East Turkestan: Wanting dignity, not ‘normalcy’
Ibrahim had just invested in brand new computers and high speed Internet to upgrade his web business when deadly riots between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in Urumqi destroyed any hopes he may have had for tapping into the online business market.
As he traces patterns into the dusty surface of his “useless machines,” he explains how the Internet blackout that cut Xinjiang’s 20 million residents off from the rest of China and the modern world, has also destroyed his website-making business.
Ibrahim is fuming over President Hu Jintao’s statements hailing a return to normalcy for the tense region.
“Hundreds of Internet businesses are finished, bankrupt, this is the effect of the government security measures. Where is the economic development? There are hundreds who have been abused or gone missing — they weren’t rioting, but they were young and Muslim so where is peace?” On July 5 , mobs of enraged Uighurs took to the streets of Urumqi, to protest the killing of two Uighur factory workers at the hands of a Han Chinese mob in Guangdong.
The Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group who account for nearly half of Xinjiang’s population of 20 million, protested in the streets demanding justice after clashes between Uighur protesters and riot police officers.
The initial protest was held to address the killing of two Uighurs at a factory in southeastern China. Uighurs wanted the culprits that incited a Han Chinese mob to kill Uighur factory workers brought to justice.
In the violence in Urumqi, at least 197 people were killed and 1,721 injured. According to state officials, it was the deadliest ethnic riot in China in decades. In the days that followed, Han mobs armed with butcher knives and axes taped to sticks went into Uighur neighborhoods to seek vengeance. Uighur residents say soldiers headed them off, but not before they had terrorized the neighborhood and destroyed storefronts.
According to a Han businessman: “The protests were organized online, and rumors were spreading online, so government blocked Internet. No texts, no foreign calls, only national calls and I can confirm you that the police is listening. You have to understand Kashgar is spiritually and politically the center for Muslims in China. Uighurs can be influenced by outside elements, their language even looks like Arabic.
“On the dusty streets of Kashgar, life has resumed a normal flow since troops flooded the city after riots paralyzed Urumqi, interrupted only by the mechanical maneuvers of the military as it postures in the streets to deter potential troublemakers.
Tajiks, Kazakh , Pakistani and Afghan traders in their national garb trawl the Sunday bazaar, bargaining for silks and blankets to sell in their own home bazaars.
Women measure out yards of colorful fabric, bargaining down exorbitantly priced beauty creams. They roam the markets wearing head scarves that cover their hair but leave their neck open, the fabric knotted around the back of their necks: A version of the veil acceptable to the Chinese administration. “You are not allowed to wear the Arabic-style head covering that covers the neck and chest as a government employee or university teacher, you are fired,” confides a Uighur youth.
A massive contingent of soldiers stands guard at the Eid Gah mosque in Kashgar in case hostilities erupt between the Turkic-speaking Uighur community and the Han Chinese living in the city.
“The government says it has no problem with Muslims in China and then it sends 500 soldiers to point guns at Uighurs coming out of Kashgar’s main mosque the day after riots in Urumqi, of course there will be problems,” said Michael, a foreigner working in Kashgar, commenting on a rising tide of resentment against government security measures in Xinjiang.
As he finishes speaking, three military trucks full of soldiers in full riot gear roll by the crowded Uighur roadside café we are sitting at. The soldiers were holding up massive shields and pointing their weapons outwards at an invisible enemy while loudspeakers on top of a truck boomed out a message that translates roughly as: “Don’t do anything illegal, to hurt the national unity of the country. There are foreign elements among you, trying to make trouble, report them. National unity must be protected.”
About 50,000 soldiers, police and a heavily armed militia called People’s Armed Police have flooded cities and towns across Xinjiang in the aftermath of the riots, positioning themselves at entrances to markets, national monuments, and roads that feed into major industrial towns and cities. They stand with their guns pointed outward at the passing crowd.
Driving along the remnants of the ancient silk route from Kashgar to Yarkand to Hotan, as the road winds between majestic mountain passes that dissolve into the sand dunes of the vast Taklamakan dessert, it is easy to forget the region’s recent upheaval. But the several road blacks and checkpoints that control the flow of traders and travelers in the region will not allow you to forget.
A thousand kilometers away from the slow-paced frontier towns, Andrew, a foreigner who lives in Urumqi, was shocked to see a photo exhibit detailing the reasons for the riots (The text is in Chinese and it lays the blame on Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur leader in exile).
“They want everyone to believe that the riot is not a result of an internal history of resentment festering over years, the government says it is caused by outside elements, by what they call ‘splitists.’ This exhibition will only create more hatred. The real issue is the government has brought masses of Han Chinese from Eastern China to resettle in Xinjiang, given them government jobs and economic incentives and created divisions.”
Andrew is watching a Chinese man on the next table, who looks over casually from time to time. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat, but continues: “I had to tell journalist no shots were fired in the riots, but there was shooting all night. Two were shot under my balcony. The people rioting had only knives and sticks, but there was shooting all night, the government used a lot of force,” said Andrew.
A merchant selling used books explains: “There are strict checks on Uighurs. Signs outside mosques say government employees, children, and women and working people are all banned from entering or praying. And the government fines those who break the ban heavily. The government allows Uighurs to have two children, but if Allah wills you have five children, then the other three don’t get passports or the right to go to school, unless you pay expensive tax.” In a warren of passages typical of Uighur neighborhoods, on mud wall that opens into a courtyard, someone has scrawled the word “dignity” in a cursive script that could well be Arabic, Persian or Urdu. What Chinese authorities may not understand is that what Uighurs want is a return to a life with dignity rather than the touted “return to normalcy.”