Some Uyghurs living in China’s Xinjiang are compelled into a type of sharecropper’s existence as they are forced to abandon their children and travel hundreds of miles to find work in the cotton fields as there are no jobs near their homes, RFA’s Uyghur Service has learned.
An auxiliary police officer in Guma (Pishan, in Chinese) county, called the shortage of agricultural water and farmland the “biggest problem in our county.”
“The local labor force is forced to move other regions such as Aksu (Akesu, in Chinese) and Korla (Kuerle, in Chinese) and even to the bingtuan’s cotton fields in the northern part of Xinjiang because the local farmers have no other income aside from being able sell their physical labor,” said the police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The bingtuan is the local name for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary government organization in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The bingtuan has administrative authority over several medium-sized cities as well as settlements and farms in Xinjiang.
Guma’s Mokuyla township loses about half its 21,000 population to the bingtuan’s cotton fields each year as farmers there become a kind of indentured servant in order to make ends meet, the police officer told RFA.
“The local residents don’t have enough income and they have to depend on a loan to live,” he said. “When they come back to their village, they have to pay off their loan, then they are empty handed and have to apply for a new loan.”
A teacher in Muji Township in Guma backed up the police officer.
‘The kids always became the victims’
“There isn’t enough agricultural land and water in the village of Guma so most of the local labor force left for other prefectures such as Aksu and Korla and bingtuan’s cotton fields,” said the teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Some of them spent their whole year, and some of them spent several months in the bingtuan’s cotton field,” added the teacher. “But the kids always become the victims of this kind of separation.”
The teacher told RFA that the fate of the children “breaks my heart.”
“Last year I taught a girl in the first grade who was 16 years old!” the teacher said. “You never imagine a 16-year-old girl studying at the first grade of an elementary school.”
The teacher told RFA the girl spent her childhood in the cotton fields of Aksu following her parents so she never had an opportunity to attend a school.
“Last year both of her parents died in a car accident and her elder brother is busy working in the Aksu cotton fields, so nobody is left in her family to take care her,” the teacher said. “So she was forced to start her elementary school education at 16.”
Jur’et Obul, who holds a medical services doctorate and is a board member of the Uyghur-American Association, said his people were going through the “darkest period of Uyghur national education” since the Chinese exerted control over the region in 1948.
“Without their parents’ love and a normal family life, the kids are becoming a mentally unhealthy generation,” he said. “Uyghur children already lost their right to receive education in their mother tongue. Now, they face a life without their parents’ love. This is a tragedy for Uyghurs because this kind of system forcefully changes them into a stranger at their own land.”
Reported by Eset Sulaiman foir RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman and by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.