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China

Welcome To Xinjiang, As China's Ethnic Unrest Simmers

The massacre of 29 people in Kunming this month is related to Xinjiang, a province where the relations between the Han Chinese and Uyghur are more tense than ever.

On the train to Urumqi
On the train to Urumqi
Rémi Quesnel

URUMQI — In Mongolian, this city’s name means “beautiful pasture,” but don't be fooled. This capital of the autonomous Xinjiang region, located 2,400 kilometers from Beijing, is a Chinese city like so many others, with its clunky glass-and-concrete towers criss-crossed by expressways.

Ürümqi may be a mixed-race city, but the Han Chinese and Uyghur live separately in distinct neighborhoods. They have their own supermarkets, shops, restaurants and nightclubs. Traveling within Xinjiang, there are scenes all around that one would have thought belonged to the past. On flights inside the province, for example, the Han are seated in the front of the plane, the Uyghur in the back.

The schism dividing the province was horrifically manifested March 1, when eight attackers armed with cutlass swords slaughtered 29 people at the Kunming train station, in the southwest of China.

Chinese authorities believe separatist Uyghur were the attackers. Media have covered the tragedy as though it were the “Chinese 9/11.” At the opening of the annual parliamentary session, lawmakers observed a moment of silence. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang went off script to offer his condolences to the victims’ families.

This attack seems to indicate that the violent acts that regularly occur inside Xinjiang are progressively spreading to the rest of China. It is also reminiscent that tensions here continue to worsen. Radio Free Asia listed 14 violent incidents in the autonomous region that led to the death of at least 135 people, civilians and police officers, in 2013.

Turning point

At the Erdaoqiao Bazaar, the smell of boiled lamb, spices, fabrics and clothing are all indicators that this is Central Asia, and not the Far East. “There’s no objective threat, but since the 2009 events, I don’t feel in my proper place in the Bazaar. It feels uneasy,” says Liu Yong*, a 40-year-old Han entrepreneur born in Ürümqi.

He’s referring to the July 5, 2009, riots between Han and Uyghur that killed 197. Since then, Ürümqi has been under strict surveillance, with the installation of no fewer than 40,000 cameras that fuels an atmosphere of defiance and suspicion.

“You know very well you cannot ask me this type of question,” an Uyghur magistrate says after evading queries about the situation. He is more focused on the prospect of going to see the next concert of a Turkish pop star in Ürümqi, and dreaming about leaving for the United States, where members of his family already live among the diaspora.

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Urumqi - Ccyber5

Sayrat*, 24 years old, is fairly representative of a Uygur youth that is educated and tired of being held hostage by politics. A lover of magic, he works as a host in a nightclub popular with Han Chinese. His parents were both teachers, he speaks perfect Chinese and shares an apartment with a Han Chinese. “If you belong to an ethnic minority, you’d better have a special talent to find work,” he explains.

Sayrat does not plan on spending his life in Ürümqi, but instead hopes to try his luck in Beijing’s entertainment industry. In the longer term, he aims to live abroad, in Japan or the U.S. In his mind, he is already very far away from Xinjiang, China and the national identity issues. “As long as my freedom of religion is respected, I don’t have any problem with anyone,” he says.

In the last census, there were 22 million inhabitants in Xinjiang, including 46% Uyghur, 39% Chinese Han, 7% Kazakhs and 4.5% Hui Muslims. Things have changed dramatically over the course of a six decades. In 1953, Han Chinese represented just 6% of the population and Uyghur 75%.

The Chinese name “Xinjiang” literally means “new frontier.” During the first half of the 20th century, European travlers used to call it the Chinese Turkestan. It was only in the second half of the 18th century that the territory was integrated into the Manchu empire, even though certain parts of the region have been controlled by the Chinese empire on several occasions throughout history.

Close call

Kerim*, a Uyghur intellectual, returned to his native Kashgarie after studying social science in Europe. He now manages the family business with his brothers. As an astute observer of the evolution of Uyghur society, he illustrates the prevailing atmosphere in the villages with a specific case.

It happened a few months ago. One day, two women members of the village committee knocked on the door of Kerim’s brother and asked to talk to his wife, who is accustomed to wearing a headscarf outside the home. They refused to let them in. The next day, the two women returned with a squadron of 20 armed policemen. The brother refused to let them in, and the tension rose.

In the end, Kerim, who happened to be passing by, intervened. He knew the police officer in charge of the operation, a Uyghur. The tension was defused and, eventually, a single policeman entered the house to conduct a search for works of non-compliant Islamist propaganda. The matter went no further, but the situation could have easily degenerated, Kerim explains.

Wang Ping*, a 30-year-old doctor and Han Chinese who works at the prefecture hospital, says has been here for three generations. He acknowledges that there are serious security issues in the region and that the West is far from being aware of everything that is happening here. When clashes arise, police friends of his warn him discreetly.

“I don’t see many of my childhood Uyghur friends anymore,” he says. “Since the Ürümqi riots in 2009, the atmosphere has been uneasy.”

Wang Ping’s father works as a manager at the local government headquarters. Before entering his parents’ home, Wang Ping explains that managers will soon be rehoused in new buildings, further away from the city center, for security reasons. A few months ago, in a neighboring village, 15 people were killed during a demonstration that turned violent.

Wang Ping’s father is the archetype of the ideal government adminstrator driven by his faith in Chinese socialism. Their apartment is basic and impeccably clean. Very friendly, he gladly talks about the history of the region, the archeological sites along the Silk Road, the architecture of mosques, all the while sharing a piece of lamb.

Later, as many bystanders come to shake his hand, it’s clear he speaks perfect Uyghur. Just next to the market, between the smoke of the brochette sellers and the bakeries, his baseball cap on his head, Wang seems to be in his element.

He praises the economic progress made at the prefecture. The government has invested 1 billion RMB ($160 million) annually, infrastructure projects are being built, farmers have new houses, unemployment is low, fluctuating between 3% and 4%.

“You can see the people’s happiness on their faces,” he says. To complete the picture, he demonstrates the virtues of the single-party system, before concluding with a warning. “The interest of the state is above everything, so when the unity of the nation is in peril, all means are to be employed to preserve it.”

*Names of those interviewed have been changed to protect their identities.

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