Relocation of Ancient Uyghur Village Ruse to Assimilate Residents, Appropriate Resources: Experts

2020-12-10
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Relocation of Ancient Uyghur Village Ruse to Assimilate Residents, Appropriate Resources: Experts An aerial view Deraboyi in an undated photo.
Xinhua News Agency

Authorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have relocated more than 1,400 Uyghurs from an ancient desert village, citing destitution and “backwardness,” but experts say the move was made to assimilate torchbearers of traditional Uyghur culture and appropriate local resources.

According to a Dec. 1 report by the official People’s Daily Online news outlet, authorities recently completed the resettlement of the population of Deraboyi (in Chinese, Daliyaboyixiang) village, in Hotan (Hetian) prefecture’s Keriye (Yutian) county, as part of a “poverty alleviation” program.

The 364 Uyghur families comprised of 1,404 people were moved in two groups between 2017 and 2019, the report said. When the final group left, they were resettled in a newly established “poverty alleviation district” located 91 kilometers (57 miles) away from their home village.

Deraboyi, which means “the river’s edge” in the Uyghur language, is located some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the seat of Keriye county, in the heart of the Taklamakan Desert, along the Keriye River. Into the 1990s, the village was the only remaining place in the XUAR where no ethnic Han Chinese lived, and the population was entirely Uyghur.

As part of a bid to promote resettlement efforts, authorities claimed that 80 percent of Deraboyiresidents were living below the poverty line and that the village had insufficient water and soil for “sustaining human life.” Reports also claimed that the residents have since “achieved happiness thanks to the care of the [Communist] Party and government,” and are now part of a sheep-raising cooperative in their new location.

On the official People’s Web, a man by the name of Wang Fang wrote about the “New Deryaboyi Village,” saying “there are currently 422 workers in the resettled spot, 29 of whom are [working] outside Xinjiang, 47 of whom are [working] inside Xinjiang, and 346 of whom are [working] nearby.” The language suggests the residents may have been placed in labor schemes both inside and outside of the region.

Authorities in the XUAR are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of extralegal internment camps since early 2017. Those not in the camps are subjected to near-constant high-tech surveillance and repressive policies that restrict their ability to use their own language, practice their religion, and honor their cultural traditions.

Amid increasing international scrutiny, authorities in the XUAR have begun to send detainees to work at factories located nearby or in other parts of China as part of an effort to label the camps “vocational centers,” although those held in the facilities regularly toil under forced or coerced labor conditions.

Reports of the relocation from Deryaboyi have raised alarms within the community of Uyghur researchers and other experts who view the claims of “poverty alleviation” as a pretext by which to eradicate Uyghur culture and traditions.

Resettlements citing similar reasons have occurred in other parts of the largely Uyghur-populated southern XUAR in the past, including in the seats of Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture’s Makit (Maigaiti) and Kargilik (Yecheng) counties, as well as in Lop Nur township, in Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture’s Chakilik (Ruoqiang) county. In each case, the resettlements went against the will of the local people.

RFA made multiple attempts to reach government offices in both the old and new Deryaboyi villages to learn more about the resettlement policy but was unable to speak with anyone. Efforts to reach residents of the villages also went unanswered.

However, an April 22 report published on the official Xinhua News Agency and Tianshan.net websites quoted a Uyghur bus driver named Rejep as saying that he had been “born and raised in the poplars of Deryaboyi” and that when he dies, “I hope that I will be buried under these poplars.” Rejep’s statement suggests that at least some residents of the old village feel a close kinship and relationship to their land and are dissatisfied with their relocation.

A new way of life

Chinese media reports about the new village have shown that it is centered on Party and government office buildings. It also includes a hospital, a Chinese kindergarten and school, and a small factory, as well as row after row of identical houses, built in a style similar to those in other resettled villages and townships throughout China.

According to information available online, there is a gate into and out of the community, which is under constant surveillance. Once each week, there is a community-wide “re-education training.” Taken together, the details suggest that the new Deryaboyi is under a high level of political and social control.

