More than a hundred Uyghur farmers in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have protested against high land fees in the Kashgar prefectural capital, drawing assurances from officials that the issue could be resolved next year.
On Oct. 15, some 50 farmers from Seriqbuya Township in Maralbeshi County gathered in front of the prefectural government building in Kashgar city. They were joined by another 50 farmers from neighboring Aqsaqmaral and Alazig townships.
The protesters sat in the yard outside the Kashgar office for three days until officials convinced them to go home.
The farmers said they were losing patience with the high land fees that they must pay in order to use state land.
Yusupjan, the protest’s lead organizer, said, “For almost ten years, we could not make any money from the government-owned land [shangpindi] because there are a lot of government fees.”
According to him, in 1998, the county government reviewed use of the county’s farmland, designating some plots as government-owned land for which farmers could buy rights and pay fees to farm.
He said farmers must pay a land fee of 400 RMB (U.S. $60) and a water fee of 100 RMB (U.S. $15), in addition to other fees.
“At the beginning, they asked for 67 yuan per mu [U.S. $10 per 1/6 yard]. We did not discuss it with officials because we feared arrest and beating, but the fee increased year after year, and finally we decided to take the risk and protest,” Yusupjan said.
Another farmer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “We have been very patient and expected the government to change this policy after witnessing [how little] we earned from it, but they did not. They never cared whether or not we can make money from the land.”
Maralbeshi (in Chinese: Bachu) County is about 270 km (170 miles) northeast of Kashgar city and produces grain and cotton. The region has been tense since ethnic violence broke out last year.
On Sunday afternoon, Oct. 17, the top officials from Maralbeshi County and Seriqbuya Township came to Kashgar city to speak with the protesters, promising to solve their problem and take them to the county office, according to the protest organizer Yusupjan.
The protesters were surprised when local officials reacted to their demonstration without harsh punishment.
“We had expected armed to police to come take us away, but actually, top officials including the county secretary and village party chief came. Most importantly, they treated us very nicely,” Yusupjan said.
Officials pointed out to the protesters that they would have faced harsher treatment a year ago, after ethnic unrest broke between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the regional capital. Uyghur men faced widespread arrests in the ensuing crackdown.
“The official said, ‘As you know, if this were last year, you could have seen yourselves surrounded by armed police and your destiny would have been the detention center. But that time is over and such a thing will not happen again. Please listen to us, follow us to return home and we can discuss anything you want with you,’” Yusupjan said.
After the protesters returned home from Kashgar city to Maralbeshi, county officials met with the protesters on Monday morning, according to an official at the Maralbeshi County office contacted by telephone.
He confirmed the demonstration in Kashgar and said the county officials listened to and recorded the protesters’ demands.
Cancelling fees unlikely
Memtimin Tur, an official in charge of the petitioners’ office in Seriqbuya Township, said that the township party committee had already discussed the issues that the protesters raised.
“The issue of cancelling fees is unlikely to be solved this year. Probably next year it could be. Because the problem is not related to only 50 farmers, it is common to the whole township and even to the county. If the township says OK to the protesters’ demands, then the next day all of the farmers will go to Kashgar to protest.”
“Their attitude is very nice,” Yusupjan said. “But it is not enough to satisfy us. We expect them to cancel the fees we are paying unnecessarily. If they don’t do it, their nice attitude will have a negative effect.”
Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.