More than 40 ethnic Uyghurs protested outside of a government office in China’s northwest Xinjiang region Thursday demanding that authorities return a portion of land they say was seized from them and given to Han Chinese as part of a municipal development plan.
The protesters, from Turpan prefecture in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, said that some 410,000 mu (67,500 acres) of their grazing land and 68 livestock pens were appropriated by local authorities in 2008 for the expansion of the regional capital Urumqi.
But they said that none of them had been offered compensation.
Abdurehim Abliz, a representative of the group from Toksun county’s Gholbiyi village, said that the herdsmen had hoped to speak with officials at the Urumqi municipal office about an edict which higher authorities had issued related to the appropriation of their land.
“We wanted to talk with officials today about why they took our land and how they intend to pay us. Of course we don’t want to disturb the public order—that is why we came armed only with papers,” he told RFA by telephone from the municipal office.
The herdsmen, who are used to the warmer climate of their home village, faced unexpectedly cold weather in Urumqi, wearing little clothing when they arrived at the building.
They were asked to wait to meet with officials of the petitioners’ department but none of the officials turned up, Abliz said.
“We have spoken with this department many times before and we are not very hopeful for this talk, but as a group representative I could not say ‘no’ to the offer because it is so cold … We had planned to talk with a different department.”
He felt that the department promised them the meeting in order to hide their protest from the public.
They plan to continue their protest on Friday.
“We are now at a motel, but we will gather in front of the government building again tomorrow.”
He said local officials from Toqsun county had repeatedly called the group, saying they would “forgive” them for holding the protest and pleading with them to return to their village.
Another one of the four group leaders, who gave his name as Ablet, said the authorities had prevented him from leaving Gholbiyi village, sensing he was heading to Urumqi to stage protests.
“I could not travel to Urumqi today because of police intervention. The others went to Urumqi in small groups or as individuals,” he said.
When contacted by telephone, a staff of the regional petitioner department, who asked to remain anonymous, told RFA that the group would be in “trouble” with the authorities if they continued their protests.
“They are doing this the wrong way,” he said. “They should send just two or three people as representatives.”
“They could get themselves into trouble if they come as such a large number of people together. It can be seen as intending to disrupt public order."
The deputy chief of the department, Gheyretjan, immediately hung up his cell phone after receiving a phone call from RFA.
Vow to continue
Ablet said that the group had been petitioning officials at various levels of government about the land for five years with no result.
"We know that we cannot get back all the grazing land and pens we had before, so to make it easier to solve the problem we are just asking for 5.5 mu (one acre) of land for each of us. With this, we could establish a home and an animal pen to continue our lives,” he said.
“What we demand is just 0.1 percent of the total land we have lost, but the government is still not listening to us."
According to him, 84 families had part ownership of the 410,000 mu of grazing land.
“In the beginning, factory owners and businessmen occupied our land by force. But in 2008, Urumqi city officials issued a writ—No. 88—which ordered us to vacate the land, but authorities never gave us the details of the notice,” he said.
“We have asked many times about the reason and basis for the order.”
Abliz said that police had not intervened in Thursday’s protest and that the situation had ended in a peaceful manner. But he vowed to travel with the group to Beijing to petition the central authorities if their demands were not met by officials in Urumqi.
The group had already traveled to Beijing several times in the past five years—most recently in August of 2011. At that time, Petitioners Department head Wei Gheyretjan traveled to the Chinese capital and brought the herdsmen home, promising them that he would solve their problem upon their return.
Instead, group representative Ablet was detained at the Toksun county detention center. Authorities released him 30 days later when the group gathered at the center to request his release, but never provided an answer to demands about their land.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.