Much has been much written about the exploitation and cultural repression of the Uyghur population in China’s far-west province of Xinjiang but, says TOM CLIFF, far less attention has been paid to the Han settlers.
Settlement in the urban areas of Southern Xinjiang has recently been made easier in an attempt to encourage Han immigration. Chinese central authorities insist that this policy is designed to help ‘develop’ the predominantly Uyghur area of Northwest China.
Much has been much written about the exploitation, cultural repression, and violence directed at the Uyghur population that accompanies this developmental program, and the sporadic incidents of inter-ethnic violence in response. Far less attention has been paid to the Han settlers themselves—who they are, what they want, and how they got to where they are now.
I have found that the first generation of Han migrants tended to be driven to settle the cultural and political periphery of China by the need to survive—the search for freedom from poverty, famine, or restrictive social conditions. Their children and grandchildren, however, now feel at home on the frontier. These Han see themselves as ‘old Xinjiang people’ (lao Xinjiang ren).
Xinjiang as hardship
In a dimly lit clinic in rural South Xinjiang, an old woman (pictured below) was having acupuncture while her friend waited her own turn.
‘Is it sore here?’ asked the doctor.
very sore,’ she replied.
‘How about here, and here?’
‘Yes, yes, so sore … ’
‘Owwww … sore!’
‘You can’t be sore everywhere,’ he said, frustrated. ‘Tell me where it is most sore.’
‘It is sore all over,’ she responded, and then her friend took over the negotiation. ‘We have had a lifetime of bitterness,’ she said.
The doctor turned away and began his standard treatment. The patient stopped complaining and the onlooker turned to me to continue her story. She told me that, when she and her friend were growing up, they were unable to go to school because their families were too poor. She migrated to settle on this bingtuan farm (military–agricultural settlement) in the late 1960s, aged 20. The high hopes she and her cohort held for non-domestic work were dashed. ‘They didn’t let us work; we had children,’ she said. At times she wished her child was dead so that she could go back to her old home in Henan. By the time their children grew up, the state was looking to take on younger workers. Consequently, as at December 2007, she did not have a pension because she had never been a formal state worker. Looking back, she said:
You see those mountains over there? One day soon after I arrived I tried to walk to the mountains, to get out of this horrible, never-ending flatness, and to find a place to cry without anybody seeing me. The mountains looked very close but they are very far away, you keep walking and walking and they never get any closer. This made me want to cry even more, it seems like my whole life has been like that.
Xinjiang as opportunity
Mr Ren, who grew up on a bingtuan farm near to Shihezi, in North Xinjiang, told me that his mother came out to Xinjiang in 1960 to escape the nationwide famine induced by the policies of the Great Leap Forward. She came from the neighbouring province of Gansu, which, in addition to having bad soil, an extreme climate and a severe lack of water, was known for holding strongly to traditional Chinese and patriarchal values.
Ren’s mother was a true survivor. Soon after birth, she had been literally thrown out the door by her enraged father, who only wanted a son. ‘Luckily, it was icy outside, so she was not killed by the fall,’ Mr Ren said. ‘She slid across the ground.’ The neighbours retrieved her, but could not afford to raise her themselves, so she was passed on to a local landlord family to be raised as a child bride. They had mistreated her, and she had escaped by marrying a much older man whose first wife had died.
She bore three children to her first husband, the youngest of which was less than two years old in 1960, when the old man died during the height of the famine. With no male support and three dependent children, her older brother arranged for her to marry his neighbour on the bingtuan farm near Shihezi. The prospective groom had, like her brother, been conscripted into the Nationalist army during the Civil War.
She was to leave all her children with her dead husband’s family in Gansu but, just as she got on the train, she made the impulsive decision to take all three of them with her to Xinjiang. ‘If we are going to die,’ she reportedly said, ‘we will die together, as a family.’
Her stepdaughter,aged 17 at the time, was in love with a boy whom the former (now dead) husband’s family would not permit the girl to marry. The young lovers, along with a male cousin, also jumped on the Xinjiang-bound train at the last minute, and they all settled down on the same bingtuan farm.
