Urumqi is not a happy place.
For tourists, despite what the Lonely Planet says, Urumqi is great: the bazaars are an interesting mixture of people, it’s not hard to find eateries and side streets that, I flatter myself, have never seen a tourist, and the mix of Han Chinese and Uygher gives the city a different dynamic to the homogenous eastern metropoli.
But this dynamic is also explosive and dangerous.
In July 2009, rumours of the rape of a Chinese woman by Uygher migrant workers in Gaungzhou kicked off riots in the other side of the country in Urumqi, as many of the local people didn’t think the men were treated fairly by the Chinese police.
The government says 184 people died, most of whom were Chinese, but others such as NGOs like Amnesty International and Urumqi residents of both ethnicities say the true figure is higher. Three years on and armed Chinese police maintain a heavy presence on the streets and the city is divided into Uyghur and Chinese suburbs.
There is a strong sense that voicing an opinion on the subject – or any other likely to inflame ethnic tensions – is not a good personal choice. This was noticed by friends in Kashgar also, who said Uyghurs there would bring up the subject, but, with a surreptitious glance around, quickly drop it.
Without naming any names, the conversations I had with locals were revealing. Some told me that given the right provocation, everything could blow up again in a moment.
Perceived favouritism towards the Chinese in terms of jobs (the government and national corporations employ mandarin speakers – a language many Uyghurs aren’t fluent in) vies with perceived favouritism towards Uyghurs as the Xinjiang provincial government tries to shut down causes for discontent.
The social division between Chinese and Uyghur isn’t good as people stick to their own ethnic circles. I was told by one Chinese person that after the riots their casual acquaintance with an Uyghur neighbour disintegrated. It wasn’t because either person had anything to do with the uprising but the outrage behind the conflict seeped into their relationship and ended it.
It doesn’t help that the Chinese have an ingrained sense of entitlement. Although the Chinese people I spoke to are sympathetic to the Uyghurs, everyone – not just in Xinjiang province but across the country – has a latent belief in the superiority of the Chinese over ethnic minorities.
Uyghurs and others like the Tibetans are seen as backward and in need of Chinese developmental assistance. This is true in some cases (Tibet couldn’t support itself economically if China pulled out and left the Dalai Lama to it), but it’s often used as a patronising justification for the kind of brutal and suffocating presence that gets up the nose of indigenous communities.
People in China can’t influence politics. Most will argue the party line they learned in school with regards to the flash points of Taiwan, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang (all provinces with high numbers of non-Han Chinese populations), but most people I met kept their heads in the sand and stayed away from thinking critically about territorial issues.
In Urumqi, the Chinese were more informed about the local situation than those in other provinces despite the government media blackout (having your international phone lines and Internet cut off for almost a year must prompt some investigation into the cause), but still I had a sense that most would rather get on with life and pretend all is well.
Far from being back to normal, Urumqi operates under a fragile peace.