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Life on Planet Uighur

Analysis: A look behind a controversial, and now deadly, Chinese labor policy.

SHAOGUAN, China — At the heart of a deadly June toy factory clash that sparked mass protests and killings 2,000 miles away in China’s far west lies a government policy that sends thousands of young Muslim Uighurs to fill labor gaps in the southeast.

Experts say despite yawning cultural differences and communication problems between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese, there typically is little language training or other preparation for young Uighurs before they arrive in Guangdong province for factory jobs. Most come straight off the farm, far even from the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, and are dropped directly into an atmosphere that might as well be a different planet.

Their governments and factory managers — accustomed to hiring millions of Chinese workers from all across the country to work together — may have misjudged the Uighurs’ ability to quickly assimilate. The Uighurs, after all, speak a completely different language, adhere to Islam and don’t eat pork, which is China’s staple meat. They are given separate food choices, but that’s about it when it comes to cultural considerations.

“Company bosses don’t care about such things. They only care about money, cost,” said Xiao Qingshan, who runs an aid group for migrant workers in Guangdong province.

Factory life, seemingly well suited to millions of young Chinese migrant farm kids out on their first big adventure away from home, often fails for the Uighurs, who simply don’t blend easily with Han culture. The wages are attractive to many, as is the sense of fun. But the barriers are tough to overcome.

“You can see many Uighurs here on the streets without jobs, because they can't speak Mandarin,” said Xiao. “They first came and tried to find stable work but instead, they took up small street-side businesses like selling lamb kebabs. Some of them have turned to crime.”

The “surplus labor” program, designed to move workers from poorer, economically stagnant places like Xinjiang to fill often low-paying jobs others no longer want, has been the subject of controversy specific to Uighurs for several years. Han Chinese move to Xinjiang to work, while Uighurs move out from Xinjiang into other parts of China, creating attempted cultural assimilation via economics.

“The government enforces repressive labor policies, including measures that have a disproportionate negative impact on ethnic minorities,” the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China said about Xinjiang in its 2008 report.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/china-and-its-neighbors/uighur-labor-policy