WASHINGTON—As China moves westward in its reach for economic and political growth, the net results are increasingly being felt in the northwestern Uyghur region of Xinjiang.
Beijing has made much of its multi-billion dollar "Go West" investment incentives, which it says are aimed at alleviating poverty throughout its economically deprived hinterland.
But Uyghur rights groups overseas and ordinary Uyghurs within China say Beijing's massive infrastructure spending drive has more to do with ensuring China's energy supplies and regional security than the welfare of the local people.
In a series of interviews with Radio Free Asia (RFA), Uyghurs describe life under Chinese rule in Xinjiang and a surge in social problems including forced unpaid labor, loss of land and livelihood to make way for Chinese-run development projects, and an increase in HIV/AIDS HIV/AIDS and drug abuse.
Additionally, as more Chinese migrant workers flood into Xinjiang, policies aimed at suppressing anti-Beijing sentiment and quashing separatist ambitions, Islamic religion and culture have multiplied.
An agricultural official in the Xinjiang regional government confirmed the continued existence of a system of forced labor called hasha in remote areas of the countryside, in which laborers are not paid for their work. The official told RFA's Uyghur service, "At the moment, there is no money to pay the peasants. The money given to the government is very limited."
"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."
"In the other provinces in China where there has been rapid economic development, hasha was phased out long ago," the official said. "But here in Xinjiang, we still need it."
One man in his 30s from Kashgar city, 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."
Around 98 percent of the Han Chinese population are located in urban areas, while about 90 percent of Uyghurs live in rural areas. Uyghur groups estimate that the income of Han Chinese in the region is around 3.6 times that of the Uyghurs.
Some academics predict the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs will soon become an ethnic minority in their own land.
Human rights groups and Western governments routinely criticize China for its heavy-handed treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Beijing has backed the U.S.-led war on terror and called for international support for its campaign against Uyghur separatists, whom it has branded terrorists.
Uyghurs constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the late 1940s but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949.
China's "stability" policy in Xinjiang began with the establishment of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or bingtuan , in 1949 in an effort to provide land and work for demobilized People's Liberation Army troops.
Today, the bingtuan is a vast, quasi-military organization with a population of at least 2.5 million people, roughly one-seventh of the total population of the region.
Recent reports have indicated that key bingtuan companies recruit only highly qualified Han Chinese from universities in inner China, and other companies have been known to exclude ethnic Uyghurs from applying in their job advertisements.
Millions have been made homeless across China by land-grabbing local authorities hungry to turn a profit, and Xinjiang is no exception.
"Is it right to forcefully take the land given by the government for 30 years?"
Authorities near Atush city to the north of Kashgar have forced poor farmers away from their livelihoods to make way for a major property development, local residents told RFA.
"The government gave this land to us for 30 years. A farmer who violates the agreement will be penalized. Is it right to forcefully take the land given by the government for 30 years?" one Uyghur farmer from one of the affected villages said in an interview with RFA.
"The land you are giving us is unworked land and will take 10 years to make suitable for grape planting. When are you going to take this land away, too?"
In a separate incident, an elderly man in Kashgar was crushed to death during demolition work after he refused to move from an area being redeveloped by the municipal government, an eyewitness told RFA.
"Before demolishing the house, the truck driver said he quit, but the boss insisted and threatened him" the local resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.
Local police said the man had been warned repeatedly of the eviction order from his house, which they said was the property of the municipal government.
"We talked to him about moving out, but he still refused," an officer at the Yawage district police station in Kashgar told RFA. "Everyone else moved out. He was the only person left. He simply refused to move out. Finally, the wall collapsed while the tractor was operating," the officer said.
Local residents said this was not the first time that people's homes had been demolished with little notice.
An employee with the Kashgar Prefecture Petroleum Company told RFA that the government had demolished company housing for the mostly Uyghur employees living in extreme poverty—without the company's consent.
"That plot of land is ours," the employee said. "The municipal government gave it to a private developer without our permission. This private developer demolished a few of our buildings."
Company officials said they didn't dare offend the local government. One employee said, "For the local government, what they say is legal is legal. What they say is illegal is illegal. Our personal opinion is that it should be illegal."
According to official statistics, drug use in Xinjiang has risen sharply in the past 10 years and the level of addiction among Uyghurs is increasing.
Government statistics say approximately 56 percent of Uyghur users now inject drugs directly into their veins and 93 percent of all HIV/AIDS infections in the region come from sharing dirty needles.
It's estimated two percent of users are just seven or eight years old. One Urumqi police officer told RFA children become inducted into drug-using circles by peers or family members at a young age.
"Some of their parents were involved in using or selling drugs...There are many kids who died after using injections. Many people have died from using illegal drugs," the officer said.