Sat, Nov 24, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Cracks showing in China’s unity village

MIXED SETTLEMENTS:Uighurs and Han Chinese live and work side-by-side in Hotan to promote ‘ethnic unity,’ but critics see it as an attempt to erode central Asian identities

AP, HOTAN UNITY NEW VILLAGE, China

A mural showing Uighur and Han Chinese men and women carrying the national flag of China decorates the wall of a home at the Unity New Village in Hotan, China, on Sept. 20.

Photo: AP

In this corner of China’s far west, rows of identical white concrete houses with red metal roofs rise abruptly above the sand dunes of the harsh Taklamakan Desert. A Chinese flag flutters above the settlement and a billboard at the entrance says: “Welcome to the Hotan Unity New Village.”

This is a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) showcase for its efforts to tame the Xinjiang region, the heartland of China’s often restive Uighur Muslim minority and an unforgiving terrain.

The free or low-cost houses are assigned alternately to Uighurs and Han Chinese, who work side-by-side in greenhouses and send their children to school together. It is the future the party envisions for Xinjiang after a massive security crackdown that has sent by some estimates more than a million Muslims to internment camps, and many of their children to orphanages.

However, a closer look at what the party calls “ethnic unity” reveals what is not there: mosques for Muslim worshipers, or traditional Uighur brick homes, often adorned with pointed arches and carved decorations. In their place are colorful murals of what authorities consider to be scenes of unity, such as a Uighur man and his family holding a Chinese flag.

In the village’s new public square, Uighur children banter with Han Chinese children in fluent Mandarin, the language of the Han majority, rather than in their native tongue. Young Uighur women wear Western clothing without the headscarves that are part of traditional Muslim dress.

While these are voluntary settlements with economic benefits, experts and Uighur activists believe they are part of an aggressive government campaign to erode the identities of the central Asian groups who called the region home long before waves of Han migrants arrived in recent decades.

“‘Ethnic unity’ is a euphemism for taming, breaking the Uighur people,” said Joanne Smith Finley, an expert in Uighur identity at Newcastle University in the UK. “This is putting flowery bright wallpaper over a damp wall, a rotting wall.”

Construction of the village began in 2014 with a planned investment of 1.7 billion yuan (US$247 million). The goal was to build 5,000 homes and 10,000 greenhouses to turn a large swath of desert into farmland and create a shared prosperity among Uighurs and Han Chinese, local reports said.

At about the same time, the CCP came forth with a new strategy focused on ethnic mingling. Subsequently, at least one county offered financial incentives for Uighur-Han intermarriages, while others have launched programs encouraging Uighur families to move into Han Chinese residential areas.

China is building several such mixed settlements in Xinjiang. A similar village is under construction as a tourist attraction near Kuqa, about 600km from Hotan. A concrete yurt known as the “solidarity farmhouse” has already been completed and a giant sculpture of a pomegranate is prominently placed at the center of the village to symbolize unity.

In Hotan, there are signs that the government’s experiment is making inroads. Uighur farmers toil alongside Han Chinese to farm crops in what was once barren desert land, and both groups live in modern houses equipped with gas, electricity and water.

A billboard displays a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and a group of Uighur elders joining hands and, according to the caption, “linking hearts.”

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