Ethnic minority Uyghur residents near the northwestern city of Turpan, in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, are suffering from severe pollution from a nearby copper mine set up under Beijing's much-vaunted western development campaign, RFA's Uyghur service reports.
"...We get unbearable headaches. It is impossible to describe this feeling. This smoke gives us a severe headache."
"The effect of the smoke from the copper mine is very strong. Our people have complained about it many times, reported it to many places," a man living in Yemshi village, near Aydin Lake township, a few kilometers from the mine, said in an interview. "Every week, there is a southeast wind. When this wind occurs, a [cloud of] smoke arrives gradually here. Once it comes, we get unbearable headaches. It is impossible to describe this feeling. This smoke gives us a severe headache."
He said the mine had been opened by a Han Chinese investor under the preferential investment conditions offered by the government's "Go West" policy. But the effects on Yemshi village have been devastating, he said. "For example, we also have grapes in Yemshi. When our grapes were tested in eastern China, it was clearly shown that they were highly contaminated," he said, although he was unable to give details.
A woman living in the same village confirmed his story. "This smell is so bad that we have to cover our noses and mouths. For now we are unable to identify the effects of it. But we think there may be a bad effect in future. In the morning we cannot go outside due to the bad smell. We have to close the windows when we eat," she said.
Residents who complained to environmental officials about the smoke were criticized and penalized by the government. Some of them even lost their jobs. One journalist got into trouble because of his reporting on the issue, residents said.
An official at the Aydin Lake government dismissed the residents' claims, saying: "A complete lie. It's a lie. It's gossip!... This factory passed all regulations when it was opened. There is nothing wrong with this factory."
The Aydin Lake Communist Party secretary also denied that pollution from the mine was a problem. "You should look at this issue this way. This mine is a business. It needs to burn coal to process copper," he said. "If that factory had failed to meet the environmental regulations, it would not have been in operation. It is unreasonable to say it is polluting the air. There may be something wrong with those people who said such a thing to you," the Party Secretary said.
However, a newly arrived government official confirmed to RFA that he had noticed the smell and said it bothered him too, before he handed the phone to a colleague.
A woman who answered the phone at the local environmental protection office said she had heard of the Yemshi residents' complaint, and that it had been investigated by city environmental officials and resolved.
However, she confirmed the presence of a pollutant. "It is a type of gas. I think it smells very spicy. It's because a hole [in the mine] had a gas leak when they were trying to repair it."
When asked if some people who tried to work for the villagers had lost their jobs, the woman said: "I heard of that as well. I don't know too many details."
Sources said the local environmental director and the copper mine owner were currently on a business trip elsewhere in China and couldn't be reached for comment.
Beijing's "Go West" investment policy is ostensibly aimed at promoting economic development in the deprived western regions of the country, but critics say the policy in Xinjiang is driven by military and strategic goals of greater control over the Uyghur homeland.
Uyghurs constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They have twice declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the 1930s and the late 1940s, but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949.
According to a Chinese Government white paper, in 1998 Xinjiang comprised 8 million Uyghurs, 2.5 million other ethnic minorities, and 6.4 million Han Chinese-up from 300,000 Han in 1949. Most Uyghurs are poor farmers, and at least 25 percent are illiterate.