WASHINGTON, May 21, 2003--Local officials in China�s remote Xinjiang Autonomous Region are coercing members of the Muslim Uyghur minority to perform manual labor for the government without pay, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports. The practice, confirmed by Xinjiang officials and known in the Uyghur language as �hasha,� aims primarily to secure labor that local villages cannot afford to hire.
�In the other provinces in China where there has been rapid economic development, �hasha� was phased out long ago,� an agricultural official in the Xinjiang regional government told RFA�s Uyghur service. �But here in Xinjiang, we still need it.�
Another regional official described the practice as occurring predominantly among peasants in the southern part of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region--one of the poorest regions of China. �I myself worked on the �hasha� scheme when I lived there,� said the official, who asked not to be named.
These officials, along with Uyghur residents of Xinjiang interviewed for this story, said village authorities essentially conscript Uyghur men and women of all ages for a variety of jobs that they cannot afford to hire workers to perform. These include road-building, irrigation, agriculture, and construction. Uyghurs are usually employed in this manner for about 50 days a year, sporadically or consecutively, with thousands of people conscripted annually, villagers say.
The work is generally organized by Uyghur village leaders at the request of local governments, and laborers face fines of between 30 and 60 yuan daily (about five dollars U.S.) if they fail to show up, officials and Uyghurs in Xinjiang said in separate interviews. Those most often coerced into providing free labor are from Aksu, Kashgar, and Khoton prefectures--in Chinese, Akesu, Hashe, and Hetian, respectively--Xinjiang residents say.
�At the moment, there is no money to pay the peasants. The money given to the government is very limited. We already have to use the little we have for flood prevention and other public works,� the agriculture official said. Public attention to the issue might boost political will to change the system, he said.
A spokesman for the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Washington said the Geneva-based organization was aware of forced labor in remote regions of China, although he declined to comment specifically about the �hasha� system. Central government officials in Beijing indicated that they were unaware of it.
The agricultural official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, attributed the �hasha� system to problems in reforming China�s tax system. Peasants in China are currently overtaxed by a locally imposed system of fees, charges, and levies, often by corrupt officials. Pressure to reform the system first came after local Communist Party cadres warned then Premier Zhu Rongji that unrest caused by the �peasant burden� could spiral out of control. The central government has moved since then to implement a new system of taxation in some areas of China, although progress has been painfully slow.
But these changes, according to the agricultural official in the Xinjiang government, have been slow to arrive in Xinjiang, especially in the southern areas, where local government coffers are chronically empty. He added, however, that reform was on the way. �As soon as the tax reforms are carried out in southern Xinjiang [and the government has money], �hasha� labor will definitely be eliminated in Xinjiang as it has been in the other provinces in China,� said the official.
One man, a native of Kashgar who is in his 30s, said his continuing "hasha" assignments consisted of dredging and widening a river and irrigating fields.
�For one month out of every year for three years,� said another man in his 40s, also from Kashgar, �we were forced to open up land that had never been settled before--it was just wilderness. We were also forced to build houses for Han Chinese immigrants who were resettling in the area.�
China uses forced prison labor as an officially sanctioned form of legal punishment. For this reason, it is one of just 10 member countries to decline to sign two ILO conventions on eliminating forced labor. Since the fast-paced economic reforms of the late 1990s, reports of underground private sweatshops using slave labor have also surfaced in the news media, and have occasionally been the target of official investigations. However, official embarrassment ensures that no statistics are reported and the true size of the problem is unknown.
RFA broadcasts news and information to Asian listeners who lack regular access to full and balanced reporting in their domestic media. Through its broadcasts and call-in programs, RFA aims to fill a critical gap in the lives of people across Asia. Created by Congress in 1994 and incorporated in 1996, RFA currently broadcasts in Burmese, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Lao, Mandarin, the Wu dialect, Vietnamese, Tibetan (Uke, Amdo and Kham) and Uyghur. It adheres to the highest standards of journalism and aims to exemplify accuracy, balance and fairness in its editorial content. #####