In addition to using the pretext of poverty as a reason to relocate residents of the old Deryaboyi, authorities have long portrayed its community as being primitive and “wild.” Uyghur researchers, however, have long held that the Uyghurs of Deryaboyi adhered to more traditional Uyghur customs and exhibited ingenuity in the face of their harsh natural environment.

For these reasons, Deryaboyi is seen as a place of high symbolic value in understanding Uyghur life.

RFA spoke with Mettursun Beydulla, an academic affiliated with Georgetown University in Washington, who said government plans to resettle Deryaboyi residents and move the village began long before 2016, when available sources reveal the start of the plan.

Beydulla, who was born and raised in Keriye county, completed a doctoral dissertation on the traditions of Uyghurs in Deryaboyi in 2005 and, as part of his research, traveled to the village on multiple occasions, gaining rare insight into life there.

He claims that authorities began pressuring local villagers in Deryaboyi to move as early as 2005 to make way for oil drilling and expansion of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC)—a key paramilitary group in the XUAR which is also known as the “bingtuan.”

“When I went to the village the [Party] Secretary came and told people they were going to have to move,” he said. “No one agreed to it.”

“[The secretary] said the bingtuan was planning to come to a part of Keriye and that [authorities] were preparing land for it ... He said that Deryaboyi would no longer exist in 20 or 30 years. That was in the summer of 2005, when I was doing research there. Not even 15 years later, what he said has come true.”

The U.S. announced last week that it will detain all shipments containing cotton and cotton products originating from the XPCC, citing forced labor abuses. Rights groups estimate that one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from the XUAR and a July report by the End Uyghur Forced Labor campaign found that “it is virtually certain that many of these goods are tainted with forced labor.”

Since removing the residents from old Deryaboyi village, authorities have turned the site into a tourist destination, a move that has further worried experts and analysts.

Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham who studies China and the Muslim World, called the relocation “another example of government [policies] uprooting the lives of Uyghurs.”

He said that while the move may appear to have been made for poverty allocation or to improve the economy, it was actually part of the government’s policies of forced relocation and labor.

Thum also pointed out the hypocrisy of the government using the village after claiming that there was neither enough water nor electricity to “sustain human life.”

“So now, after moving people out, they say they’ve turned [Deryaboyi] into a site for large numbers of tourists, who will presumably need exactly those things,” he said.

An oasis in the desert

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Deryaboyi remained relatively sheltered from many of the political problems Uyghurs elsewhere in the XUAR faced, thanks in large part to the relative isolation of the village given its location in the Taklamakan Desert.

Photographs of Deryaboyi in earlier times depict a distinct way of life: sand dunes surround the village on all sides, and sparse neighborhoods spread out along the riverbed. The houses are constructed of reed. Small stoves burn nonstop, free of electricity. Free-ranging sheep, goats, donkeys, and other pets roam in front of houses. There are wells that draw groundwater, natural pastures, natural forests. The area goes without rain year-round, and the air is dry but fresh.

But despite being relatively cut off from other communities, Beydulla challenged Chinese government propaganda that the residents of Deryaboyi were a “strange people,” and said they saw themselves as part of Keriye county, with which they had never severed ties.

Instead, he said, community members would come together to mark weddings, funerals, and other major life cycle events with songs and traditions, much like Uyghurs throughout the region.

Beydulla added that while the local people might have seemed to live simple lives, they are also intelligent, and interested in both innovation and what was happening in the broader world, which he said they would glean from radio broadcasts, as well as from local residents who traveled between the village and other cities and regions.

Beydulla stressed that China’s goal of eradicating the ancient cultural traditions preserved by the Uyghurs were hidden behind the resettlement, adding that while Deryaboyi is surrounded by sand, it is a land rich in resources, which he believes China is conspiring to gain lasting control of.

“To force people to move against their will is not development, but rather an act of sabotage on their lives,” he said.

Reported by Gulchehra for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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