China Unrest Can Be Traced to Program That Sends Uighurs Across Country to Work

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

URUMQI, China -- When the local government began recruiting young Muslim Uighurs in this far western region for jobs at the Xuri Toy Factory in the country's booming coastal region, the response was mixed.

Some, lured by the eye-popping salaries and benefits, eagerly signed up.

But others, like Safyden's 21-year-old sister, were wary. She was uneasy, relatives said, about being so far from her family and living in a Han Chinese-dominated environment so culturally, religiously and physically different from what she was accustomed to. It wasn't until a local official threatened to fine her family 2,000 yuan, or about $300, if she didn't go that she reluctantly packed her bags this spring for a job at the factory in Shaoguan, 2,000 miles away in the heart of China's southern manufacturing belt.

The origins of last week's ethnically charged riots in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang region, can be traced to a labor export program that led to the sudden integration of the Xuri Toy Factory and other companies in cities throughout China.

Uighur protesters who marched into Urumqi's main bazaar on July 5 were demanding a full investigation into a brawl at the toy factory between Han and Uighur workers that left two Uighurs dead. The protest, for reasons that still aren't clear, spun out of control. Through the night, Uighur demonstrators clashed with police and Han Chinese bystanders, leaving 184 people dead and more than 1,680 injured in one of the bloodiest clashes in the country's modern history. Two Uighurs were shot dead by police Monday, and tensions remain palpable.

"I really worry about her very much," Safyden, 29, said of his sister, whom he did not want named because he fears for her safety. "The government should send them back. What if new conflicts happen between Uighurs and Han? The Uighurs will be beaten to death."

Both Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of the country's population and dominate China's politics and economy, and Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking minority living primarily in China's far west, say anger has been simmering for decades.

By moving Uighur workers to factories outside Xinjiang and placing Han-run factories in Xinjiang, Chinese officials say, authorities are trying to elevate the economic status of Uighurs, whose wages have lagged behind the national average. But some Han Chinese have come to resent these policies, which they call favoritism, and some Uighurs complain that the assimilation efforts go too far. Uighurs say that their language is being phased out of schools, that in some circumstances they cannot sport beards, wear head scarves or fast as dictated by Islamic tradition, and that they are discriminated against for private and government jobs.

Xinjiang's labor export program, which began in 2002 and has since sent tens of thousands of Uighurs from poor villages to wealthier cities, was supposed to bring the two groups together so they could better interact with and understand each other. The Uighur workers are lured with salaries two or three times what they could earn in their home towns picking cotton, as well as benefits such as training on manufacturing equipment, Mandarin language classes and free medical checkups.

Several Uighur workers said that they have prospered under the program and that they were treated well by their Han bosses and co-workers. Others, however, alleged that the program had become coercive.

In the villages around the city of Kashgar, where many of the workers from the Xuri factory originated, residents said each family was forced to send at least one child to the program -- or pay a hefty fine.

"Since people are poor in my home town, they cannot afford such big money. So they have to send their children out," said Merzada, a 20-year-old who just graduated from high school and who, like all the Uighurs interviewed, spoke on the condition that a surname not be used.

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