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China's flood of fortune seekers unsettles Xinjiang

Opportunities found by one group -- the Han -- and lost by another -- the Uighurs -- are behind the violence in China's far west.

July 11, 2009|Barbara Demick and David Pierson

BEIJING AND URUMQI, CHINA — Wearing a dirty striped T-shirt, scuffed loafers and dusty cargo pants, Liu Xiuyi arrived in Urumqi last week after a 56-hour train ride that took him from the east coast to the farthest reaches of China's northwest.

Like the young Americans who in the 19th century followed Horace Greeley's imperative to "Go west, young man," the 26-year-old Liu left home in search of a job, space and opportunity. He knew nothing about the Xinjiang region except rumors that you could make more than $400 a month here, almost twice as much as back home in Jiangsu province.

"I heard everything was great here, but when I got in, everything was scary," Liu said in a thick country accent.

What Liu didn't realize when he boarded the train was that ethnic tensions in Xinjiang were exploding, fueled in part by the westward migration of people like himself.

At least 180 people have been confirmed dead in street fighting between the Han, China's dominant ethnic group, and the native Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Record numbers of migrants have been pouring into Xinjiang, spurred by the global financial crisis that is closing down export-driven factories in the east and curtailing new construction in Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese government says 1.2 million people migrated here last year.

And that's not counting the hundreds of thousands who come to pick cotton and potatoes, recruited by the quasi-military Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which has extensive farmland.

This year especially, local governments fearing social unrest caused by unemployment have played a role in organizing trips. The city of Chongqing in central China announced that it was sending 100,000 people to Xinjiang this year. In March, one county in Ningxia, in northern China, held a large ceremony for 3,200 peasants who were being sent out.

In effect, they chose to export instability to western China.

The Uighurs, a Turkic people whose majority here has been slipping away, complain that the outsiders are gobbling up the best jobs. Many employers here refuse to hire Uighurs for even the most menial positions, whether picking cotton or working in mines.

"Room service staff needed, 18-40 years old. Junior high school degree required. Han only," read an advertisement last week on a bulletin board at a government-run labor agency in Urumqi.

Han migrants often get free transportation, insurance, housing and help in finding jobs or starting businesses.

The ruling Communist Party's restrictions on government employees practicing religion keeps many Uighurs, who are Muslim, out of jobs as bureaucrats, police officers or teachers; if they are caught attending mosque or fasting during Ramadan, they can be dismissed or demoted.

Uneducated Uighurs are handicapped by their language, which is closer to Turkish than Chinese.

"It's hard for Uighurs to find jobs. No Han is going to hire me if I go into their shop," said a 36-year-old tailor who gave his name as Mijiti and barely spoke Chinese. He wore tattered dress slacks and a dirty white shirt, squatting in a familiar pose of resignation.

He had used almost all his money to buy fabric, but now the shop was closed. He was trying to figure out how to support his wife and 8-month-old son with the equivalent of $4 in his pocket.

Nearby was a strip of Han-owned auto dealerships that had been vandalized in the riots. Windows were smashed, brand-new sedans overturned.

Bilingual university graduates also find it difficult to compete with native speakers of Mandarin on tests that require knowledge of thousands of Chinese characters. Although Uighur students applying to Chinese universities are admitted with lower test scores, job applicants don't have such an advantage. And since 2000, most public schools have shifted the primary language of instruction to Chinese, which has thrown tens of thousands of Uighur teachers out of work.

A college graduate in his 20s living in Kashgar said he was unable to get a job teaching English at home even though he speaks almost native Chinese and flawless English.

"Of course Uighurs should learn Chinese. We are in favor of bilingual education, but not if it means we are shut out of the job market," said the man, who asked not to be named.

He said Uighurs are resentful when they see the opportunities available to newly arrived Han.

"All we want is the same opportunity," he said.

Liu, the fresh-off-the train migrant, is a case in point. Although the job he'd planned on fell through, the day after he arrived he lined up another -- collecting flowers for a manufacturer of herbal medicines.

"It's possible they hate us because we're taking their jobs," said Liu, pointing nervously down an alley near the railroad station where he'd heard that bodies had been discovered. "I'm really scared of the Uighurs now. When I look into their eyes, I see wolves."

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