Cotton production is falling this year across northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, as ethnic Uyghur farmers are diverted from their work to attend political indoctrination classes or are compelled to contribute unpaid labor to government projects, sources say.
Restrictions imposed following ethnic clashes last year between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese in Yarkand (in Chinese, Shahe) in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture have now grown more strict, a Kashgar farmer told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“We have not been able to harvest our cotton yet, since the situation here is still not stable and farmers have not been able to work in their fields,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We are ordered to assemble in the yard of the village office all the time now for political study, and are also forced to labor at government work,” he said, referring to the hashar system of forced labor in which Uyghurs are frequently made to clear fields or repair roads for no pay.
Farmers have not been able to do any of the work essential to cotton production, such as spraying or weeding their fields, he said.
“We have no income at all now,” the farmer said.
“We are unhappy with this situation, but we don’t dare express this openly, as we will be taken away to political school and have to spend a month working inside a ‘black gate,’” he added, referring to the black gates commonly used by Chinese jails.
“Right now we are trying to find some way to pay back the bank loans we took out [to plant the crops],” he said.
Chinese security forces last year shot dead dozens of knife and axe-wielding Uyghurs in Yarkand who attacked government offices, apparently angry over the police killing of a Uyghur family of five and restrictions imposed during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, sources said in earlier reports.
While the government said that 96 people were killed in the July 28, 2014 incident, exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer said the death toll may have gone much higher, and accused the authorities of covering up a “massacre” of mostly Uyghur civilians.
“The situation is very tense here,” a farmer in neighboring Aksu (Akesu) prefecture said. “Right now we are worried about how we are going to cope with the winter months.”
“We have hardly any time at all to work in our fields. The men are being taken away to work at forced labor, and since the women cannot work in the fields, our production has suffered.”
“Maybe this is our fate,” he said.
“Production is low this year,” agreed a farmer’s wife in Turpan (Tulufan) prefecture.
“Our cotton is still in the field. We haven’t harvested it yet,” she said.
“We don’t have enough money to hire workers, and we’ve been told that [state-set] cotton prices will be low this year.”
'No money left'
Though state-controlled companies can export their cotton at a higher price, private farmers cannot export their own, she said, adding, “We buy all our own fertilizer and pay for our own water, which is expensive in Turpan.”
“There are no government subsidies for us here,” she said.
Though one farm family in Aksu prefecture's Awat (Awati) has sold 13,000 yuan worth of cotton this year, the family still owes 10,000 yuan to their bank, one family member said.
“We have no money left to buy coal,” she said.
“We can patch our clothing to get along, and we have a little wheat to eat,” she said.
“Hopefully we will not get sick so that we can get by through the winter without spending any money.”
Xinjiang, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamic insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Richard Finney.