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Spectre of 2009 riots continues to haunt Uighurs and Hans
Publication Date : 05-07-2014
It has been five years since the July 5, 2009 ethnic riots rocked Urumqi, straining already uneasy ties between Han Chinese and Uighur locals
Cars pass and pedestrians stroll freely through the South Gate, a roundabout in Xinjiang's capital city Urumqi. Children play happily on the pavement while retirees chat animatedly with one another.
All seems peaceful and well.
But the tranquillity and gaiety belie the deeply troubled relationship between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority that has yet to heal since ethnic riots broke out on July 5, 2009, leaving 197 dead and 1,700 injured, according to official figures.
Five years on, South Gate, where the fiercest fighting in China's worst ethnic violence in decades took place, has become an unofficial line dividing Urumqi, with Han Chinese in the north and Uighurs in the south.
These days, Han Chinese avoid venturing alone into Uighur neighbourhoods around the International Grand Bazaar, while Uighurs and their smoky lamb kebab eateries are becoming rare in Han Chinese areas.
Of the more than a dozen Han Chinese and Uighurs The Straits Times spoke to, most say ethnic ties have not improved since the 2009 riots, which erupted after two Uighurs died in a clash with their Han Chinese colleagues in Guangdong province.
"Now, it is a case of 'lian he xin bu he'," said a 46-year-old local civil servant who wants to be known only as Anwar, using a phrase to describe how the two ethnic groups seem to get along on the surface but are actually at loggerheads.
"Ties between Han Chinese and Uighurs here are volatile and easily inflammable," he added.
Swept under the carpet?
Urumqi has 3.5 million people, 90 per cent of whom are Han Chinese and the rest made up of ethnic minorities such as Uighurs.
Observers say the current cauldron of ethnic tensions could easily spill over and spark fresh rioting. Already, ethnic strife has been cited as one of the factors behind a recent spate of terror attacks that the Chinese authorities have blamed on Uighur militants.
One key reason tensions have persisted has to do with the government's handling of the aftermath of the 2009 violence.
"It was 'bu liao liao zhi' within a short time," said terrorism expert Professor Yang Shu, describing how the incident was settled hastily and inconclusively.
China has defended its ethnic policies and blamed separatists for the 2009 riots, in particular exiled US-based activist Rebiya Kadeer, who denies the allegation.
But for many who witnessed the riots, pain and anger remain after all these years.
"I cannot forget the dead bodies of Han Chinese I saw in the streets the morning after," Zhang Zhenguang, 26, told The Straits Times, about the July 5 riots when Uighurs attacked Hans.
Zhang, whose family runs a chain of convenience stores, was not hurt but one of their stores was looted, causing 100,000 yuan (US$16,200) in losses.
Such pent-up anger is why the tense atmosphere in Urumqi is heightened whenever the anniversary of the riots draws near.
As for the Uighurs, they are upset at the continued heavy-handed security and the way they are treated - such as being stopped by police and made to show their identification cards.
Many believe they have already "paid the price" because they too lost fellow Uighurs in the riots.
"Everyone remembers 'qi wu', but few know about 'qi qi'," said a local who declined to be named, referring respectively to July 5 and July 7, the latter being the date that saw Han Chinese attacking Uighurs in retaliation.
Terror attacks worsen ties
Analysts who believe that ethnic ties may have worsened point to the spate of terror attacks which began with a suicide car crash near Tiananmen Square in October last year. Beijing blames the attacks on Uighur separatists who want to set up an independent East Turkestan state in Xinjiang, and receive help from extremist groups overseas.
A noodle-shop owner surnamed Xiong, 38, remembers the shock of the May 22 attack that took place on his street in western Urumqi. Four cars ploughed into a market crowd, its occupants hurling explosives through the windows. In all, 31 people were killed and 90 others wounded.
Earlier, on April 30, assailants with knives and explosives attacked people at Urumqi's railway station, killing one person.
Since May 22, all morning markets and night bazaars have been ordered closed across Xinjiang.
After having worked in Xinjiang for 20 years, Xiong said he is giving himself another two years before returning home in south-western Sichuan province.
"I don't have a single Uighur friend. These people are not easy to become friends with," he said.
Deep-seated ethnic strife
Tensions between Han Chinese and Uighurs have a long history.
Causes include Uighurs' resentment of the influx of Han migrants into Xinjiang, erosion of the Uighur language and the Muslim religion, and employment opportunities favouring the Hans.
Uighurs accounted for 76 per cent of Xinjiang region's population in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party took power. Today, they make up only 46 per cent. Han Chinese now make up 40 per cent compared with 7 per cent more than six decades ago.
"If there is an Uighur and a Han Chinese with the same qualifications and skills, the employer would invariably hire the latter. How would that not make Uighurs upset?" said an Uighur tour guide named Azmat, 29.
A 67-year-old Uighur teacher, who lives on the same street as Xiong, recalls a recent incident: "A Han woman stepped on my foot intentionally in the market recently but didn't apologise. She even berated me."
Given the shabby treatment, some Uighurs believe their compatriots' actions in 2009 were "justifiable", said Prof Yang.
How to solve this?
For now, there is cautious optimism about the policy pledges that Mr Xi made in May.
Besides boosting security and providing better education and jobs to Uighurs, Xi also promised to promote national identity and ethnic unity.
Peking University analyst Zhang Jian said the diluted focus on "leapfrog development" that then President Hu Jintao pushed in 2010 is much welcomed. Local governments had exploited that policy to meet economic targets at the expense of the environment and without bringing real benefits to the Uighurs.
Inflation has climbed since 2009, hurting especially the lower-income Uighurs.
Meanwhile, seething ethnic tensions and the recent terror attacks have prompted many young Han Chinese to leave Xinjiang for good, Chinese media reported.
Urumqi native Wang Qian, 29, an accountant, has avoided the Uighur quarters since 2009. She is looking for a job outside Xinjiang.
"I am worried about my safety," she said.
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