China Unrest Tied To Labor Program

Uighurs Sent to Work in Other Regions
Ariana Eunjung Cha

Washington Post Foreign Service
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 asdictated 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 townspicking cotton, as well as benefits such as training on manufacturingequipment, Mandarin language classes and free medical checkups.

Several Uighur workers said that they have prospered under the programand 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.

A Uighur man named Yasn said his family had no choice but to send hissister, who had just graduated from middle school, to the eastern city of Qingdao to work in a sock factory last year because they could not afford the fine: "She cried at home every day until she left. She is a girl -- according to our religion and culture, girls don't go to such distant places. If we had it our way, we would like to marry her to someone or let her go to school somewhere to escape it," he said.

The Han Chinese owner of a textile factory in Hebei province that hasbeen hiring Uighur workers from the program since 2007 said that in the first year the company participated, 143 female workers came to thecompany. Liu Guolin said he was surprised to see that they were accompanied by a bilingual police official from their home town who oversaw the details of their daily life.

"Without the policeman, I assume they would have run away from the very beginning. I did not realize that until the local officials revealed to me later. Only by then did I learn most of those girls did not come voluntarily," Liu said.

He said the security officer did not allow them to pray or wear head scarves in the factory workshops. He later learned that some of the girls were as young as 14 and that their ID cards had been forged by the local government.

Bi Wenqing, deputy head of the Shufu county office that oversees theXinjiang labor export program, denied that any participants had been coerced or threatened with fines. However, he said that although theUighur workers at the factories have the freedom to worship, the practice is not encouraged.

"We have been trying hard to educate them into disbelieving religion. The more they are addicted to religion, the more backwards they will be. And those separatists try to leverage religion to guide these innocent young Uighurs into evil ways," Bi said.

The Xuri Toy Factory -- which makes electronic toys and travel bags -- once seemed a model for the export program.

In May, 818 Uighurs from Xinjiang joined the 18,000-person workforce. Although the newcomers had limited Mandarin skills, the Uighurs and Han Chinese workers bonded over nightly dances that seemed to transcend lingual, cultural and religious barriers.

But the atmosphere started to become tense last month when a rumor spread about a rape at the toy factory. An anonymous message, posted on the Internet in June, stated that six Uighurs assaulted two Han female co-workers. No one seemed to know exactly who the alleged victims were, employees said, and police later said the story was made up by a disgruntled former worker. But suspicions festered.

When Huang Cuilian, a 19-year-old trainee who is Han, walked into the wrong dormitory and ran into two Uighur men on the night of June 25, she screamed, and a melee ensued. When other workers heard the commotion, a brawl broke out between the Han and Uighur workers. In the end, 120 were injured, and two Uighurs later died.

Information about the fight spread via the Internet and cellphones to the Uighurs' home towns in Xinjiang, and there were calls for other Uighurs to take action.

In the aftermath of the fighting, both Han Chinese and Uighur workers at the factory say they are afraid of each other.

Tursun, a 20-year-old Uighur man from Kashgar, said he had been lying inbed in the dormitory when "suddenly a bunch of Han Chinese broke into mydorm and beat me."

Liu Yanhong, a 23-year-old Han Chinese who works in the assemblydepartment, said: "I still don't know if I can work together with them, after that thing happened. If they really come back, I will quit my job and go home."

Two days after the deadly riots in Urumqi, officials at the Xuri Toy Factory announced that they had come up with a solution to the ethnictensions: segregation.

The company opened a factory exclusively for Uighur workers in an industrial park miles from its main campus. They have separate workshops, cafeterias and dorms.

A Uighur employee named Amyna, 24, said the working conditions at thenew factory are "not very good" and the living conditions also are "not very good." But at least, she said, "the Uighurs are living together and don't mingle with Han Chinese."

Researchers Wang Juan and Liu Liu contributed to this report.