Villagers prepare to grow wheat on a farm in Kargilik County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, on February 25, 2016 (XINHUA)
Four years ago, Nurahmet Memet was a farmer in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Today, he no longer leads a hardscrabble life in southern Kargilik County, next to the Taklamakan Desert, and instead has become a successful company manager and businessman after relocating to central Xinjiang.
Though Kargilik's area of 30,000 square km is twice as big as Beijing's, its population of more than 500,000 is only 2.5 percent of the capital's. Agriculture is the county's economic mainstay and many locals in the countryside have seldom ventured outside their village, never even going to Kashgar, a trade hub with a time-honored history only 250 km away, or Urumqi, the regional capital, 1,500 km away.
Memet's family has lived on farming in Kargilik for generations and he had thought he too would follow in his father's footsteps until he grew old. But he occasionally had dreams when he imagined one day he would leave the remote county, make some money and come back to a better life, building a house of his own and buying a motorbike and cows.
When he turned 18, his father took him to Urumqi for the first time. When Memet returned to Kargilik after six months, something had changed in his head.
"My father has worked hard all his life. [Yet] he has little money," he explained. The family of five adults made only 10,000 yuan ($1,453) a year. If a family member fell ill and needed to be hospitalized, they didn't have money to buy seeds the next year.
So at the beginning of 2013, when Memet had a chance to work in the Xinjiang Jingxin Silicon Co. in Manas County, he grabbed the opportunity. He thought he would work there for one or two years and then return to Kargilik and take up farming again. However, he adapted to the new life fast and began to love it.
Nurahmet Memet in his office at the Xinjiang Jingxin Silicon Co. in Manas County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (LI FANGFANG)
Making a difference
"When I was farming in my hometown, I worked for 12 hours every day during busy seasons but earned only 50 yuan ($7.28) a day, while in Jingxin Silicon newcomers can earn nearly 4,000 yuan ($582.87) a month, besides [enjoying] almost free dormitory [accommodation] and meals. It's pretty easy here," Memet said.
His diligence was appreciated by the leadership of the company and after his role in rescue work during an accidental fire, he was promoted from a worker to a human resource staffer and Uygur interpreter.
The economy was good in 2013 and many local companies, trying to grow their businesses, faced a shortage of skilled professionals, according to Li Ruifeng, head of Jingxin Silicon's administration department.
Soon after he was transferred to his new department, Memet offered to help recruit workers from his hometown. However, when he approached the villagers, many didn't believe they could earn 4,000 yuan a month. They feared they wouldn't get paid so much money and Memet showed them the pay list to reassure them.
Initially, only 21 villagers followed him to Manas.
"At that time, we looked for candidates but now, applicants come to us," Memet said. Up to 300 Uygur workers from south Xinjiang worked at Jingxin Silicon in 2014, five times the figure in 2013.
Now, the company has almost 100 employees from south Xinjiang, all of whom are skilled workers. Many migrants from south Xinjiang to Manas choose to return to their hometown after they save enough money. But Memet plans to stay on. He wants to have his son schooled in Manas as he prefers a multicultural environment for the 6-year-old to grow up in. He hopes his son will go to university, which he had in the past thought to be useless for job hunting. "There are massive opportunities here," he said.
Learning to live together
While over 90 percent of Kargilik's 500,000-strong population are Uygurs, Manas, regarded as the western gateway to Urumqi, has a Han majority. Memet had met few Han people in Kargilik. In Manas, he made friends with the community easily, despite the fear mongering in the past that the Han were taking over Uygur jobs. "My Han friends ask me to dinner during the Spring Festival," Memet told Beijing Review.
Language is like a key, opening a door of opportunities. When he first came to Manas, Memet could understand little Mandarin Chinese. Li gave him a Chinese dictionary, helped him read newspapers and magazines, and taught him computer skills. Reading became one of Memet's regular habits. He grasped every chance to improve his Mandarin by consulting his Han colleagues on Mandarin words and jotting them down. At first, he used to write his notes in Uygur. Then Li suggested he use Mandarin instead, which would improve his Chinese character knowledge.
Memet regards Li as his mentor. "He trusts me and talks to me. I don't find any barrier between us," he said.
Jingxin Silicon has 1,000 employees from eight minority ethnic groups, including Uygur, Hui, Kazak, Kyrgyz, Manchu and Mongol. In the past, though they worked and lived together, there was little communication. Occasionally, there would be fights. The turnover rate was very high.
"At the height of the chaos in the past, several fights would occur in a single day, which became a headache even for the police," Memet recollected.
In 2014, the company determined to reorganize its workers' living environment. Memet was put in charge of dormitory administration because of his high standing among workers. He often hangs out with his colleagues or plays the dombra, the Central Asian lute, with them and consequently, knows them very well. Therefore he can share the company's decisions with workers well and also communicate their needs to the managerial level.
After lots of discussions, the company decided to reshuffle the dormitory rooms according to employees' ethnicity, position in the company, and marital status.
"Workers from the same community tended to stick together previously. They didn't talk with workers from different communities," Memet said. It was not easy to break a deep-rooted habit. When Memet was given the task of rearranging rooms for 1,000 people, he knew it would be difficult. Moreover, he had to finish the work in 10 days. "No matter who you are, you must abide by the rules in the dormitory if you want to live here. Otherwise leave," Memet told the workers. At the same time, he tried his best to make the rearrangement fair so that they would accept it. He led a team of four dorm administrators who spent day and night talking to each occupant. Finally, the task was accomplished on the seventh day.
Memet wants to do more. He has suggested the company build a public bathroom in addition to the bathrooms in each dorm to provide a place where workers, returning in their sweaty work clothes at the end of the day, can clean up thoroughly and keep their work clothes. Otherwise the dormitory will stink. He also plans to have his Uygur colleagues taught Mandarin, not only for daily communication but also for work-related issues in the future.
"We work eight hours a day. It's a piece of cake to save two hours for studying," he said. "Pressure makes people develop. If you work hard, you will find various opportunities."
In 2015, the enterprising Memet opened his own restaurant, supported by local government incentives. It mainly sells Uygur food and is run by his wife. The couple is planning to buy an apartment and settle down in Manas.
Learning that Memet has started his own business, Li is proud of him and has suggested to the company that they offer full support to Memet. The reason is simple: "I wish him all the best," Li said. n
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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