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In China’s Xinjiang a Way of Life Waits to Die

Radio Free Asia, 26 July 2016

e907e109-197a-4844-8698-b54da14ce6f7RFA Uyghur Service  Yadi Rehim sat outside his mud house in Tömürti village waiting for his way of life to disappear.

The Tengritagh (in Chinese, Tianshan) Mountains still reach for the azure sky like they always have. The bleats of goats still echo through the high mountain valley and the smell of wood cooking smoke still clings to the buildings.

But as Radi Rehim sits in front of his house, he knows his days here are numbered.

“There are only 24 families left in our village because they refused to sign agreements to be relocated,” Yadi Rehim tells RFA’s Uyghur Service. “I am one of the few remaining holdouts.”

Yadi Rehim and his village are facing the human equivalent of the collision between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates that lifted the Tianshan Mountains toward the sky.

Yadi Rehim and the rest of the Uyghurs — an ethnic Turkic people who practice Islam — are caught between the inevitable push of modernity and the Chinese desire to exploit the area for its mineral wealth and tourism potential.

“I don’t know what will happen us in the near future,” Yadi Rehim said. “The school, hospital, and other facilities are already closed, and our kids can’t go to school anymore.”

Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.

China regularly vows to crack down on what it calls the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang.

But experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur separatists, and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.

Many Uyghurs fear that the Han Chinese are, at best, trying to marginalize them, and, at worst, trying to stamp them out completely.

“We have seen our villages and pastures being turned into tourist resorts. Now Chinese companies occupy our villages,” Radi Rehim said. “The old life and local nomadic heritage is going to vanish without a trace.”

A massive move

According to the official Xinhua news agency, Chinese authorities plan to move 600,000 local farmers and herders in Xinjiang away from their farms and pastures into more urbanized settings as part of its 12th Five Year Plan, covering 2011-15.

Another villager, Eysa Yehya, told RFA that two years ago most of the local herders — about 1,200 of the residents of Tömürti and nearby Nernasu village in Tengritagh (Tianshan) township — were relocated to the suburban resettlement areas of Kumul city (in Chinese, Hami).

To the Chinese, Beijing is freeing the Uyghurs from their centuries of toil.

“Aratürk (Yiwu) County’s party committee and government has issued a plan to liberate farmers from the ketmen and herders from the qamcha,” said a high ranking county official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A ketmen is a traditional digging took used by Uyghur farmers, while a qamcha is a type of whip used by Uyghur herders.

“We have a plan where there will be no room for anyone who engages purely in farming or herding within three to five years in the future at Aratürk county,” the official told RFA.

On Dec. 23, 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban-rural Construction of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regional Government published new statistical data stating that the during the 12th Five Year Plan, the Xinjiang government invested a total of 120 million yuan (U.S. $20 million) to start a new resettlement construction project for 1.5 million local families and relocated almost six million farmers and herders.

According to the Asian Central Times (Yazhou Zhongxin Shibao) which is published by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regional Political Consultative Committee, local authorities relocated as many as 300 families from nearby villages during the past five years.

Chinese authorities don’t plan on stopping there, having announced that a half-million local farmers and herders in Xinjiang are waiting to be relocated, and RFA has learned that the autonomous regional government plans to broaden investment in its relocation project during the 13th Five year Plan, which covers 2016-20.

‘Two basic intentions’

“I think there are two basic intentions behind the government’s relocation plan,” says Yadi Rehim. “One is that the territory of our mountain village is full of various mines and underground resources.

“The other one is that the beautiful mountain scenes and the snow have attracted Chinese tourism companies’ attention. Therefore, the authorities forcibly moved us from our old villages, where our parents and ancestors lived for centuries.”

Since the end of the 1990s, Aratürk County has sped up industrialization following China’s “great western development” policy, a high-ranking Uyghur official told RFA on condition of anonymity.

The policy was instituted in the late 1990s in an effort by Beijing to boost the economy of western China to help it catch up with booming coastal areas.

“Mining and newly developed industries changed everything in our county,” the Uyghur official said. “The local traditional lifestyle and semi-nomadic, semi-agricultural production ways were challenged by the new industry.”

‘New socialist workers’

He added: “Most of the herders and farmers were relocated. The local farmers were liberated from their land and herders from their pastures within three to five years. Thus, most of the local farmers and herders became new socialist workers.”

Work, however, seems to have eluded the Uyghurs.

“They complain to me that the authorities only provide the elderly people with a so-called poverty subsistence allowance around 300 yuan (U.S. $50) per month,” Yadi Rehim said. “The situation of young people is more difficult. Some of them were only given janitorial jobs and other low-paying work. Some of them became jobless.”

Other promises made by the Chinese to get the Uyghurs to move have also been broken, he said.

“In order to persuade us to move, they gave us various promises such as new apartments, jobs, monthly living allowances and free medical insurance as well as five years free of taxes,” Yadi Rehim said. “So, some of residents signed the agreements to be relocated and most of the village has been moved out.”

But Yadi Rehim says the villagers began to have second thoughts.

“Some of the relocated families regret their decision and want to return to their old village, but they have lost their ancestral living spaces forever,” he said. “In the past, although they didn’t have enough money, they had their own houses, living spaces, pastures and livestock. Now, they have nothing but a small cement apartment.”

Reported and translated by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.