The entire group of seven people were refugees—fleeing both the acute shortage of food and the restrictive social conditions of the Chinese ountryside. Bingtuan life was hard. Mr Ren’s father died soon after retirement, at the age of 60. Ren quoted a bingtuan saying: ‘If you give your youth, you give your whole life; if you give your whole life, you give your sons and grandsons.’ For bingtuan people, this line is extremely representative.
Nevertheless, Han areas of Xinjiang did not suffer as much as central and eastern China from the Great Leap Forward, the subsequent famine, or the Cultural Revolution. The influx of famine refugees, like Ren’s mother, from central China to bingtuan areas in the early 1960s was a direct result of bingtuan leader Wang Enmao’s conservative policies during the Great Leap Forward. These policies helped to ensure the survival of the bingtuan’s agricultural economy.
Furthermore, Xinjiang was allocated a quota for high-school graduates to study in eastern Chinese universities. ‘Otherwise,’ said Ren’s wife Jing, ‘we would probably not have been able to go to university.’ For Ren’s family, Xinjiang was a place of opportunity.
On graduation from university in 1988, Ren and his classmates chose from among the work units seeking graduate employees, with highest-scoring students choosing first. The only place less popular than Xinjiang as a work placement destination was Qinghai. In an unsuccessful attempt to help a low-scoring mate, Ren was allocated a position in his mate’s central Chinese hometown. But he refused to go there. He also realised that looking for work independently was unfeasible: to punish him for disobedience, the school would withhold his all-important dossier:
Getting any job without documentation would be too difficult. I knew that I could only choose to go to Xinjiang. I told the school: ‘Apart from Xinjiang, I’m not going anywhere!…’ I come from Xinjiang and I know what it is like here, so I was willing to come back.
The making of ‘old Xinjiang people’
In terms of the state developmental project in Xinjiang, one point to note about the comparison of these stories is the second generation’s strong conviction that they belong in Xinjiang. They are Xinjiang people by virtue of the fact that they were born and raised in Xinjiang, and, in developing themselves in Xinjiang, they also developed Xinjiang.
Here the assumptions of the state discourse come through loud and clear. In 1985, Wang Enmao (by then Secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party Committee) called on the newly mobile and aspirant population of China to support Xinjiang by migrating to and settling the region. ‘Xinjiang is a place where constructors engaged in opening-up can make the best of themselves,’he said.
If they originally came from somewhere else, they now have nowhere to go back to.
In this schema, their own social mobility is a reward for the contribution that they and their forebears have made in settling and civilising Xinjiang. After musing about where he would be if his mother was not a refugee and his father was not a conscript, Mr Ren said: ‘In fact, I love Xinjiang. I really love Xinjiang.’
This is what I call the affective base of Han occupation in Xinjiang. It exists despite, and also directly because of, these people’s forebears’ originally reluctant or even coercive resettlement in Xinjiang. If they originally came from somewhere else, they now have nowhere to go back to. They are neither politically nor economically powerful, but the very fact that Xinjiang is the object of their strongest connection to place lends this group a collective significance. One of the most resilient and transformative outcomes of the state developmental project in Xinjiang is ordinary people living ordinary lives, far away from their parents’ birthplace.
Time and empire
The first 60-plus years of Communist rule in Xinjiang, during which time the permanent Han population has risen from 4 per cent to over 40 per cent, would seem to support the confident—some might say arrogant—beliefs of Lord Alfred Milner, a British colonial administrator in the late 19th and early 20th century, and an ideologically-committed imperialist:
Time fights on the side of Imperialism, but the question has always been whether enough time would be accorded to us. The duty of Imperialists in my day has been to hold the fort during the long indispensable process of education …
As Milner implied, time is a fickle spouse. All empires must fall. The important point is that they always leave behind physical, cultural, and demographic imprints. As Uyghurs are violently ‘educated’ to be civilised, and new Han migrants make their way apprehensively to the backward frontier, many Han in Xinjiang today can imagine no other home.
The woman in the clinic, South Xinjiang, 2007. Photo © Tom Cliff.