Featuring: Jay Dautcher, University of Pennsylvania; Stanley Toops, Miami University (Ohio)

By Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer L. Turner

In the Chengdu railway station, thousands of men, women and children queued up for, in some cases, ten days, just for the chance to cram themselves into a hot railway car for a three daylong journey. These Chinese were not following the flood of rural citizens to the economically prospering coastal areas and special economic zones. Instead, they were bound for the remote western reaches of the People's Republic of China—Xinjiang. The Chinese-produced documentary film Railroad of Hope provides an intimate glimpse of these ethnically Han Chinese who have taken the government's "Go West" policy to heart and chosen to leave their homes in search of a better life. Not unlike Americans who ventured across the continent during the United States' own western development campaign in the 1800s, these migrants often do not know what to expect from their new home. Railroad of Hope offers insights into the motivations of these migrants and provides a unique backdrop for understanding the social tension and environmental challenges that are beginning to plague Xinjiang. This film screening and discussion represent the third year the China Environment Forum has partnered with the Environment Film Festival in the Nation's Capital. After viewing the film, Jay Dautcher, University of Pennsylvania, reflected on the unique ethnic make-up in Xinjiang and the social tensions that have arisen in the wake of mass migration; Stanley Toops, Miami University (Ohio), explained how the heavily migrant-employed agro-industry has placed stress upon the Xinjiang's fragile ecosystem.

Through informal interviews conducted by two young Beijing-based Railroad of Hope filmmakers, it quickly becomes clear that the migrating workers do not know what to look forward to at the other end of the railroad. When asked what they expect from the West, some respond honestly, "I don't know." Others seem rather unsure about their prospects, answering the filmmakers' questions with "If I earn some money…." Still, many have high expectations for Xinjiang—though, these feelings are often based solely on rumor and misunderstanding. Most of the train's passengers would agree with one young man who said that in his imagination, Xinjiang was "a place where you can make money." Some workers have made the decision to migrate with the promise of making 20 to 30 RMB a day, well above the 2 to 5 RMB average daily wage for farming in Sichuan. It is not until many actually board the train that they hear first-hand of the harsh reality of agricultural work in Xinjiang—in one telling scene, a young woman confirms the possibility of making significantly more money in western China, though she reminds the wide-eyed passengers that "you can't make money if you are lazy." Indeed, one man who recruited nearly one hundred workers for the trip, and is well accustomed to the migrant work in Xinjiang, verifies that fast workers can make nearly 600 RMB a month, provided they put in 13 hour days—he was quick to repeat the slogan of the state farms in Xinjiang: "He who works more, gets more."

As their journey continued, with little more to do but talk with their fellow passengers, most of the migrants were indeed able to glean a more accurate picture of Xinjiang. Most of the passengers anticipated employment in the large agriculture sector. One woman looked forward to easier planting in Xinjiang—she had heard the land was flatter than the mountainous terrain of her home in Sichuan. Indeed, Stanley Toops confirmed that much of Xinjiang's land, though traditionally used as pasture land by the native Kazak people, has been turned into state-owned farms. Flat land alone, however, does not equate easy farming. To the contrary, Dr. Toops suggested that the agriculture industry is beset with problems—and is beginning to have a negative impact on the ecological situation of Xinjiang.

At the center of the industry's problems is, not surprisingly, water scarcity. According to Dr. Toops, the state farms in Xinjiang that account for the vast majority of agriculture production lie in areas formerly characterized as wasteland. Before large-scale government intervention and irrigation construction, the areas simply did not have enough water to sustain farming. State farms have attained relatively large agricultural output by drilling thousands of wells, though the sustainability of these farms is unknown as officials are unsure how much water remains in the aquifer. Dr. Toops acknowledges that state farms are now successfully farming sugar beets, cotton, and irrigated rice in areas that were once only desert. With the tremendous amounts of sunshine in the region, Xinjiang has given birth to a hearty industry that requires more manpower and will likely increase the demand for migratory workers—but, Dr. Toops suggests that as more people arrive in Xinjiang, and the industry continues to grow, the water will not be enough and the jobs eventually will disappear along with the farms.

Though those interviewed in Railroad of Hope are admittedly a small sample of the nearly seven million people who have migrated to Xinjiang, it is reasonable to assume that before most workers arrive in the West, they are unaware of the ecological problems caused by their very migration. Similarly, most are also in the dark about the social issues that have plagued the region—and the role their presence plays in the tension. Interestingly enough, not one passenger interviewed in the film made mention of the expectations they have for the people in Xinjiang. It would appear that most envisioned an area devoid of civilization. In one passenger's words, "Xinjiang needs laborers." Yet, Jay Dautcher insists that there are already more than enough residents in Xinjiang to fill the need for farm workers. However, state farms, run by the government—and usually ethnically Han Chinese—are more prone to employ other ethnically Han laborers than local minorities. This is just one cause of the social tension that has made Xinjiang a thorn in Beijing's side for the past fifty years.

Certainly, the Han Chinese and Xinjiang minorities (Uighurs and Kazaks) have little in common—they do not share food or even a language. The groups rarely intermingle let alone intermarry. They are, in the words of Dr. Dautcher, "separate populations that live separate lives." This lack of commonalities is not in and of itself negative. Yet, larger examples of discrimination, such as offering employment to nonresident Han Chinese, contribute to an environment marked by distrust and deep-seeded resentment. Most non-Han Xinjiang residents feel as though they are doomed to fail—Han Chinese run the banks, dominate local government, and administer the agro-industry. Based upon his years in Xinjiang, Dr. Dautcher suggests the Han Chinese have done little to "win over" the ethnic minorities in the region; the migrating Han, in particular, are viewed as a people who are coming to take jobs and tap natural resources that should belong to Uighurs and Kazaks.

In recent years, the international community has begun to hear more about the situation of China's minority populations. As the plight of Xinjiang's minorities is better articulated, the negative image of migrating Han Chinese is further promoted. No doubt, the large number of migrating workers serves to put greater stress on the region's resources and also contributes to further social tension. Yet, the migrants do not necessarily deserve to be vilified. Jay Dautcher noted that much of the migration is a result of direct government intervention. While party officials certainly are not forcing farmers onto trains, as part of the touted "Go West" campaign, the central government is funneling a great amount of money for agricultural projects, infrastructure development, and technological innovation to Xinjiang, at the expense of other regions. For many out-of-work or underemployed Chinese, the government investment into the infrastructure and agricultural sector in Xinjiang is a strong lure to migrate, if only for short periods of time.

One of the greatest strengths of Railroad of Hope is that it provides an unusually personal look at a group of people who are portrayed most often as a faceless migrating mass. Instead of depicting a people intent on economically conquering disadvantaged minorities, the film offers a view of individuals at the end of their rope. A middle-aged mother trusted the camera with an unusually candid feeling "I have no wishes anymore." Another remarked that she was "not even sure what happiness means." One eleven year old girl revealed a rather depressing glimpse of adult-like realism, responding that she hoped in the future not to be a university student or teacher but "a wage worker—because they can make money."

It is unclear if the filmmakers were disingenuous when they titled the film the Railroad of Hope. More often than not, the passengers appear hopeless and the migrant workers do not express giddy anticipation for their journey. These Chinese are not motivated by the adventure of Xinjiang, but the necessity—escaping the grinding poverty of farming in marginal lands and raising money to send their children to school. The film is, in the words of Stanley Toops, "the Grapes of Wrath in China."

This China Environment Forum meeting is the first in an expected series of meetings that will investigate the state of environmental quality in Xinjiang and the work being undertaken to mitigate the many ecological problems the desert region faces.