Investment in Xinjiang's education needed

Updated: 2014-04-01 08:05

By Cheng Jie(China Daily)

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Employment makes stability; by providing young people with jobs the government can prevent them from seeking trouble. That is the guiding logic of the recent official move to invest 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in the textile industry in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, in the hope of creating 1 million jobs for the local people and maintaining social stability.

It is a good idea theoretically, but the actual effect might be limited considering the actual situation in Xinjiang. With its rich agricultural, mineral and energy resources, as well as funding support from the central government, Xinjiang is never short of job opportunities, in fact, it has quite a large labor shortage. The region has attracted 5 million migrant workers, or one-fifth of its total population, making it the biggest importer of labor in western China; every August there are special trains that transport millions of workers into the region to harvest cotton.

As a result, unemployment is not a problem for Xinjiang. Data show that its registered unemployment rate was around 3.2 percent in 2012, the lowest for over 20 years. The actual unemployment rate might be higher, but obviously it is far from threatening social stability; it is impossible that unemployment has caused the social turmoil in Xinjiang, as was the case in Egypt where the unemployment rate soared as high as 30 percent.

However, sufficient jobs do not naturally make Xinjiang free from employment problems, because the region has huge structural problems in employment. Its minority groups, which account for over 60 percent of the total population, are not so well-educated and lack the labor skills employers need; even with abundant job vacancies they might still be not able to find a job to suit them. I used to visit an industrial garden in the border city Tacheng prefecture, and surprisingly found several small enterprises employed all their workers from inland provinces, because "local people cannot meet the requirements".

The structural problem is caused by labor skills not matching job requirements, so it cannot be solved through simply creating more jobs. The local government is able to encourage inflows of investment with favorable policies, but these capital-intensive enterprises often have quite high requirements of laborers, such as being able to use automated processes and computers, even mastering a foreign language. How can the local minority people, who still have difficulties in speaking mandarin, meet these demands?

Besides, the labor market is a national one with fierce competition. There might be restrictions such as the hukou, residence registration, system or local protections, but none of them can curb the general free flow of labor force nationwide. Even if the planned 10 billion yuan did produce 1 million jobs, it would almost certainly have a nationwide effect and attract laborers from other provinces to seek jobs in Xinjiang. They are generally better educated and have joined the modern industrial system for over 20 years, making them more competitive than local people in terms of education and skills.

Thus following market forces a high percentage of the new jobs will be given to migrants from other provinces, not local people; if the local government intervenes by requiring enterprises to hire local people only, enterprises' profits would suffer because local people might not be so productive, thus shrinking the supply of jobs in the long run.

Therefore the idea of maintaining stability of Xinjiang by investing and creating jobs might not be so effective as expected. Xinjiang does not lack jobs, but local people, especially those who belong to a minority group, lack the necessary skills to get them; if the local government hopes to give them jobs it must resort to more measures than just this one.

The key to maintaining long-term stability in Xinjiang lies in educating and training the local residents, so that they can be competitive in the labor market. The local government needs to consider investing more in public education, as well as providing quality vocational education to locals. There are many things, such as opening special classes in inland colleges to train young people from Xinjiang, which could promote their knowledge level and job abilities. That will not only make them more competitive in the labor market, but also help eradicate the prejudice or preconceived idea about minorities from Xinjiang. Social organizations such as Save the Children have also introduced a series of programs to educate them, and local government might learn from their experiences.

Creating jobs in Xinjiang is a good idea, but fundamentally more measures to promote local people's skills and capabilities are needed.

The author is an associate researcher from Institution of Population and Labor Economics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He participated in several public research programs in Xinjiang.