Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang is driving hundreds of thousands of businesspeople and workers to abandon Korla, crippling the economy of the region’s second-largest city.
In multiple interviews with the Financial Times, Korla businesspeople estimated that the city’s population has halved from about 500,000 after the government implemented harsh security measures over the past few years.
The residents most able to leave voluntarily are migrant businesspeople from China’s dominant Han ethnic majority — the very people the Communist party had attracted to Xinjiang in the hope that they would “civilise” the region’s Turkic Uighur Muslim population and build the local economy.
“It’s difficult to find labourers now and there’s no money to be earned,” said a stall keeper at Korla’s agricultural market, who had a “help wanted” sign on her stall. “The people have all left.”
None of those interviewed in Korla wished to be named for fear of government reprisals.
Korla has historically been a frontier of the Han Chinese influx into Xinjiang with PetroChina, the country’s largest petroleum company, developing one of its biggest oilfields in the area. The city became “a showpiece for tourists and prospective migrants of how good life can be on the frontier”, said Tom Cliff, author of Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang.
“Han population decline shows that life is no longer good on the frontier, even for the relatively privileged settlers,” said Mr Cliff.
In 2016, Chen Quanguo, Xinjiang’s new party secretary, introduced security measures affecting all ethnicities in the region, from police checkpoints and street surveillance cameras to identity checks and bag scans at shopping malls and parks.
At the same time, the government has detained about 1.8m Muslims, turning many urban areas into ghost towns.
The economy has suffered as a result. Xinjiang’s official figures show that fixed-asset investment dropped 36 per cent in the two years since 2016 in Bayingolin prefecture, which includes Korla, although it picked up slightly in 2019.
Estimating the real population of cities in China is difficult because official figures usually track people with local household registrations or hukou. Such figures ignore the vast floating population of workers and businesspeople.
Changing one’s hukou is a difficult process — the local government of Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, has sometimes stopped processing applications from people wishing to move out.
The Korla statistics bureau website shows the city’s hukou population declined by 5 per cent from 2016 to a total of 472,600 in 2018.
But locals believe the decline in Korla’s total population has been much higher. Six local Han Chinese businesspeople working in real estate, agriculture, services and retail estimated that the city population had halved from between 500,000-600,000 to about 200,000-300,000 over the past two years.
In the city centre, rows of shops were shuttered. Farther out, many low-rise houses — usually rented by migrant workers — had been demolished.
Staff at an employment bureau in Korla said the “crowds” of jobseekers coming in before 2016 had shrunk to barely one or two per day. “The campaign to ‘sweep out bad elements’ was part of the reason for the halving in population,” said one Han Chinese worker at the city’s agricultural market.
Another small business owner said people left Korla because of the inconvenience of the security. “It’s not that living here isn’t ‘stable’,” he said, using the Chinese authorities’ term for their mission in Xinjiang — to “stabilise” the region. “It’s the pressure of daily life. When you go into a shopping centre you have to scan your face, scan your ID, scan your bag, store your bag in a locker. You have to hand over ID just to buy something,” he said.
The experiences of Korla’s locals chime with what analysts suspect has been a general economic slowdown in Xinjiang since the start of the police crackdown.
Xinjiang’s economy is already highly reliant on government support. This month, the central government announced it had been making annual transfers of Rmb400bn to Xinjiang in recent years — or about one-third of the region’s gross domestic product in 2018.
“Economic growth is an imperative for the government in Xinjiang,” said Adrian Zenz, author of a book on China’s policies towards minorities. “But the official figures hide the underlying reality that the economy is tanking even more than they say and people are leaving.”