The ‘bright future’ of Chinese life in Xinjiang

Society & Culture

Life in the big city can be hard for Chinese migrant workers, but in Urumqi, economic incentives give them more opportunities than they'd get elsewhere. Provided that they are ethnically Han, that is.

chinese sign meaning "big meat" (i.e., pork) in xinjiang
Illustration for SupChina by John Oquist

In 2014, in the middle of a neighborhood at the southern edge of Ürümchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, there was a restaurant with a big red sign. In Chinese, the six-foot-tall characters read “BIG MEAT” (大肉 dà ròu), as pork is commonly referred to across China. The sign was an anti-Islamic political statement; it told everyone in the neighborhood that Han migrants had arrived and that they would not respect the values of the Muslims who called it their home.

This Uyghur-majority neighborhood known as Dawan was one of the centers of violence during the July 5, 2009 protests. A large number of the Han migrants who were killed or injured during the violence came from this neighborhood. In the years that followed, many Han migrants moved from this neighborhood to majority Han districts to the north. Those who remained marked their space, signaling their defiance. The six-foot-tall sign was a statement regarding the type of “quality,” or sùzhì (素质), that was protected by the institutions of the city. Unlike many places in China, in Ürümchi, Han rural-to-urban migrants received a great deal of institutional support.

In this neighborhood, if Uyghurs entered Han shops they were often either ignored or ordered to leave. Han proprietors would hold out their right hands, palm down, fingers pointed to the ground, and flick their wrists upward while yelling “Out! Out!” (出! 出! chū! chū!) in a short staccato. Or they would simply look past Uyghur customers, ignoring their questions, refusing to take their money. One Uyghur inhabitant of the community recalled a dispute he had with a Han gas station technician in the neighborhood. While he was waiting to have his ID checked so he could drive his car into the gas station, a Han taxi driver cut in line in front of him. When he protested, the Han gas station worker threatened to call the nearby police contractors stationed nearby. He told the Uyghur customer, “I’m not afraid of you. You should be afraid of me. I could have you arrested whenever I want.” In the mind of this Uyghur rural-to-urban migrant, this encounter drove home the point that, in this city, Han people were valued and that his body could be taken at any time. The police, the schools, the hospitals, the banks, the stores centered around Han desires and needs.

At the same time, over the course of the “People’s War on Terror” that began in 2014, the same system prevented Uyghurs from advertising their products as halal. It used digital media surveillance and informants to prevent Uyghur children from studying their mother tongue. It enforced family planning rules for Uyghurs while encouraging growth in the Han population. As part of a strategy to stop “halalification” (清真泛化 qīngzhēn fàn huà), it prevented Uyghurs from selling imported goods from Muslim-majority countries and instead emphasized Chinese domestic products. These institutions assured that pork could be consumed without reprisals; that low-income Han migrants could use their faces and social connections to pass through checkpoints at the entrances of gated communities and institutions while unauthorized Uyghurs could not. As a Han migrant to Xinjiang from Henan named Kong Yuanfeng told me in a 2020 interview, “For Uyghurs, Xinjiang is like a giant prison. They have to ask permission in order to travel anywhere. Han people can go anywhere they want by just swiping their ID; sometimes we don’t even have to do that.”

The “People’s War on Terror” became an euphemism for Han inclusion as “the people” conducting “the war” and Uyghur exclusion as the objects of terror. By participating in the social enclosure of Uyghurs who they saw as “low quality” (素质低 sùzhì dī) or “backward” (落后 luòhòu), Han migrants often positioned themselves as “high quality” (素质高 sùzhì gāo), valued members of society. Recent rural-to-urban migrants enjoyed a sense of prestige and distinction — often for the first time in their lives — relative to Uyghur inhabitants of the city.

Cultural capital or quality — a kind of cultivated taste or learned distinction — can be measured only relative to the positions of others within a social field. This is how appearing “classy” or being racialized works. For instance, suzhi within the social frame of a Chinese village is not the same thing as suzhi in an urban setting; neither is the experience of suzhi in rural Sichuan province the same as that of a person from Sichuan living in Tibet. Han migrants in Ürümchi likewise recognized the sophistication of people from Eastern Chinese cities, but they also recognized the relative ease with which they could find a good life in Ürümchi.

 

 

Many of the low-income Han rural-to-urban migrants that I interviewed in Ürümchi demonstrated a sense of the political and cultural leverage they possessed as patriotic Han citizens whose ID said they were from elsewhere. The ability to exploit this leverage — using a kind of location-specific Han privilege, Chinese language, and social connections to find economic opportunities — was often experienced as a kind of ease. By simply showing up they were able to participate in the economy of the city. As one Han migrant, Du Jie, who owned a small shop near the giant “PORK” sign in the Dawan neighborhood, told me in 2015:

I can definitely imagine living here for the rest of my life and just going back to my hometown now and then. It is so much easier to find jobs and they pay way better than in Anhui. It wasn’t a big adjustment at all when I moved here. I have several businesses that I am doing at the same time. It would be impossible to do that if I was back in Anhui.

