“My nickname is trouble, like make trouble, trouble man, that trouble.” Thirty-one-year-old Mevlan Arkin runs his own Airbnb-style homestay by day and raps by night. He says he does his day job to make a living, and his night job to make a life.
“The first song I heard in English [was] the rap song by Eminem: Eight Mile. Wow! I was shocked by it. Wow! That’s what I need. The rap says the reality, and every corner of the reality,” Mevlan told CGTN.
“Salary was really sweet but I didn’t like it. Life (is) just once. You are born once and dead once. Never twice. How to live, it’s up to you. How to choose, it's up to you. I had a dream. Let Chinese rap, let my Uygur rap (go) to the all of the world. It’s my dream,” Mevlan said.
He added that “There are no differences between the local youngsters and the Westerners in terms of thoughts, costumes, food, sports, etc. The only thing is that they (Westerners) haven’t realized it. They haven’t been here nor experienced the life here. If they had been here themselves, instead of only watching the documentaries about Xinjiang on BBC or YouTube, they will find that Xinjiang has avant-garde fashion. Even the Paris Fashion Week would embarrass itself in comparison.”
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Sometimes that includes “selling” his music to total strangers.
One night, Mevlan picked up a passenger while working as a Didi-driver (a Uber-like ride-sharing service in China). The passenger had no interest in listening to his rap. However, after listening to the rap, the passenger responded, “This song touched my heart.”
While Mevlan dreams to be a famous rapper, 21-year-old Gulzar wants to pursue a career in acting in the future.
Gulzar took her first shot at becoming an actress by competing in Kashgar’s international beauty pageant. She finished as the second runner-up, and challenged stereotypes about what girls in her region must or must not wear or conduct themselves in public.
“I have seen beauty pageants on TV. I wanted to experience it myself. I want to showcase the beauty of the girls in Xinjiang to others, to the whole world. Our confidence, good body shape, diversity, everything,” said Gulzar.
In southern Xinjiang where she lives, college placement is still low. Other than a lack of resources, social norms prevented some girls from pursing higher education. Gulzar believes more girls should go to college and realize their full potential.
“I think confidence is the most important thing. With dreams and confidence, you can stride forward, and you will realize your dreams,” Gulzar said.
Meanwhile, the older generation is trying to figure out how the digital economy works. That includes 55-year old farmer Emamjan in Alati Village. Thanks to online shopping and mobile payment technology, he now earns five times as much.
“Now it has changed a lot. We used to sell our products in the market and waste a lot of time on the road. Now we can sell the products and earn money at home. In October, we have earned 80,000 yuan,” Emamjan said.
He showcased his orders to CGTN, “These are our orders. They are from Beijing, Shanghai, and all over China. We have received 200 orders in three days. We could only sell 100 kilograms of products in the local market before using the Internet. Now we can sell around 500-600 kilograms of products.”
Emamjan is not alone. Last year, online sales of agricultural produce grew by 45 percent. Now in Xinjiang, a staggering 76 percent of residents use smartphones. Many use it for online shopping and even more use it for making payments. The digital economy, growing at 10 percent year-on-year, is fast becoming a main driver of growth.
Concerns about privacy and freedom in Xinjiang are real. And those concerns need to be heeded. But it's also true that in less than a decade, Xinjiang's GDP has more than doubled. Poverty rate went down to 6 percent and primary school enrollment up to 99 percent by 2018. All this, as some argue, is making people freer from poverty, illiteracy and extremism. And for some residents here, this so-called "stability dividend" also means they are better able to realize their dreams.