Local authorities in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang region have ordered ethnic minority Uyghur farmers to take part in a forced labor scheme to prevent their involvement in “illegal activities” and promote stability in the area, according to officials and residents.
All men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Toqsu (Xinhe) county, have been required to take part in “hashar,” or forced labor, since January, county officials recently confirmed to RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“Hashar is not actually a response to the needs of production—it’s simply for the needs of stability,” said Yasin Raxman, security chief of Chilan village in Toqsu’s Yultuzbagh township.
“It is to prevent people from ‘talking nonsense,’ ‘gathering in a disorderly manner’ and ‘attending illegal activities,’ either intentionally or not.”
Raxman said officials never speak openly with county residents about the campaign’s real goal, “but the farmers know that is why they have to do it.”
“Except for some troublemakers, most of the farmers agree with hashar because it is helpful for the environment of the village and increases production,” he said.
“Most importantly, hashar is much better than work in a labor camp, because everyone returns to their homes each day and can live with their family. It may be a little tough and boring for the young guys, but their parents are happy it because it is easier than looking for their sons at the police station.”
The mostly Muslim Uyghurs have complained about pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression by Beijing under its series of “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang in the name of fighting separatism, religious extremism and terrorism.
But experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur "separatists" and that draconian domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
China’s ruling Communist Party banned hashar in Xinjiang decades ago, but sources say the practice continues in some parts of the region under a different name and had been implemented in Toqsu as “dolqun,” or “wave,” hashar by authorities—suggesting it was a sweeping trend to benefit the region.
Raxman said hashar must be performed for at least three hours in the morning, five days a week—after which farmers may work on their fields.
In special seasonal circumstances, he said, the work period can be extended to between four and six hours a day, and only pregnant women and those suffering from serious illnesses are exempt.
The penalty for missing hashar is 100 yuan (U.S. $16) per day, and those who fail to show up to work are subject to a police investigation and detention of 15-30 days.
“So far, I haven’t collected any money from those who have been absent, I simply gave them extra work to make up for it,” Raxman said.
“No one has been sent to jail or to the detention center from my village—as has happened in other villages—because I have tried to implement hashar as smoothly as possible.”
Raxman said residents are being required to repair streets, dig ditches, level out land, and prune trees lining the roads, and that the hashar would continue until “whenever the higher-level authorities tell us to stop.”
He was unable to say whether the forced labor campaign was being implemented in other counties in Aksu.
Residents of Toqsu county told RFA that Uyghurs were unhappy with the new policy, but had little recourse.
“Most of our farmers, especially those of the older generation, lack a basic knowledge of human rights and don’t even know their rights as citizens according to the constitution, which is why they are silent about campaigns such as dolqun hashar,” said a retired Toqsu government employee.
“Hashar has a long history in our region, which is why it is considered normal by the older generation, but the new generation of farmers knows it is unacceptable,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“However, with the current situation in the region—especially since the beginning of the ‘strike hard campaign’—it is impossible for them to refuse any orders from the authorities.”
Authorities rolled out the strike hard campaign following a deadly suicide bombing in May 2014 in the regional capital Urumqi, which they blamed on Uyghur separatists.
The campaign has included police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Controlling the people
A teacher from Toqsu, who also declined to provide her name, said that while Uyghur residents of the county appear to agree with the hashar policy, “it’s not the truth of the situation.”
“Local officials don’t report the truth to the higher levels of government, and the higher authorities don’t want to hear the truth anyway—that is why oppression and violent incidents continue,” the teacher said.
“Everybody who follows the political trends and ethnic tension in the region knows why the people are being forced into labor, even when it is illegal … The government wants to control every minute and movement of the Uyghur people—it is central to the strike hard campaign,” she said.
“But while it may serve as a temporary solution to reduce violent incidents, I don’t believe that peace and stability can be achieved in this way. And I think the authorities will deeply regret enforcing this collective punishment on the people.”
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.