In China’s far-western province of Xinjiang, Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese mix on the street daily but largely lead separate lives. Many Uighurs resent Beijing’s rule, as well as government efforts to fold them into the “big Chinese family.”
But amid Xinjiang’s tense ethnic divisions, friendships are developing – gingerly – among some Uighurs and Chinese. Appreciation for food and music brings the two groups together. So does a love of sports.
In many cities of Xinjiang, the latest outdoors craze is parkour – a training regimen that started in France and has gone viral worldwide. Imagine groups of young people jumping, vaulting and flipping in the air, often using whatever structures they can find – ranging from park benches to rooftops.
As in Europe, the authorities that oversee parks and public spaces in Xinjiang are not parkour-friendly. They fear injuries or “disturbances to public order.”
Even so, it’s not hard to find parkour groups – a mix of Han and Uighurs – practicing their stunts in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, or in Aksu, a heavily policed city to the southwest.
Jin Xiaolong, 27, helped start a group in Urumqi six years ago that has grown to include 25 members. Many started as teenagers, learning about parkour from Internet videos.
We don’t see one another as being from other ethnicities. . . . We are like brothers.
Wang Hui, parkour practitioner
“This kind of sport is not only popular in Xinjiang, it’s also pretty popular across China,” said Jin, taking a rest from one of his workouts on a Sunday afternoon. “As soon as guys see it, they like it because it is passionate and vigorous. When they see it, they feel like, ‘Wow. This is very cool.’”
Government officials and scholars closely watch the mindset of Xinjiang’s younger generation. Uighur men in their teens and 20s are thought to have taken part in several recent attacks against Chinese police and civilians.
In May of 2014, 43 people died and more than 90 people were injured when five men in two SUVs crashed their vehicles into a crowd on a Urumqi shopping street, throwing bombs out their windows.
Two months later, an attacker killed Xinjiang’s most prominent imam – one appointed by Beijing – outside of a Kashgar mosque. According to state media, the arrested assailant was a 19-year-old Uighur construction worker.
Parkour philosophy emphasizes self discipline and humility.
In September, four policeman, four civilians and nine attackers died in a clash with police in Aksu Prefecture, the second major attack in Aksu in four years.
Some studies have concluded that younger Uighurs are more susceptible to radicalization than previous generations – partly because they are so wired to events abroad, such as the “Arab Spring” uprising.
But unrest in Xinjiang isn’t limited to Uighurs influenced by extremist ideology. Some are angry at Chinese restrictions on their dress and appearance - such as men wearing beards. Others skoff at propaganda posters, visible all over Xinjiang, that portray the Chinese Communist Party as a unifying force for ethnic harmony.
Before he was arrested and sent to prison last year by a Chinese court, the Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti wrote about employment discrimination in Xinjiang, which, he said, has left tens of thousands of young Uighurs unemployed and sometimes lured into a life of petty crime.
“On the one hand, the Uighurs’ social problems lead to increasing dissatisfaction and distrust of the government and of Han people,” Tohti wrote in 2011. “On the other, discriminatory ideas against the Uighur people among members of Han society – especially in the interior of China – grow deeper.”
Which makes the cross-cultural friendships that grow up around parkour all the more interesting.
Similar to martial arts, parkour philosophy emphasizes self discipline and humility, though Jin says his group in Urumqi doesn’t take that to extremes. Members of the parkour club joke and banter with each other like young competitors anywhere.
Uighurs are known for being pretty tough.
Tang Qi, parkour practitioner
“This sport parkour brought us together from all over, regardless of ethnicity,” said Wang Hui, 28, as he put his arms around two team mates – Parhat and Su Dan. “So we don’t see one another as being from other ethnicities. We are very close. We are like brothers – good friends.”
The group’s members acknowledge it is unusual in Xinjiang for Han and Uighurs to develop close ties. Scholars of the region agree.
Timothy Grose, who has made several trips to Xinjiang to interview local residents, said Uighurs and Han may forge individual friendships but continue to cling to the cultural stereotypes they were brought up with.
“Outside their personal relationships, several of my Uighur friends complain about ‘the Han,’ ” Grose, an assistant professor who specializes in Xinjiang ethnic relations at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., wrote in an email. Grose said he often hears comments such as, “ ‘The Han’ take the best jobs; ‘The Han’ do not respect Uighur culture; ‘The Han’ do not understand Islam.”
In Aksu, a city where armored vehicles patrol the streets, the local parkour club is led by Pulat, an 18-year-old Uighur who is finishing high school. He and his brother, a videographer, helped put Aksu on the map by producing some slick parkour videos, some set in the scenic Wensu Grand Canyon Park outside of the city.
“I can’t tell you how passionate we are about this sport,” said Pulat, during a recent trip out to the Wensu canyon with several of his friends. Once there, they took turns practicing flips and vaults off various ledges, as Pulat filmed them.
Pulat said that the park officials love the publicity they receive from the club’s videos. At least once, he said, they called his school see if he could be excused from class to finish an ongoing video project.
Tang Qi, a Han who attends classes at Jinling Institute of Technology in Nanjing and grew up in Aksu, said it is not completely surprising that Uighurs and Han would bond over a sport such as parkour.
“When you pick up a hobby with friends when you are young, you are less susceptible to propaganda,” said Tang, whose parents moved the family from Sichuan province to Xinjiang when he was a toddler.
Tang, whose father owns a clothing shop in Aksu, said that Uighurs and Han regularly got into fights when he was in primary school. That led him to learn “wushu” – Chinese martial arts – so he could defend himself and avoid trouble.
Asked if his Chinese friends give him a hard time for hanging out with Uighurs, Tang said that the opposite was true. “Uighurs are known for being pretty tough” in playground fights, said Tang. He said his Chinese friends see him as similarly tough for being able to fraternize with “the enemy.”
Whether such friendships in Xinjiang survive the test of time is hard to know.
Both Han and Uighurs face family pressures not to socialize closely with each other. Marriage between the two groups remains seriously taboo, said Grose, who specializes in ethnic identity in Xinjiang and other parts of China.
In a 2009 documentary, “Diamond in the Dunes,” director Christopher Rufo captures the story of a young Uighur baseball player who attempts to coach a team of Xinjiang youth to sandlot glory. He fails, but impresses upon his team the lessons that come from losing.
Grose said the film document how people in Xinjiang struggle and sometimes overcome stereotypes of “the other.”
But it is likely to be a long term struggle, he said.
“Uighurs and Han regularly carve out their own social spaces. Some of these social spaces overlap and are inclusive,” he said. “Others are exclusive.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect university affiliation for Tang Qi. He is a student at the Jinling Institute of Technology in Nanjing.
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth