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A fragile peace in China's Urumqi

Will security measures bring calm with Uighurs, or incite more violence?
A fragile peace in China's Urumqi

A man walks past anti-terror propaganda posters in Urumqi in this September 2014 photo. (Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

Published: October 16, 2015 07:55 AM GMT
Updated: October 15, 2015 11:10 PM GMT

Few parks boast security as tight as Hongshan in Urumqi, Western China's largest city. Razor wire tangles the perimeter fence, and soldiers cradle automatic weapons with fixed bayonets behind cages at the main entrance. 

Visitors funnel through a metal detector while bags are scanned — security measures more commonly seen at airports. A Han Chinese man entering the park recently was singled out for an identity check by an armed policeman.

"They thought you were a Uighur," joked one of three friends waiting inside the park gate as the man jogged to catch up.

After recent knife attacks, bombings and ethnic rioting, Chinese authorities have turned Xinjiang's regional capital Urumqi into a city under ever tighter security. It remains to be seen whether these measures will lead to lasting stability so craved by Beijing, or further incite minority Muslim Uighurs.

Urumqi has recently escaped the violence that plagued the city over the past decade or so. In July 2009 Uighurs and Han armed with meat cleavers and iron pipes attacked each other in the city's streets, leaving 156 dead and more than 1,700 wounded, according to the official toll. Rights organizations and exiled Uighur groups claim many more, mostly Uighurs, were killed, blaming heavy-handed police. Beijing in turn accused exiled Uighur groups of inciting an uprising.

A Uighur man sits beside a sign warning of CCTV surveillance in Urumqi, western China's largest city. (ucanews.com photo)


Continuing violence

Last year, Uighur separatists staged a bomb and knife attack on Urumqi's southern train station, killing three and injuring 79.

Then the following month, another violent attack left 31 dead and 90 wounded at a market a week after President Xi Jinping visited the region.

In response, Xi launched a "strike-hard" campaign — later extended until the end of this year — imposing unprecedented security in Xinjiang.

At Urumqi train station, an armored personnel carrier with a manned gun turret guards the entrance. To reach the platform, passengers must pass three layers of scanners and metal detectors.

At the city's handful of Pizza Huts, diners must pass a security guard and metal detectors to reach their table.

Supermarket cashiers wore bulletproof vests after last year's violence, reported state news agency Xinhua.

"The government's policy has been right for this city," said a Han Chinese taxi driver who moved to Urumqi in April last year, a month after the market attack. "I was a bit afraid when I first came here. But it seems more stable now."

He moved from Luoyang, a city 3,000-kilometers east in Henan province, one of millions of Han Chinese to relocate since the Communists reclaimed Xinjiang 60 years ago.


Changing ethnic makeup

The region was then 75 percent Uighur and just 6 percent Han. Following Beijing's policy of encouraging Han Chinese to settle this area deemed hostile to Chinese rule, Urumqi's ethnic makeup has been turned upside down. Just 12 percent of the city's inhabitants are Uighurs and 75 percent Han, according to the most recent census.

As an enticement to resettle, Beijing has offered Han people education and welfare subsidies, as well as certain tax breaks.

Under Xi, Beijing also has attempted to "mingle" Uighurs with Han, and continued a long-standing policy designed to raise living standards, and curb dissent.

"I have stressed many times that not a single ethnic group should be left behind in the process of comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society," the president said in a live broadcast ahead of National Day on Oct. 1, also the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule in Xinjiang.

City authorities regularly remind Urumqi's 2 million-plus residents of Beijing's generous development. Posters laud new high-speed trains that last year connected the city all the way to Beijing — a 32-hour trip. Other billboards announce that the city's first subway system will open next year.

Security guards with riot shields guard a shopping center in Urumqi, western China's largest city. (Photo by ucanews.com)


While the government talks up economic development as a sign of its good governance and generosity, many Uighurs complain such projects lead to just one thing: yet more migrating Han Chinese. 

Of the roughly 250,000 Uighurs in Urumqi, most appear content to keep quiet and make money, and others complain privately they are being overrun and persecuted. Few are prepared to speak openly. 

One student at Xinjiang University was happy to discuss life in general in the city, but when talk turned to relations between Uighurs and Han, and the security situation, he claimed not to understand. Like most places in Urumqi, closed-circuit television cameras, or CCTV, monitor every corner of the campus.

Nearly 17,000 surveillance cameras with "riot-proof casing" were installed across the city in the months after the 2009 riots alone, according to Chinese media. Beijing's streets are watched by more CCTV cameras — about half a million — compared to any other city in the world, a model the state has extended to Urumqi.

"They've thrown a lot of resources and manpower at the problem. Not just in terms of security personnel but also in terms of social monitoring, in terms of cyber surveillance and physical surveillance," says James Leibold, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia whose research focuses on ethnic minority policy in China.

Urumqi's university students also are monitored for political views and are not allowed to graduate if they express signs of "the three forces" — terrorism, separatism and religious extremism — according to state media.



Propaganda across Urumqi warns of these dangers. A common poster shows "young men with large beards," burqas and clothes featuring the Islamic crescent — the symbol of the separatist East Turkestan flag — all struck through with a red cross. Informants are told they will receive rewards of up to 1 million yuan (US$157,300).

Most propaganda across Urumqi delivers a positive message, urging and celebrating "ethnic unity." But Han and Uighur residents not only disagree about the name of the region – many Uighurs call it East Turkestan — they also use a different time.

When Communist forces took Xinjiang 60 years ago, Chairman Mao put the clock forward permanently so every region followed Beijing time. But Uighur restaurants and mosques still run two hours behind, another policy designed to manage this ethnic minority that has backfired on Beijing. When Han Chinese wake up here most Uighurs are still asleep. Both groups eat and even work at different times.

"Violent incidents have declined, and that could be due to tightening of the security regime," says Leibold. "But in terms of ethnic relations, things aren't getting any better. If anything, the mistrust and level of antagonism has deteriorated."

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