. $14.4 million) for the project.
A Kargilik official confirmed that the labor policy had been in effect in the county during the winter for unskilled construction and said that farmers who refused to work on the roads face fines, which he said could be “infinitely high.”
He said that local officials had stressed that efficiency in the work was less important than keeping the Uyghurs occupied outside of the farming season because “if the farmers are left free, the government would worry that they might make trouble.”
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.