Uyghur grape merchants in northwest China’s Xinjiang region suffered significant losses this year after heightened security measures amid a sensitive annual Communist Party Congress forced them to delay their harvest, according to sources.
This year’s Congress, held in Beijing Oct. 18-24, was the 19th annual meeting of China’s Communist Party that regularly triggers a clampdown in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs complain of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.
But during this year, Uyghur families were made to attend daily propaganda sessions at political re-education camps throughout Xinjiang to “study the spirit of the Party Congress,” and members of the ethnic group told RFA’s Uyghur Service that their grape harvests spoiled during what would traditionally have been a harvest week for their crop.
The head of one Uyghur family, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said that in past years he had earned 3,000 to 3,500 yuan (U.S. $450-530) per fan (76 square meters) of grapes from his five-fan (380-square-meter) vineyard.
“[This year] we couldn’t sell anything, as the grapes had already fallen from the vine when we went to pick them,” he said.
“If they are left on the vine too long, they become affected by frost … so either they fall from the vine or they can’t be stored for nearly as long.”
Because they were forced to attend “Congress studies” during the traditional harvest week, his family and others also were unable to apply pesticides to their vines, he said, so the grapes were affected by parasites.
A second Uyghur source, who also asked to remain unnamed, told RFA that he had ended up harvesting “plenty of grapes” this season, but that the “quality of the grapes wasn’t good” and he was unable to make a profit.
“[It was] because of the frost, after which the grapes became soft,” he said.
“Also, as people were taken away to closed re-education camps, the grapes were neglected, causing parasites.”
Since Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo was appointed to his post in August last year, he has initiated a series harsh policies targeting Uyghurs in the region.
Beginning in April, Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have regularly been detained in a vast network of re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, though reports indicate nearly no ethnic Han Chinese are being held at the facilities.
Grape and raisin production in Xinjiang’s Turfan (in Chinese, Tulufan) prefecture accounts for over 80 percent of China's total, and has helped China become the world's third-largest producer of raisins and the world's largest producer of green raisins, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Xinjiang’s grape industry has long been dominated by the region’s majority Uyghur population, but sources told RFA that Han Chinese migrants made significant gains on controlling the market this year because they had not been made to attend “Congress studies” like their Uyghur competitors.
One Han Chinese man, who owns a grape warehouse in Beshkerem township, in the seat of Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture, confirmed that his business had been exceptionally good this year due to a profitable harvest.
“The minimum I will supply to buyers is one ton of grapes,” he said.
But even Han Chinese grape merchants acknowledged that the clampdown during the Party Congress had affected their sales.
“There were so few people visiting the market [during the Congress], that we couldn’t sell our stock,” he said.
In April, sources told RFA that the proliferation of electric water pumps for large-scale farming and oil exploration in Turfan has all but dried up an elaborate set of wells used by Uyghur residents, known as the karez water system.
The karez system consists of some 1,100 wells linked by hand-dug underground canals that have irrigated local agriculture for 2,000 years and once provided an important oasis for merchant caravans traveling the Silk Route through the Taklamakan desert between China and the West.
But after centuries of supplying local residents with the water they need to eke out an existence in the harsh desert environment, nearly 90 percent of Turfan’s wells have run dry as large-scale farmers extract water and petroleum companies drill at an increasingly rapid rate, the sources said.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.