No time to press pause on poverty in Xinjiang

Memettursun Nurdun works with his wife in the furniture factory, March 24, 2020. (Xinhua/Ding Lei)

To work or not to work? That was a question for Memettursun Nurdun. After stepping down as village chief, he idled in his remote village in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region for years, until he took the carpenter job two months ago.

The 38-year-old lives in Tuwan Taghwaz Village, Sagan Town, Yengisar County. Standing beside the Taklimakan, China's largest desert, the village has scant arable land. More than a half of the 313 resident families are classed as poor, meaning they earn a per capita annual income below 2,300 yuan (around 333 U.S. dollars) at 2010 prices. Memettursun is one of them.

In 2005, off the back of being the only person in the village to have attended junior high school, Memettursun was elected village chief. At that time, there was little farm work to keep the younger generation occupied, so they hung around the village, chatting or playing cards to kill time.

Memettursun felt duty-bound to persuade them to improve their lives, but with limited options, his suggestions often fell on deaf ears.

"At that time the most lucrative opportunity was cotton picking in autumn," he said. "It was difficult to find stable work."

In the most recent election, Memettursun was voted out of office, so he had to go back to supporting his family on the less-than 10,000 yuan a year he earned from his family plot. His wife suggested that he look for a job in the local town, but he refused saying: "I used to be a leader, so how can I be led by other people?"

He tried his hand at a few jobs, but ultimately came to the conclusion that it was all right for him not to work. His family were cushioned by the central government's poverty reduction measures, his children attended free schools, and hospital fees were all but covered by medical insurance.

In the end he simply stayed at home, leading a life that he had previously tried to talk other people out of -- "With a bunch of sunflower seeds in my hand, I could get through the day," he said.

Memettursun Nurdun has dinner with his wife and son at home, March 24, 2020. (Xinhua/Ding Lei)

His life was "pressure free" for three years, Memettursun said, "as if I had pressed pause on my life." Around him, however, other people's lives changed.

With the grand goal of eradicating absolute poverty in 2020, the poor of Xinjiang have benefited from policies that reach into every corner of their lives -- from industries, employment and relocation. Resulting in more employment opportunities and stable incomes.

Everyone in Tuwan Taghwaz was improving their lot, except the former village chief. Township government staff even visited Memettursun to encourage him to get a job, but he said he couldn't because he was his mother's sole career.

While some villagers could afford smart phones and motorbikes, others returned to Tuwan Taghwaz and opened workshops and factories. In 2015, a furniture factory opened just 10 minutes' walk from Memettursun's home. Memettursun's wife got a job there.

"I just got used to doing nothing," said Memettursun.

But suddenly, there was no one around to chat with. Everyone was at work. At last he listened to his long-suffering wife and approached the furniture factory. As a carpenter, he earns 2,000 yuan a month.

An estimated 645,000 people in Xinjiang shook off poverty last year. By the end of this year, the region's remaining 42,000 households, people like Memettursun and his family, are expected to be taken off the impoverished list, too.

"Work is easier to find now than a decade ago. As long as you want to work, you can make money, and life will get better," said Memettursun.