Du Jie came to Ürümchi with her husband when he was hired to work on a construction project along with other people from her home village in Anhui. After that contract was completed, they used his earnings to open a shop that catered to Han migrant construction workers in nearby housing and security infrastructure projects. Once the shop was up and running, it was easy to hire other migrants to run it, and they soon opened another shop.

Because they were in a Uyghur-majority neighborhood, Du said the police and local neighborhood watch unit were supportive and made the process of leasing space seem simple. Du admitted that there were minor inconveniences that came from the security systems, such as having to register a new phone or ID and attending political education meetings. But she said, “All of that isn’t for us. It is for them (Uyghurs). The neighborhood unit asks us to report any suspicious activity so they can track it with the cameras. If they do anything to us, the police will respond right away. Most of the time (the police) don’t bother us and ask for ID cards or phones on the street like they do for the Uyghurs.”

“For Uyghurs, Xinjiang is like a giant prison. They have to ask permission in order to travel anywhere. Han people can go anywhere they want by just swiping their ID.”

Most of the dozens of Han migrants I spoke with retained affinities with their home provinces. Yet, despite their dislocation, they said that in some ways it was easier for them to perform the regional variations of Hanness in Ürümchi than in their home villages. In Ürümchi they had more wealth, and there were fewer class distinctions in groupings of migrants from other provinces. For example, according to Du and her co-workers, in Ürümchi, Anhui people were often inclined to help other Anhui people find jobs and resources even if they were strangers. Their shared place of origin was enough to link them in a common cause. According to them, this sort of camaraderie was quite rare in Anhui itself.

Of course, what was often unstated was the way they were unified in opposition to the threat of Uyghur resentment. As in the experience of settlers in other colonial experiments, Xinjiang was a space both of social mobility and in a shared nationalist cause.

Another woman from Henan, Lin Guangchang, exemplified the ease and contentment of Han migrant life in a city that supported Han migrants. In her experiences, when she and her husband came along with other people in her village in the early 2000s during the infrastructure construction boom that accompanied the “Open up the West” campaign, life in Xinjiang was already much better than life in Henan. She said:

I’m from Henan. I came here 15 years ago. Back in Henan we had less than 5 mu (2.5 acres). We raised wheat, but we barely made enough to eat. There are so many people in Henan. It is impossible to find any real opportunities there. That’s why we came here. But I’m still definitely a Henan person. Sometimes we go back to Henan over the Spring Festival, but sometimes we can’t. It’s too far and sometimes we can’t afford it.

With around 93 million people, Henan has one of the highest population densities in the world. With only 10 million Han people and nearly 10 times the landmass, Xinjiang had a great deal more land and opportunities. When I asked her to compare her life in Ürümchi to her life in Henan, Lin said:

One of the biggest differences I found between life in the countryside in Henan and life here in the city in Xinjiang is that food is so much more convenient. I don’t miss cultivating at all. It took so much time to prepare anything in Henan. Here everything is convenient. You can just buy what you need and make food right away. We can find everything we need to make Henan food. We had three kids after we came here; they all have jobs. My husband also works as a home repairman. Ürümchi is developing so fast that we can always find work. I’ve never had a job myself, but I always find a way to make money. For the past two years I’ve been selling small supplies of things in the market. Lately I’ve been making around 50 yuan per day. Our place is small and costs too much (500 yuan), but it is enough for us.

Lin also said that since her relatives in Henan had WeChat, she could stay in touch on a regular basis. Furthermore, unlike the challenges migrants face in other urban locations in China, she said her children had been accepted by good schools, which were subsidized by the government. This social reproductive support is even more remarkable because she and her husband had flouted the relevant family planning laws and had three children. She said, “They will have a much better life than we had, I never regret coming to Xinjiang for one minute.”

Another young man from Henan, Zhu Hongqi, who was working as a real estate agent for a commodity housing development in the Han-majority “New City” district of Ürümchi, told me something similar. For him and his wife, coming to Xinjiang was the best thing they had ever done. It allowed Zhu entry into a neighborhood that would have been impossible to enter in Henan, and it allowed him to imagine achieving a high-quality standard of living despite only having a high school degree. He said:

Everyone who lives here in this housing development works for state-owned enterprises (or large corporations). Their “quality” is really high. This place is built for convenience. It is only 15 minutes to the high-speed rail station. We have the largest Carrefour in Ürümchi. It is only five minutes away and we are connected to all of the major roads. In a year or two we will also be connected with the subway. Every housing district in the development has its own English-Chinese kindergarten. Also there are nearby parks for you to relax and exercise. You can go fishing. Everything is very convenient. It is a young community with access to all of the best schools.

He discussed the way the security system in the housing development was state-of the-art. Each resident could use a card to open the perimeter gate. Eventually, in 2017, all neighborhoods throughout the city would rely on face scans in order to enter housing complexes, fully segmenting unwanted migrants away from vast areas of the city. At this point though, Zhu already felt fully protected by the checkpoints and camera systems.

