60 years after revolution, ethnic tension still plagues China

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 21, 2009 

URUMQI, China — China's leadership says it has calmed this city after almost 200 people were stabbed, bludgeoned or beaten to death in July riots and more violent protests this month forced the removal of top officials.

Despite the assurances from Beijing, however, Urumqi remains on edge less than two weeks before the 60th anniversary celebration of China's communist regime. The region's main ethnic groups, Han Chinese and Uighurs — Turkic-speaking Muslims — are locked in a cycle of violence in this enclave of more than 2.3 million people near China's western border.

Hundreds of paramilitary police with automatic rifles and riot shields are stationed on street corners. Pickups zoom through the streets blaring propaganda from loudspeakers, exalting the government and demanding cooperation.

Urumqi (pronounced urum-CHEE) is supposed to be a testament to China's unstoppable progress, the ability to take an ancient trading post of more than a dozen ethnic communities and erect over them a modern city of glittering towers dedicated to commerce and tourism.

Beneath the large red banners that blanket the city with slogans such as "Ethnic unity is a blessing and ethnic separatism is a curse," though, relations between Uighurs and Hans are in tatters.

"It's a mess here," said Su Xiaomei, a Han woman who owns a small restaurant in central Urumqi. "Many Uighurs used to come to my restaurant, and I felt fine about that, but now I feel angry when I see them. . . . We try to stay as far away from them as possible."

Uighurs complain that a police crackdown is targeting them with detention sweeps and intimidation.

"The police and military have arrested many Uighurs, especially young men with beards," said a Uighur man named Qassim, a community elder who like all Uighurs interviewed for this story asked that only his first name be used because he fears police retaliation. "The local officials have told us not to talk with outsiders; they say if we do, we will be arrested."

A Uighur protest in July, sparked by reports of Hans killing Uighurs in a southern province, grew into a standoff with police and then a rampage that left the bodies of innocent Han civilians slumped and pouring blood in the streets.

Mobs of Hans responded with clubs and knives, hunting down any Uighurs they could find. Earlier this month, rumors spread that Uighurs were stabbing Hans with hypodermic needles; more protests broke out and the city's Communist Party chief and the region's police director were fired.

On a hillside overlooking the high-rises and hotels of Urumqi, a Uighur man named Talip sat recently in a neighborhood of crumbling houses and wept as he talked about Han police brutality. He said the police dragged him from his home to a local station, where a Han officer assaulted him and demanded that he confess to taking part in the riots.

After several rounds of being punched and kicked as he denied participating in the bloodshed, Talip said, he signed and put his thumbprint on a statement for police files.

"I could hear other Uighurs screaming in the next room; they were getting beaten, too," said Talip, a beefy man in his late 20s whose lips trembled so hard during parts of the interview that he could barely speak. "They treated us like garbage. Of course we are angry. . . . Of course it's affected our relationship with Han Chinese people."

Another Uighur man who was in custody the same evening confirmed Talip's account. The man also said that he was roughed up for hours before he was forced to sign a piece of paper.

Local police and political officials didn't respond to multiple requests for interviews.

A McClatchy reporter reached Talip and others in the Uighur community through a series of intermediaries. Police took one of them in for questioning the next day, and ordered him to describe his interactions with the reporter. Another of the men who helped McClatchy said that he'd had an experience afterward, presumably with police, that he wouldn't describe but that had terrified him.

Chinese officials have announced the arrests of dozens of men and women — the names released so far suggest that they're mostly Uighurs — for alleged needle stabbings, assaults, conspiracies and, last week, a reported bombing plot. Courts have sentenced at least seven men and women, all Uighurs, to between seven and 15 years in prison. None of the evidence against them has been made public.

A Uighur man named Umar, who said his Han boss had fired him after the riots, said that the Chinese government wouldn't have to worry about Uighur unrest much longer: "Many young Uighur men have been arrested, and many others were killed during the riots, so there aren't many Uighur men around to start a fight."

Like other Uighurs, Umar bristles at what he considers Han encroachment on his city, which Uighurs say has included Hans taking over most jobs and the government.

In the past several decades, the central government has sent more than 800,000 specialists to the area, mainly to Urumqi, to "rapidly change the situation of economic backwardness and lack of talents," according to an official pamphlet made available to journalists.

As a result of those and many other newcomers, while Uighurs still outnumber Hans in the region, Urumqi now has fewer than 300,000 Uighurs and more than 1.6 million Hans. The Hans accuse the Uighurs of being unappreciative of the progress and assistance Beijing's efforts have produced.

"The Chinese government subsidizes and supports these poor Uighurs and their children to try to win their support for government policy," said Liu Jie, who runs a convenience store. "Any rational person should appreciate this."

Chinese officials are trying to manage the situation with a combination of strict control and a propaganda push that blames ethnic rivalry on interference by Uighurs who live in the West.

Residents who have Internet access can pull up Web pages about local tourism and the harmonious Urumqi's promising financial outlook, but access to outside sites that could bring nongovernment-approved material has been shut down. Cell phone users are unable to send text messages, and all international communications are blocked.

Locals can call other parts of China, but the calls are monitored, and any suspicious conversations may result in a visit by the police.

A Chinese police official, his uniform neatly pressed, walked out of a conference room with ornate chandeliers and flashing cameras and paused a moment last week to answer a question about ethnic tensions in his city.

"Relationships between different ethnicities here have always been good," Huang Yabo, the director of the regional criminal investigation unit, said as he waited for the elevator. "There's no problem between different ethnicities."

After a few more words on how any local unrest was an overseas plot, Huang glided off through the Hoi Tak hotel, a five-star establishment where bellhops in matching hats and jackets carry luggage with white gloves, and young women in tight clothes and high heels sing pop songs in the lounge.

Everything, Huang said, will be OK — the Chinese government has it handled.

(Tom Lasseter, McClatchy's Moscow bureau chief, is on temporary assignment to Beijing.)

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