Factories opened by a rapid influx of majority Han Chinese migrants have devastated the environment and public health of a once-fertile township in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, according to ethnic minority Uyghur residents who say the local government has ignored their pleas to have them shuttered.
Since the end of the 1990s, dozens of Han Chinese factories—many of which were shut down for violations in other parts of China—had relocated to Rahetbagh township in Kumul (in Chinese, Hami) city and brought pollution with them, Uyghur residents said.
They said that Rahetbagh, which means “comfortable and beautiful garden” in the Uyghur language, has now been reduced to an environmental wasteland with choking smog and tainted soil.
Abla Kichik, a Uyghur farmer and resident of Rahetbagh’s Changghu village who served as village chief during the 90s and early 2000s, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the factories have destroyed local agricultural production.
“Environmental pollution has become a serious problem in our township within the last 15 years,” Kichik said.
“Before that, our township was renowned for its wheat, grain, and cotton cultivation, as well as local specialty goods such as the Hami melon and other fruit. But nowadays, we cannot produce quality goods because of the heavy pollution.”
Kichik said that the prized Hami melon has been grown for generations in Rahetbagh, but that degraded air and soil quality have affected the fruit’s flavor and caused it to lose its reputation on the market.
He blamed Han Chinese company executives, who he said have been allowed by the Kumul city government to resettle their factories on township territory free of charge after pressuring local village chiefs.
“They built an unofficial industrial park here, which includes a cement factory, a glass factory, a chemical acid factory, and so on. These factories and their waste products have not only polluted the air, but also our soil and living environment,” he said.
“Most of the factories and plants moved to Xinjiang from China’s inner provinces. The government had already closed some of the factories there, so the owners and company bosses simply moved them to our hometown.”
Kachik said that people in Rahetbagh are suffering from “various kinds of diseases and strange illnesses,” including respiratory problems such as asthma, throat and sinus infections, and even cancer.
Nasir Akhun, a farmer and resident of Chaychimehelle village in Rahetbagh, told RFA that “a huge amount of black smoke” covers his village every morning and that children and the elderly often find themselves short of breath.
He said that his village has been forced to abandon its focus on growing Hami melons and other produce to support the local economy due to the heavy pollution.
“The government arranged for us to cultivate cotton instead. Cotton is described as white gold in Xinjiang, but our polluted and smoggy air has changed the color of our cotton to black,” he said.
Kichik said that he and his fellow Changghu villagers had gone several times to petition the Kumul city government over the township’s pollution problem and demand that authorities shut down the offending factories.
Kumul city is the capital of Kumul prefecture, located on the northeastern border of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
“The city government told us that the factories and plants made a great contribution to the economic development of Kumul city. They also said that the pollution problem was not only our problem, but all of China’s problem,” Kichik said.
“Since then, the Rahetbagh township government has not allowed us to petition any further.”
Akhun said that he had experienced similar resistance from officials when trying to alert them to the problems facing Rahetbagh because of the factory pollution.
He said that residents of Rahetbagh believe the factory owners are relatives of, or people with close ties to, former Xinjiang ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary Wang Lequan and profit from his protection.
“They can occupy any land or obtain any benefits they wish,” he said.
“We have petitioned to the Kumul city and Kumul prefectural governments several times [to shut down the factories], but nobody listens to us.”
Linked to migrants
Uyghur farmers in Rahetbagh say the problems in their township are linked to the greater issue of Han Chinese migrants moving to Kumul prefecture in growing numbers since the founding of the People’s Republic in China in 1949.
Kumul, located on the border with Mongolia, has traditionally served as an important cultural and geographical gateway between China and Central Asia, and drew large numbers of Han Chinese who later resettled throughout the Xinjiang region, according to the farmers.
They say that former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening-Up” policy of the 1980s saw a particularly heavy influx of Han Chinese move to the prefecture, where they began to gradually appropriate Uyghur agricultural land.
Of Kumul prefecture’s roughly 540,000 inhabitants, nearly 70 percent are Han Chinese, while Uyghurs make up less than 20 percent of the population.
Rahetbagh farmers say that in addition to occupying land without paying compensation and destroying the local environment, the Han Chinese-owned factories have provided comparatively few jobs for local Uyghurs.
Uyghurs in Xinjiang claim to have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness, as more Han Chinese move to the region.
Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.