Chinese city knows ethnic tension 60 years after Communist takeover

Chinese troops patrol last week in a Uighur neighborhood in Urumqi, a city with riots this summer and violent protests this month.

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 soldiers 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.
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.”

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