China’s wild west

Ethnic conflict erupts in Beijing’s new frontier

Published on MondeDiplo english edition, by Martine Bulard. August 2009.

My journey to China’s westernmost province began this May in the backroom of an ordinary brasserie in one of Paris’s eastern suburbs. The Uyghur man I had come to see was accompanied by a plainclothes policeman, but even so, his hands trembled and there was a look of fear in his eyes: had I really come to interview him or was I in the pay of the Chinese political police? He was a member of the dissident World Uyghur Congress (1) and had just been granted political asylum in France. His was a run-of-the-mill story: he had protested about an injustice at his workplace in Xinjiang, which led to him being arrested and imprisoned. After that he had fled. That was all he would say. His fear of being tracked to a Paris suburb may seem excessive but it’s indicative of the moral and physical pressure facing the Uyghurs, China’s Turkic-speaking Muslims. 

A few days later, I arrived in Urumqi, the capital of the vast Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, which is nearly 4,000km from Beijing. There were no immediate signs of tension, even in the city’s Uyghur district. Here, members of the region’s Muslim minorities – Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Kirghiz – coexist with Han Chinese, who are the largest group in the city (though not throughout the Xinjiang region) as they are in China as a whole. Some Han families have lived here for several generations.

Hidden differences:

The district’s small mosque was open to visitors. In noisy, narrow streets lined with stalls near the recently spruced-up bazaar, traders were selling a bizarre mix of goods: combs and hair dyes, herbal remedies, phone cards etc. Skewers of chicken and mutton with noodles were also on offer. Unlike the Han Chinese, the Uyghurs don’t eat pork, but that’s the least of the differences separating these two peoples.

Between 5 and 8 July, there was an unprecedented outbreak of violence in this and neighbouring districts of Urumqi, in particular outside the University of Xinjiang. For several hours on the 5th, Uyghur demonstrators armed with clubs, knives and other makeshift weapons set fire to buses, taxis and police vehicles. They looted shops and beat and lynched Han Chinese. The next day, the Han hit back, attacking and killing Uyghurs. By the end of July, the official statistics registered 194 dead and 1,684 wounded, but the figures are not broken down by ethnic group.

Even if no one could have predicted interethnic violence on this scale two months earlier, there had already been signs of a build-up of anger in a humiliated and often harassed community. Even making appointments with Uyghurs, whether they were political activists or not, turned out to be far from straightforward. I had to make repeated phone calls, and conversations begun in public places would be concluded in streets where no one was watching. Sometimes I even had to introduce my interviewee to the Han party secretary in order to show that everything was above board. Anyone who receives a foreigner may immediately be suspected of “nationalist activities”, an accusation second only to terrorism in its gravity, which can lead to loss of your job, demotion or even arrest and imprisonment. (full long text).

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