Steven Jacobson is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying business and history.
The 1980s were transformative times for many Chinese. The introduction of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" in 1978 helped create the semblances of a market economy, which eventually helped lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. Gone were the days of the forced starvation of the Cultural Revolution. Citizens could move across the country more freely as restrictions on migration were lifted. A new middle class began to form. However, not all in China benefited from these reforms. The Uyghurs of East Turkestan, who had undergone alternating periods of independence and Chinese rule for centuries, were brought firmly under Beijing’s control in the early 1950s. Like the Han, the Uyghurs attempted to share in the relative freedom of the 1980s by moving away from their native Xinjiang’s poorer rural areas to the province’s richer urban ones. However, the Uyghurs have not been able to reap the benefits of the prosperity of the last three decades due to an influx of Han into Xinjiang’s cities.
The Han have outnumbered the Uyghurs in Xinjiang since the early 1950s. This was due to mass government-sponsored resettlements of Han from the country’s east that were meant to populate the region and solidify the border against the Soviets. However, in the first three decades after these programs’ implementation, interactions between the Han and the Uyghurs were much less frequent than they would eventually become. The “Bintguaners,” or mostly Han demobilized soldiers who made up the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, began arriving in the early 1950s.[i] Tasked with building much of the early infrastructure that would make up modern Xinjiang, the Bintguaners lived spatially segregated from other ethnicities.[ii] These early Han settlers and the Uyghur natives lived in what Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi has termed a “parallel society” to each other.[iii]
However, beginning in the 1980s, many Han and Uyghurs began to compete for jobs in the same cities in Xinjiang, such as Urumqi due to the relaxation of the Hukou policy in 1985. The nationwide Hukou system, which had been introduced in 1958, forced each person to register their place of residence and their status as either agricultural or non-agricultural. This determined where a person should live and what government benefits they should receive, respectively.[ix] These hukous were difficult to transfer, as they were subject to strict regulation by the central government, which only granted transfers under extraordinary circumstances or to dispense favors.[x] Therefore, for over two and a half decades, Chinese found it very difficult to move voluntarily across the country. However, in 1985, the Chinese government began to relax these restrictions. The government issued temporary permits to those who moved from rural to urban areas after 1985.[xi] Although these migrants still did not possess Hukous for their new destinations, and thus did not receive the benefits that came with them, the change gave this “floating population” a legal basis to move from one region to another indefinitely.
Many Han Chinese took advantage of these reforms by moving to Xinjiang’s booming cities for economic reasons. Although sparsely populated, Xinjiang is a relatively well-off region, especially for China’s west, as it ranked fourteenth out of China’s thirty-one autonomous regions on the United Nations’ Human Development Index in 2005.[xii] Consequently, Xinjiang’s in-migration rate was over the national average in China from 1985-2000.[xiii] Many migrants came from Henan, which is one of China’s poorer provinces.[xiv] This migration resulted in a nearly 90 percent increase in the Han in Xinjiang from 1985 to 2000. Over the same period, the Uyghur population only increased by about 30 percent.[xv]
Many Uyghurs likewise began to migrate internally from their home rural regions in Xinjiang to the province’s increasingly wealthy cities. However, the hopes of these economically driven Uyghur migrants were soon dashed. Since the Han have gained a plurality in Urumqi, they have, over the years, established control over a number of key industries there. Furthermore, the labor markets in Xinjiang’s cities have become segmented, as Ben Hopper and Michael Webber have observed.[xvi] This is despite Uyghur and Han migrants’ similar employment histories as peasants before moving to cities.[xvii] In a survey conducted by Hopper and Webber, nearly all Uyghurs and Han had bosses of the same nationality as themselves.[xviii] This is because the Han have developed control over key industries, and hire mostly or only from within “hometown networks.”[xix] The Uyghurs have not established these networks to such an extent.[xx]
