Tens of thousands head to Xinjiang to find their future

By Wang Cong Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/4 18:33:00

Li Yanfei Photo: Wang Cong/GT

Just a few years back, Li Yanfei from North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region was a college graduate with a biotechnology degree. Like many people his age, he felt uncertain what he wanted to do with his life. Not interested in an ordinary job at a medical firm, a smart choice considering his educational background, he decided to break off on his own.

Now, he is a teacher and entrepreneur who started a tutoring school in the country's far northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, joining tens of thousands of people from all over the country who have also come to what they describe as an overlooked land of opportunities to start new careers.

'Something of my own'

For Li, who is in his late twenties, Xinjiang offered a unique platform for his chosen career: Teachers are in high demand as local governments and parents have been placing increased focus on education as the region's economy has been growing fast in recent years.

Seeing this as a great opportunity, Li arrived in the city of Korla in central Xinjiang in early 2015 with a friend and set up the school, offering tutoring for elementary, middle and high school students who need extra help with their homework and exams. Within two years, the school has grown to more than 100 students and 20 teachers.

"We are doing all right now, but the journey certainly hasn't been smooth or easy," Li said in an interview on a very sunny Sunday afternoon at his school, where pairs of students and teachers were still working on their assignments.

"Being a teacher at our school means there is no weekend, no work schedule. We work anytime a student needs help."

Actually, Li did not plan to be a teacher at all initially, let alone come to Xinjiang, a region that "has been greatly misunderstood by people in the eastern part of the country."

"I was really against the idea of being a teacher. I have always been kind of a risk-taker and I always wanted to get out of my hometown and start something of my own," he said.

But things ended up quite differently from what he had imagined. Li attended a recruiting event at his university and saw an opportunity to work at a tutoring school called Jinpai Education based in Central China's Hubei Province. Not long after that, he packed his bags and moved to Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei, and became a teacher.

He spent three years there and slowly grew to like this line of work, but there was still something missing. It was from this feeling that his plans to start his own business were born. 

While his friends and classmates were moving to big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai to pursue their dreams of becoming entrepreneurs, Li discovered that the school he worked for had plans to open a new branch in Xinjiang. Seeing an opportunity, Li moved to Korla to take part in establishing the school.

Not everyone supported his decision, especially those close to him.

"My mother was angry at me for three months," he said.

"She was very concerned about the security situation here in Xinjiang because of what she had heard in the news."

Following media reports of unrest and violent incidents in Xinjiang, most people who have never been to Xinjiang have the impression that the region is not safe, Li said. This included his family.

Li admitted that he felt a certain amount of unease about his decision when he first came to Korla. He tried to avoid large crowds and made sure to always go out in a group, but after spending nearly two years here, he now sees things very differently.

"There is no problem at all, at least in Korla," Li said.

"As you can see, it's very peaceful here. Just like anywhere else, people are just going about their lives."

In fact, when it comes to certain aspects Li thinks it's much better here than in other cities around the country.

"For example, I forgot to lock my bike a few times and it was still there, but in Wuhan, it would have been gone in like five minutes."

Remaining challenges

But for people from other parts of the country, Xinjiang, which is about four hours away from Beijing by plane, is still too far and too dangerous, an impression Li sees quite frequently.

"We try to bring teachers from out east, but it's hard to find those who are willing to come out here, even if we offer much larger salaries," Li said.

"They are simply not interested when they hear the word 'Xinjiang.'"

For Li, this shows just how much Xinjiang's potential and opportunities are overlooked by many people.

Xinjiang, which accounts for one sixth of China's territory and historically lagged behind in economic growth, has been picking up in recent years with generous support from the central and other provincial governments.

This development means a lot of opportunities, Li said.

"You might not be able to shine in another part of the country; you might have to fight for a much longer time, but in Xinjiang you are definitely going to have a better chance, because there is a huge demand for highly educated workers," Li said.

He added that Xinjiang is an ideal place for young entrepreneurs due to huge demand and less competition.

This sentiment was echoed by many others who had followed their dreams to Xinjiang and started a life here.

At a bus station in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, a middle-aged man asked: "Are you new to Xinjiang?"

The man, surnamed Zhang, started to describe life in Xinjiang.

"Look around," he pointed his fingers to the sky and drew a circle.

"You won't see much difference between Urumqi and any other city in China. Similar buildings. Similar roads. Similar cars. Similar people."

The differences that eventually brought him here were the opportunities Xinjiang had to offer.

"There are certainly a lot of opportunities here because there is less competition," Zhang, a native of Central China's Henan Province, said.

"Nowadays, when you go to all these major cities, the competition is just too fierce."

After doing business in many other cities, Zhang moved to Urumqi to start a business selling medicine. "It's a good place to do business: honest people and less competition," he said.

But nothing is perfect; there are challenges too in Xinjiang.

Zhang, who belongs to the Han ethnic majority, said communication with some locals can be challenging sometimes because of the region's ethnic diversity. Xinjiang is home to more than a dozen ethnic minority groups, including the Uyghur and Hui, two predominately Muslim groups.

In addition, there is a big economic gap between the northern and southern parts of Xinjiang. The north has historically enjoyed better economic growth, while the south is still less-developed. 

Li agreed that challenges still remain, "but you can feel that things are improving by interacting with students here," said Li, who is planning on starting a family here. "I want to be a supportive part of that process."

Newspaper headline: Land of overlooked opportunity

Posted in: Miscellany

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