China seeks new wave of migrants for restive Xinjiang

China seeks new wave of migrants for restive Xinjiang
People at a Uighur night market in Hotan, in China's western Xinjiang region. Waves of mass immigration from China's heartland have raised the proportion of Han among Xinjiang's population from six percent in 1949 to 38 percent in 2011.

HOTAN, China - Newly employed as a hotel receptionist in Xinjiang, Fang Lihua is a foot-soldier on the front line of a demographic contest for the mainly Muslim region's identity as China opens it up for migration.

The resource-rich, far-western region is home to more than 10 million Uighurs, a Turkic minority with stronger cultural links to Central Asia than to the rest of China, dominated by the Han ethnic majority.

It sees sporadic violence authorities blame on Islamist separatists, which has increased in intensity and spread beyond its borders in recent years.

Waves of mass migration from China's heartland have raised Xinjiang's Han population from six percent in 1949 to 38 percent in 2011.

Now Beijing hopes to trigger a new influx with the most liberal residency rules in China.

Fang, who is Han and in her 20s, took a three-day train ride from China's ancient capital Xian to reach her new home in Hotan. The oasis town by the Taklamakan desert is renowned for its jade and fruit, but held little charm for her.

"I hate it here," she said. "It's completely foreign, I don't think I'll be able to adjust to life here."

She and her builder husband are among the first to take advantage of new rules announced six months ago, and she says they may stay despite her misgivings.

Liberal residency rules

In cities across China, migration is strictly controlled, with new arrivals struggling for years to secure the all-important household registration -- or hukou -- entitling residents to education, healthcare, social insurance and more. Larger cities require advanced degrees, special skills or a job at a well-connected or government-owned company.

But in southern Xinjiang, the latest regulations mean a hukou is available with no educational or skill requirements at all.

Nationwide changes to the system are in the pipeline with urbanisation a key driver of the Chinese economy, but the fact that the Uighur-dominated area has been chosen for the country's most liberal rules is striking.

More than 200 people died in Xinjiang-linked incidents last year according to official media reports, including a bloody mass stabbing in Kunming in southwestern China.

"The hukou reforms are about trying to encourage Han migration to southern Xinjiang, even though it's not phrased in that way," said James Leibold, an expert on ethnic relations in China at Australia's La Trobe University.

"The idea behind that is to encourage more inter-ethnic mingling and hopefully by bringing more Han, the quality and the civilisation of southern Xinjiang will increase."

At the same time the government is trying to stem population growth among minorities.

Propaganda throughout rural Hotan encourages residents to "have fewer children and get rich quick", with a 3,000 yuan ($480) payout for those who forgo having the third child allowed to many ethnic minority couples under China's family planning rules, compared to one or two for Han.

Security concerns and poor business opportunities would put off many potential migrants, Leibold said.

But that did not stop construction worker Du Yun, from Sichuan, who arrived in November.

"I prefer the air in Sichuan, we don't have sandstorms, but the social benefits are better in cities," he said.

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