Sunday, September 5, 2010

Xinjiang, restive province of China - New York Times

Resentment Simmers in Western Chinese Region
The New York Times, September 4, 2010

URUMQI, China — The five-star hotels are full, bulldozers are making quick work of dreary slums and billboards for “French-style villas” call out to the nouveau riche. In the year since rioting between the Han and Uighur ethnic groups killed nearly 200 people in this city in far western China, life appears to be returning to normal.

“Don’t worry, everything is peaceful now,” said the perky bellhop at a hotel in the city’s predominantly Han Chinese quarter.

But before turning away, he had second thoughts. “You’d better not go to the Uighur part of town at night,” he said.

Beneath the gloss and mercantile buzz of Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, there is a palpable unease that neither tens of thousands of surveillance cameras nor the patrolling squads of black-shirted police officers can completely assuage.

Since July 2009, when rampaging Uighur mobs set upon Han Chinese with iron bars and bricks — a scene that was reversed for several days when Han vigilantes sought revenge — the Chinese authorities have arrested hundreds and tried to soothe frayed nerves with a $1.5 billion spending package, a change in local leadership and a barrage of uplifting slogans strung across public buses and highway overpasses.

But the feel-good propaganda and revved-up economy have so far done little to repair the mutual distrust. And experts say the government’s “strike hard” campaign, which has led to the secret detention of perceived troublemakers and the execution of at least nine people accused of having a hand in the bloodshed, has worsened tensions.

“I don’t think a single Uighur is convinced that the government is acting in their interests,” said Dru C. Gladney, a professor of Asian studies at Pomona College in California who studies the region. “In fact, the hostile environment is making people feel embattled and resentful.”

Given the heightened surveillance here, it is not always easy to tease out unvarnished sentiments from either the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, or the Han, who make up 96 percent of China’s population. But with patience and the promise of anonymity, raw resentments emerge.

Take the Han Chinese owner of a small restaurant who initially described Uighurs as “part of our family” but later allowed that he found the vast majority of them frightening, untrustworthy and “savage.”

The man, who would give only his surname, Zhou, said he stopped riding buses in Urumqi last fall after the city was swept by tales of Uighurs jabbing Han with H.I.V.-infected hypodermic needles. The police initially detained more than a dozen people in the attacks but later dismissed suggestions that the needles were contaminated.

Like the hundreds of thousands of Han who migrate to Xinjiang each year, Mr. Zhou, who left Sichuan Province in 2004, said he was partly inspired by the notion that he was helping to “open up” western China. Although he grew up learning that the Uighurs were Chinese and part of the country’s happy kaleidoscope of 56 ethnicities, he said he quickly discovered otherwise.

“We just don’t have much in common,” he said with a wary glance around him. “And what’s worse is they don’t appreciate what we’ve done for them.”

Much as it did in Tibet, in an effort to pacify another restive ethnic region, the government has spent huge sums of money to try to help Xinjiang’s economy catch up to eastern China, where income and production are on average twice as high. In May, the Communist Party announced the first leg of its “Love the Great Motherland, Build a Beautiful Homeland” initiative, which will include six new airports and 5,000 more miles of rail line linking the far-flung cities in this Alaska-size region of desert and mountains.

Bowing to popular discontent, Beijing also replaced the region’s leader, Wang Lequan, whose 15-year tenure was marked by a hard-line approach that alienated many Uighurs and in the end failed to forestall the riots, prompting street protests by Han residents demanding his resignation.

The Uighurs, who make up just under half of Xinjiang’s 22 million people — down from more than 90 percent in 1949 — harbor their own deeply felt animosities. Beijing is determined to dilute Uighur culture, they say, while Han migrants often end up with the best jobs, especially in government bureaucracies or in the factories of the prosperous “bingtuan,” the largely segregated Han outposts carved out of the desert by the People’s Liberation Army in the 1950s.

While an inability to speak Mandarin shuts some Uighurs out of Han-run companies, many say the larger force behind their economic marginalization is naked discrimination. “It used to be that state-owned enterprises had Han-only hiring policies, but these days they are more subtle,” said Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist who studies the job market in Xinjiang. “They reject you after you’ve gone in for the interview and they’ve seen your face.”

Although the uneducated and unskilled have been hardest hit by unemployment, even bilingual Uighurs who graduated from Chinese universities say they have a hard time finding good jobs.

The frustration many Uighurs have is compounded by a sense that they are trapped, prevented by bigotry and strict residency rules from moving to more affluent coastal cities, and by tight passport restrictions from leaving China.

The policy, partly shaped by government fears that Uighurs who travel abroad might become radicalized and return as terrorists, cuts them off from overseas jobs, academic opportunities and family reunification. It also frustrates Uighur business owners who seek a bigger slice of China’s trade with its Central Asian neighbors. “How can we compete with the Han if we can’t meet our customers in their own countries?” asked a textile trader in Kashgar, a southern oasis city. “Just because we are Muslims doesn’t mean we’re all interested in becoming terrorists.”

Government concerns about the radicalizing influence of Islam play out through a raft of religious restrictions, including strict limits on the number of Uighurs who can travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the annual pilgrimage and rules that force students and government workers to eat during the monthlong fast of Ramadan.

Fear also governs secular life. Cellphones and e-mail exchanges are frequently monitored, and even mild criticism of Chinese policies posted online can have dire consequences. In July, four Uighurs — three Web site managers and a journalist — accused of endangering state security were sentenced to long prison terms during closed trials.

A graduate student from the city of Khotan said he did not dare click on Web sites run by Uighur exile groups that can be reached only by evading government Internet restrictions, known as the Great Firewall. “They will find you,” he said of the government. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a giant prison.”

Anu Kultalahti, a researcher at Amnesty International in London who interviewed witnesses of last July’s violence, said the fear extended to those now living in Europe and the United States. “It borders on paranoia,” she said. “If you promise them confidentiality, they laugh and say: ‘That’s what you think. The government already knows we’re talking.’ ”

Xiyun Yang contributed research.

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