The people who build Xinjiang

BEIJING, June 21, 2021 / PRNewswire / – This is a report from Beijing Review:

81-year-old Shi Huifang could never forget her life-changing decision to venture into Xinjiang, a remote and bare land for her in the northwest China, about six decades ago. She wanted to escape poverty and create a better life for herself by working hard in a new place.

Beiziwu Street in Shihezi, about 150 km west of Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in the 1950s (above) and 2019 (XINHUA)

At the same time, it was also a good opportunity for her to pull out of a relationship with a young man because the man’s family was even poorer than hers. “His thatched-roof barracks held me back,” said Shi.

However, she didn’t expect her boyfriend to find out about her decision and give up her job as a hydraulic engineer in Jiangsu, an eastern province China, to follow it in the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, 4,000 km away.

Shi’s father, secretly hoping that someone could and would take care of her in a totally unknown place, nodded at their wedding. Shortly after their marriage, they set off for Xinjiang in July 1959, when she was 19 and her husband was 24.

Recalling his beginnings in Xinjiang, Shi said, “We worked all day and built almost everything from scratch. She participated in the construction of canals as well as in agriculture. She was fortunate enough to receive medical training and almost became a teacher before giving birth to her first child in 1962 and then becoming a housewife.

Although Shi rarely shared these memories with her children, the conversation flowed naturally when her granddaughter became curious about her own roots.

I am that granddaughter.

Shi Huifang in 2021 (LI FANGFANG)

Shi Huifang in 2021 (LI FANGFANG)

My grandmother was part of the first group of pioneers who left Jiangsu in Xinjiang as a campaign to develop the country’s border lands began in the 1950s, when China suffered from famines.

From 1959 to 1960, more than 120,000 young adults moved to Xinjiang from Jiangsu. They were farmers, technicians and teachers. In Changji, 40 percent of reclaimed wasteland was brought into cultivation by these new settlers, who also developed 80 percent of the water supply projects. About 75% of them ultimately chose to stay and contribute to the development of the region their entire lives.

Seeing is not believing

I myself lived in Xinjiang until I was 17 when I left to continue my university studies in the capital. I have never given too much thought to how others view life in Xinjiang.

However, as international attention focused more and more on my hometown, the prejudices of some people hit me hard. The terms that several Western journalists have used to cover Xinjiang, such as forced labor and strict security checks, strike me as so foreign. Has Xinjiang where I grew up really changed? With this question, I have returned to Xinjiang many times over the past three years, exploring the region from south to north and from countryside to city.

Overall, the region has more security checks than ever before, which is true, if not embarrassing. The police check the identity card of each passenger. All baggage has to go through a scanner … The locals, including myself, have complained. But we place a lot more importance on safety than on convenience.

From 1990 to the end of 2016, thousands of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang killed scores of innocent people and hundreds of police officers according to a 2019 white paper titled Combating Terrorism and Extremism and Protecting Human Rights in Xinjiang. Behind the brutal and appalling aggression loomed the radicalized religious penetration launched by the separatists.

“Until five years ago, villagers were prohibited from singing and dancing during the weddings of certain radicalized clerics,” Mahmut Saidil, a former village chief in Aksu prefecture, told me. southern Xinjiang. “Basic necessities such as a teapot, soap or basic communication tools have been labeled as non-halal and the villagers have been ordered not to use them.”

I wish human rights fighters could have defended these villagers at the time, fighting extremists with all the other Chinese, regardless of ethnicity and religion.

The textile industry, the mainstay of the region, has been reported as the main industry to employ “forced labor” to pick cotton or work in factories. The fact is that the mechanization of cotton picking began in 2001 in Xinjiang, and became widespread in 2009.

Fang Xu has worked for more than 10 years as a sales assistant for cotton harvesting machinery. He is now responsible for sales support for the cotton picking machine division of China Railway Construction Heavy Industrial Corp. (CRCHI) Xinjiang Co. Ltd, based in Urumqi.

CRCHI’s cotton picking machines entered the region in 2019. Prior to that, imported machines dominated the market.

“About 90 percent of cotton picking machines were imported before,” Fang said. “But national brands have exploded in recent years.”

“Farmers were reluctant to use machines at first,” Mahmut explained. His hometown of Aksu in the southern part of Xinjiang is the main base for producing long-staple cotton. “Cotton picking machines have been used here for over a decade and the technology is updating year by year,” he said.

The more information I get from my contacts in Xinjiang, the more I want to show respect to my grandparents who paved the way for today’s Xinjiang. I also realized how an individual’s outlook can be limited by the lack of first-hand information. I am welcoming more people to Xinjiang to learn more about this.

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By Beijing Review reporter Li Crocfang



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