China’s policies have increased poverty among ethnic minority Uyghurs in a prefecture of the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region, despite government claims that it has poured funds into development and the improvement of local livelihoods, residents of the prefecture said.
Government officials say the area’s history, geographical location and religion have played a role in pushing it into poverty, but that residents in Hotan have benefited from assistance that has poured in over the last several years from both the regional and national administrations.
From 2011-2014, the regional government spent 74.3 billion yuan (U.S. $11.5 billion) on housing projects for low-income families in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture, helping 920,000 households, or 3.6 million farmers and herdsmen, according to a July 2014 report by China’s official Xinhua news agency.
The report also said the government has provided dual-language education as part of its efforts to lift local people out of poverty.
But according to Tianshannet, the Xinjiang government news portal, nearly 704,000 residents of Hotan live below China’s poverty line, accounting for 27 percent of impoverished Uyghurs in all of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Perhat Muhammidi, a Uyghur from Hotan who now lives in exile in Germany, blames the poverty on China’s high-pressure policy of repression in the prefecture, which has been a hub for the Uyghur independence movement since the 1930s and is one of prefectures mostly populated by members of the minority Muslim group.
The Xinjiang region was briefly declared independent East Turkestan in 1949, but the move was short-lived when it was absorbed by Communist China later that year under the guise of “peaceful liberation.” Since then, the government has suppressed activists and demonstrations advocating independence.
No land for families
Uyghurs in Hotan have also suffered greatly because of China’s family planning policy, which included forced abortions that reduced the number of offspring who could work on family farms and generate income, he said.
Uyghurs, who make up the majority of Hotan’s population, are heavily dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.
The local government’s failure to grant land to growing families means that Uyghurs have less to eat and sell at market as the number of members of their households increases, said a farmer who lives in Qaraqash (Moyu) county.
“They are not distributing land for newborn babies, and they have not been distributing land for our kids either for years, he told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
The farmer, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution for criticizing local policy, said he only has four mu of land (0.66 of an acre) to farm to provide for the 10 members of his family at a time when village authorities have taken about 400 mu (66 acres) of land away from local farmers and given it to developers for newly arrived Han Chinese migrants to farm.
“The government is doing this while farmers are suffering dearly due to the lack of land,” he said, adding that authorities took 2.2 mu (0.36 of an acre) of land with five walnut trees from him, and in return gave him land without any trees, so that he did not have enough walnuts to sell.
A female farmer in Chira (Cele) county said her family of five makes about 5,000 yuan (U.S. $776) annually, so they cannot save money like they used to for medical care and to pay for electricity.
“We do not have enough income,” she said.
The Chinese government appropriates arable land and gives it to Han Chinese who move to Xinjiang from the eastern provinces as part of its official western development program, sources say.
The Han Chinese, especially those who have the technical skills to work on large-scale projects, usually get the best land and jobs in the region, fuelling resentment among Uyghurs.
A teacher in Guma (Pishan) county, who did not want to be named, said not only farmers are affected by poverty caused by government policy.
“In our county, not only farmers but also teachers and local government workers are not happy either,” he said. “They did not distribute our bonuses for the last two months. Instead, we were told that the government officials and heads of offices got the bonuses.”
Political study sessions
A village cadre in Hotan’s Lop (Luopu) county, said that even if farmers make as little as 1,500 yuan (U.S. $233) annually, they still must make ends meet.
“We do not know the real reason why they are that poor, but they are not lazy either,” he said, adding that farmers who are required to attend political education sessions have less time on their hands to tend to their land. “[But] because they do not have enough time to tend to their farms, the farms have been declining,” he said.
The Chinese government requires Uyghurs to undergo “political education” to indoctrinate residents in Chinese Communist Party policy and combat radicalism.
Besides mandatory attendance at such sessions, the mostly Muslim Uyghurs complain they are subject to pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by Beijing under a series of “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang in the name of fighting separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.
Authorities rolled out the last such campaign following a deadly suicide bombing in May 2014 in the regional capital Urumqi, which they blamed on Uyghur separatists.
The village cadre also said that a policy of drafting Uyghurs for forced labor on public projects has taken its toll on families trying to make ends meet.
Local authorities in parts of Xinjiang require Uyghur men and women to provide forced labor to prevent them from participating in “illegal activities” and to promote stability in the area, according to officials and residents, although China’s ruling Communist Party officially banned the practice there decades ago.
Those subject to forced labor usually work at least three hours in the morning, five days a week, repairing streets, digging ditches, leveling land, pruning trees and paving roads. Uyghurs who refuse to do the work face fines or detention.
“Basically, the farmers have little time for themselves,” the village cadre said. “This could be the one of the reasons [for growing poverty].”
‘What more do they need?’
But an official from Hotan county’s poverty eradication office, who declined to be named, said farmers do not need much to survive, and said they are responsible for their own predicaments.
“They have food on their land, meat in their stables, and entertainment on TV. What more do they need?” he asked. “They are poor because they do not want to learn new things.”
Yan Gosan, Hotan prefecture’s Communist Party chief, said government administrators are working to reduce poverty in their prefecture.
The government is planning to provide assistance to 244 of 1,000 of Hotan’s impoverished villages this year, he said.
Reported by Gulchehra Ghoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.