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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 00:29 GMT
China's Uighurs lose out to development

By Louisa Lim
BBC, Xinjiang

Liu Guizhen is digging a ditch for irrigation along a barren stretch of road, quite literally developing China's west.

Hundreds of Chinese migrants, mainly poor farmers like him, arrive every day in Xinjiang in the far west of the country.

For the last three years, China has poured billions of dollars into a campaign to redevelop its poorer western provinces.

But who has been benefiting from this programme?

Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, is booming
Liu Guizhen said travelling 3,000km to find work was a question of survival.

"Developing the west is about making money to put food in our mouths," he said. "We'll go wherever there's good money to be made."

In the eyes of the authorities, raising living standards in Xinjiang could also serve to dilute any separatist impulses within the local Uighur Muslim population.

And there is no doubt that the new arrivals are transforming the landscape.

Boom cities are springing up in the parched desert with all the trappings of modernity - wide roads, swanky apartment blocks, even traffic jams. A sure sign of growing prosperity, but for whom?

One sign of an economic shift can be seen in Erdaoqiao market in Xinjiang's provincial capital, Urumqi.

It is a modern building packed with stalls selling inlaid knives, camel-hair carpets, embroidered hats - all traditional products in the region.

It used to be an open-air bazaar mainly run by locals. But development led to a new building, the rents went up and many Uighurs were literally priced out of the market.

Han Chinese migrants
The development is being fuelled by Han Chinese migrants

"It's too expensive," said one Uighur hat seller, who has moved outside onto the pavement.

His new pitch, he said, would soon be turned into a car park and he did not know where he would go then.

For many Uighurs, this tale of economic marginalisation is familiar.

Around 90% of Xinjiang's population were Uighurs in 1949; now it is estimated that Uighurs make up only about 45% of the population.

They are being supplanted as the dominant ethnic group, by Han settlers who see the windswept desert as a land of opportunity.

The Chinese Government is also staking its claim to the province's rich natural reserves, particularly its oil.

At exercise time at the Tazhong oil refinery in the middle of the Taklamakan desert, all the faces are Han Chinese.

According to Wang Lequan, the province's communist party secretary, Uighurs simply do not have the skills for jobs like these.

"One common problem of the western region is that the education and cultural level of the people here is quite low," Mr Wang said. "In Xinjiang, we lack the talent needed for modernisation and advanced industry."

There is a language divide as well. Uighurs speak a Turkic dialect; many of them speak little or no Chinese.

Uighur shoe shine boy
Xinjiang's indigenous Uighurs are losing out

This means they are effectively disqualified from official jobs and it makes it harder for them to find employment within Chinese companies. That is also an argument for bringing in labour from outside the province.

But critics like Nicholas Becquelin from Human Rights in China said the government's developmental approach was accelerating the wealth disparity between the Chinese and minority Uighurs.

"It's a top down approach to development, where the state decides what are the important projects like building railroads, roads, developing the oil exploitation of Xinjiang," he said.

"These are all major infrastructural programmes that directly benefit the urban Chinese segment of the population. And there is nothing done seriously on poverty alleviation, rural development or minority empowerment in this programme," he said.

No prospects

Seventy-year-old Etam Yusuf is an example of those who are being left behind.

He is selling his donkey cart because he cannot even afford to send his four children to school.

The Uighur part of Urumqi where he lives is basically a slum, though it is not far from the glitzy new skyscrapers.

The roads are unpaved and there are heaps of rubbish everywhere; his house is made from earth, with sheep roaming the courtyard and all six family members sleeping in one room.

Nonetheless, he still thinks he is better off than others he knows.

"There are a lot of people without work here, really a lot," he said.

"There are graduates who have just left university but who still have no work."

And beggars are a common sight in Xinjiang, most of them Uighurs. As they struggle to eke out a living, Uighurs are becoming second-class citizens on their own soil.

Many Uighurs fear that the influx of Chinese settlers, with their built-in advantages, is threatening Uighur culture, their means of existence and ultimately their survival.

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