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Ethnic Ire Looms on Influx of Workers
Published  05/20/1997

South China Morning Post |05/20/97

An influx of large numbers of migrant workers into Xinjiang cotton fields threatens to stir up ethnic unrest.

For the first time, the Xinhua (the New China News Agency) has admitted hundreds of thousands of surplus workers from other rural areas are pouring into the trouble-hit province for the harvest.

Beijing has said Xinjiang's rapid development - its economy rose about 10 per cent last year - would benefit all, including the Uygurs, a key ethnic group there.

However, Uygur separatists have complained the boom has attracted a large number of Hans, China's main ethnic group, to Xinjiang and they fear the Hans may soon outnumber them.

At the end of 1995, Uygurs accounted for 59.1 per cent of Xinjiang's 16 million population.

A spokesman for the regional government did not know how many migrant cotton workers there were, as they were not required to obtain permits.

He said: "These farmers are told by their relatives or friends that there are cotton harvesting jobs available in Xinjiang. They are temporary workers and most of them leave Xinjiang after the harvest."

The Xinjiang Government had no information about the migrant workers because they worked for Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps farms, a paramilitary group with equal political status.

Xinjiang is China's largest cotton producer, accounting for a quarter of the national output. The migrant workers are attracted by high wages.

Xinhua quoted a couple from Sichuan province as saying they earned more than 4,000 yuan (HK$3,720) picking cotton in southern Xinjiang last autumn - equal to five years' pay back home.

The couple stayed and since February have been managing a four-hectare cotton plot.

"The employer will pay them 7,200 yuan by the end of August when the cotton picking begins," Xinhua said.

Some workers have begun growing cotton themselves in the province.

Seven years ago, Yu Bishuang and his wife arrived in Shache, China's largest cotton producing county.

He planted two-thirds of a hectare of cotton in 1995, but did not make any money because he lacked the necessary skills.

However, Mr Yu planted a further two hectares last year and has now reaped a profit of more than 30,000 yuan.