While Chinese officials in the Xinjiang region insist that they no longer compel Uyghurs to supply free labor for public works projects, in reality they have only changed the name of the practice, RFA’s Uyghur Service has learned.
“The hashar is abolished, and the farmers are being informed about it in village after village,” a Chinese official in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture’s Guma county’s civil affairs office told RFA in a recent interview.
Hashar is the Uyghur term for compulsory labor in fields and roads, and Uyghur and other human rights activists view the practice as a means to repress the Muslim Uyghurs.
“The new policy will be in effect from the end of January,” added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It’s unclear why Chinese officials in the region needed to announce a new ban on the hashar as China’s ruling Communist Party claims to have formally banned it in Xinjiang decades ago.
Still, the announcement was met with joy among Uyghurs, according to the Chinese official.
“The farmers were really happy. Some were happy from the bottom of their hearts,” the official told RFA. “Some of them even teared up upon hearing this news, and they said: ‘The party is good, and government is good.’”
But that good will dried up after Uyghur farmers in the region discovered that they would still have to do hashar-like labor.
“They informed us that the hashar is abolished,” a Uyghur farmer told RFA on condition of anonymity. “But they also told us that they will gather us for flood management and tree planting activities during the tree-planting festivals.”
While the Chinese insist that they have ended the policy, the Uyghurs say that the hashar lives on.
“When they announced the hashar is abolished, we believed them,” the farmer said. “But we will have floods this coming June, and they will make us go and work for 10 to 15 days.”
Zubeyre Shemshidin, a researcher for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told RFA the Chinese use the hashar to keep Uyghur farmers under the state’s thumb.
“They use this unjust policy as way to keep Uyghur farmers poor, and to increase their control over them by separating them from their land and wealth,” Shemshidin said.
She told RFA that she doubts Beijing’s sincerity.
“The Chinese government’s announcement abolishing the policy looks like a duplicitous act,” she said. “Forcing Uyghur farmers to do this or that type of work is likely to continue in different forms.”
The Guma county official told RFA that Uyghurs will still be required to work during floods “under the forced labor and charitable labor category.”
“If anybody fails to enforce the new policy, they will be held accountable,” the official said, but he insisted that the hashar policy has changed.
“They made the policy change to make farmers' burden lighter and increase their income,” he added.
Reported and translated by RFA's Uyghur Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.