For example, the Han have established control of Xinjiang’s construction industry, a well-paying and booming industry that rarely leaves those who work in it unemployed. Consequently, those who work in construction in Urumqi are almost exclusively Han, a phenomenon that is independent of the respective ethnic groups’ education levels.[xxi] By contrast, the Uyghurs became relegated to the demolition industry, a low-skill sector that requires long hours for little pay. The demand for demolition work is much lower than for construction. Therefore, many Uyghurs in find themselves unemployed much more regularly than the Han did.[xxii] The Uyghurs also retreated to national commodity distribution chains in which they mostly bought from and sold to other Uyghurs. Uyghurs who transacted only with other Uyghurs make about ¥300 less than those few Uyghurs who do service other those of other ethnicities.[xxiii] Most Uyghurs thus miss out on huge streams of income. Continued preferential policies by the government that were implemented to accommodate the newly arrived Han have only exacerbated the disparity between the Han and the Uyghurs. For example, the US Congressional Executive Commission in China found 800 out of 840 civil service openings in Urumqi were reserved for Han Chinese in 2006.[xxiv] Additionally, the government has razed parts of the city where Uyghurs lived to provide land for Han redevelopment and construction projects.[xxv]
China’s rapid urbanization since the 1980s has been one of the driving forces behind its economic growth, as consolidated marketplaces and shared factors of production help lead to greater wealth creation. However, this integration into the marketplace has not taken place for the Uyghurs, despite their movement from rural to urban areas in Xinjiang. Because the Han have also arrived in Xinjiang’s cities and effectively shut the Uyghurs out of the best-paying industries—with the help of the government—the Uyghurs of Urumqi and other cities form an urban underclass that only transacts with itself. They consequently lose out on the benefits that China’s urbanization has brought to many of its Han. Unsurprisingly, in a survey conducted by Anthony Howell in 2008, Uyghurs were found to make ¥200 less per month than the Han in Urumqi, and consequently have lower standards of living.[xxvi] The Han’s entry into Xinjiang has caused the Uyghurs to be economically left behind.
[i] Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi, “Han Migration to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Between State Schemes and Migrants' Strategies,” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 138 (2013): 163.
[ii] Joniak-Lüthi, “Han Migration to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Between State Schemes and Migrants' Strategies,” 162.
[iii] Ibid., 163.
[iv] Ibid., 164.
[v] Ibid., 165.
[vii] Ibid., 164.
[viii] Ibid., 166.
[ix] Jianfa Shen, “Increasing internal migration in China from 1985 to 2005: Institutional versus economic drivers,” Habitat International 39 (July 2013): 1-7.[x] Will Buckingham and Kam Wing Chan, “Is China Abolishing the Hukou System?” The China Quarterly 195 (September 2008): 591.
[xi] Shen, “Increasing internal migration in China from 1985 to 2005: Institutional versus economic drivers,” 1-7.
[xii] Ben Hopper and Michael Webber, “Migration, Modernisation, and Ethnic Estrangement: Uyghur Migration to Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, PRC,” Inner Asia 11 (2009): 178.
[xiii] Shen, “Increasing internal migration in China from 1985 to 2005: Institutional versus economic drivers,” 1-7.
[xiv] Anthony Howell, “Labor Market Segmentation in Urumqi, Xinjiang: Exposing Labor Market Segments and Testing the Relationship between Migration and Segmentation,” Growth and Change 42 (June 2011): 212.
[xv] Hopper and Webber, “Migration, Modernisation, and Ethnic Estrangement: Uyghur Migration to Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, PRC,” 179.
[xvi] Ibid., 186.
[xviii] Ibid., 187.
[xix] Ibid., 184.
[xxi] Hopper and Webber, “Migration, Modernisation, and Ethnic Estrangement: Uyghur Migration to Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, PRC,” 184.
[xxii] Ibid., 191
[xxiii] Ibid., 190
[xxiv] Kunal Mukherjee, “The Uyghur Question in Contemporary China,” Strategic Analysis 34 (2010): 429.[xxv] “China Razes Uyghur Homes,” Radio Free Asia. http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/raze-07132010120547.html (Accessed April 21, 2016)
[xxvi] Hopper and Webber, “Migration, Modernisation, and Ethnic Estrangement: Uyghur Migration to Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, PRC,” 184.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Michael D. Manning
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