“Everyone in the city comes from somewhere else, so it is easy to be accepted.”

Because of the ease with which the Ürümchi economy supported Han social life regardless of their rural origin, he too felt that his son would receive a better education and life chances if he grew up as a Xinjiang person. “I came here in 2012 with my wife,” he said. “Both of us are just making money for our families. We have a one-year-old son who is at home with my parents, eventually we will bring him to live with us here. We have no land back in Henan so there is no work for us there.” Zhu felt that if his son grew up in this “atmosphere” he would understand that anything is possible if he just worked hard enough. “He may,” he added, “even have an opportunity to travel to the United States someday.”

Zhu said that because he was good at navigating the Chinese-language internet and using WeChat, it was easy for him to find work. He quickly built an online social network through other migrants from Henan and his experience as a real estate agent. Every day he collected contacts through online advertising. His ease at finding a job and a position as a formally recognized productive worker made the further work of cultivating his “achieved” quality a possibility. He bought new clothes and an iPhone to fit his new persona as a real estate agent.

Zhu said that succeeding as a knowledge worker was much easier than in the metropoles in Eastern China:

Xinjiang is better than Beijing and Shanghai because the income levels are high but the rent is still low. So in the end we can make more here than in the East. I’m also not willing to do construction, because it is such hard work. I’m good at using the internet and cell phones so I would rather work in that market selling things. I’ve only been doing this job for 2 months, but I really like it. They give us a base salary of 2,000, and then if we sell a house they will give us a commission of 0.5 percent. I know it is too low but this is China. So I can do this job and then do other jobs on the side as well. My wife also works in real estate, but as a waitress for a big real estate office. I like Ürümchi. The atmosphere really suits me. Everyone in the city comes from somewhere else, so it is easy to be accepted. If I had a chance I would definitely settle here; there are so many more opportunities for us here than in Henan. Of course I miss my family in Henan, but this is a place where I feel like I could really begin to live.

What is remarkable in Zhu’s words is his lack of awareness of how his success was only made possible by his ethnicity.

Although numerous low-income Han migrants I interviewed recognized that the type of life they could live in Ürümchi would be impossible in bigger cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, they often did not spend much time thinking about why this might be. In many ways, they saw their identities being detached from their native place of origin into a more general Chinese national future. They were pioneers at the frontier of the “Chinese national” (中华民族 zhōnghuá mínzú) project that has been fostered by the Xi administration. Many of them, especially those sent to Uyghur-majority areas, were explicitly recruited for this purpose, offered guaranteed work contracts, housing, land, and other incentives.

Han migrants to rural areas, particularly those who were privately contracted to work on farms or in construction in Southern Xinjiang without government incentives, typically have fewer opportunities and fewer economic protections than the urban migrants I interviewed. Several migrants in Southern Xinjiang have told me that since 2014, many Han migrants — perhaps as many as several hundred thousand — have left the region.

“Because they were detaining so many people, a lot of Han migrants who didn’t really know anything about Uyghurs thought that the terrorists must be everywhere,” said Kong Yuanfeng, the Han migrant from Henan I interviewed earlier this year. Others then began to leave because the security systems disrupted some forms of commerce and construction. In fact, some Han people now discuss the reeducation program as something that will cause them to “sacrifice a generation” of work in Xinjiang.

Yet Zhu, who lived in Han-majority areas in the city, said in 2015 that he thought the actual threat of Uyghur “terror” was wildly exaggerated. Many migrants in the city told me they felt safe because the state police and police contractor presence was so strong — near the level of policing in East Germany before 1989. Many of them also noted that the security apparatus also offered Han workers secure employment regardless of their educational background. Furthermore, they could live their lives without interacting with a single Uyghur. They felt the Uyghur “problem” had nothing to do with them.

In 2015, many migrants I interviewed saw the future of Xinjiang as “very bright.” A migrant from Hunan who worked as a cook in a Hunanese restaurant said:

All of my family is from a town near Changsha so I really do need to go back periodically. I don’t see the differences between Changsha and Ürümchi as purely “quality” issues. Changsha is a bit bigger, but it is also a bit more closed. Here, everyone is from somewhere else, and the government has put a lot of money into developing the area. The future is very bright here.

Although Han migrants in Xinjiang may be evaluated as having low suzhi from the perspective of middle class urbanites in the East, at the frontier of the nation these migrants often feel as if they have the power to control their own futures and, by extension, the futures of others. As the world pays more attention to mass detention and Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang, and in light of the recent U.S. embargo on products produced by a primary driver of the Xinjiang economy, the People’s Production and Construction Corps, it remains to be seen if their future aspirations will be dampened.


The names Du Jie, Lin Guangchang, and Zhu Hongqi have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities. Darren Byler’s Xinjiang Column is published on the first Wednesday of every month.