View Full Version : Chinese city isolated, divided after ethnic killings

13-12-09, 15:52
Chinese city isolated, divided after ethnic killings

By Bill Smith
Beijing, Dec 13 (DPA) Many residents of China’s far western city of Urumqi spent the second half of 2009 cut off from the world after the government sent in paramilitary police, imposed curfews and suspended most internet and some telephone services. The lockdown followed the deaths in early July of at least 197 people in some of China’s worst ethnic violence for decades.

Writer Wang Gang was working on a new novel 2,000 km away on China’s eastern coast when friends called to tell him about the violence in Urumqi, the capital of China’s vast Xinjiang region, which borders Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and other central Asian states.

Wang, 49, grew up in Xinjiang and returns regularly to visit his family and friends. “English,” his 2004 novel about his childhood in Urumqi during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, was published in English this year.

Wang’s Han Chinese friends said they thought the extreme violence in July had irreversibly ruptured the sometimes tense but largely violence-free coexistence between the Han and Xinjiang’s largest ethnic group, the mainly Muslim Uighurs.

“They called me and said Xinjiang’s over,” Wang said in Beijing, where he now lives.

“I didn’t believe it when they called me because in my memory Uighurs were really kind,” he said.

His friends said Han Chinese had stopped eating at Uighur restaurants since the violence, while Uighurs no longer visited Han residential areas in Urumqi.

“Of course, there will be many issues and problems when different ethnic groups live together. But I never imagined that things would reach such a brutal conclusion,” Wang said.

The deadly rioting apparently began after a protest over the deaths of two Uighurs in the southern city of Shaoguan.

The killings escalated into clashes with police and attacks by Uighurs against Han residents of Urumqi.

The violence left 197 people dead and about 1,600 injured, according to the government. Uighur exile groups claimed that up to 800 people died in Urumqi, many of them Uighurs shot or beaten to death by police.

The government blamed long-time enemies for the rioting: exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer and the amorphous “three evil forces” of religious extremism, separatism and terrorism.

US-based Kadeer, in turn, accused China of enforcing “policies of cultural assimilation and political persecution”.

Tension escalated again in August and September as reports grew of attacks on Han residents by Uighurs using syringes and needles.

But Han fears appear to have been partly fuelled by rumours circulating amid the state-imposed information vacuum.

Wang said he too had to rely on “different voices from different people” to understand what happened in the city.

“East Turkestan (Xinjiang) remains cut off from the rest of the world through state-imposed phone and internet restrictions,” Kadeer said in November.

The official China Daily newspaper confirmed that the government had blocked most internet access for nearly five months “because it was a vital tool used by ringleaders (of the rioting)”.

State media ran occasional, unconvincing reports of a return to stability and “normality” in Urumqi.

It also reported the sentencing to prison of seven Uighurs convicted of needle attacks in Urumqi, in trials held barely two weeks after their arrest.

Then in early November, the government executed eight Uighurs and one Han Chinese man convicted of murder during the rioting in July.

But the ruling Communist Party has allowed little discussion of the underlying causes of the unrest.

Many of the region’s eight million Uighurs complain of cultural and religious repression, and claim that migrants enjoy the main benefits of development in the oil-rich but economically backward region.

Yet many Han Chinese see independence-seeking Uighurs, like their counterparts among Tibetans, as ungrateful for the rapid economic changes since 1949.

Wang believes common prosperity can provide part of the solution, pointing to relative poverty among both Uighurs and Han in Xinjiang.

“As a writer, how much I wish that Xinjiang could be more prosperous than now,” he said.

“Would people really be happy if Xinjiang becomes prosperous? I’m not sure about that,” Wang said. “But poverty, no matter what, is a bad thing.”

When journalists interviewed him after the rioting July 5, Wang questioned his own relationship with Uighur friends in Urumqi.

Like most Han residents of Xinjiang, Wang learned little of the Uighur language, while the Uighurs must speak fluent Chinese to succeed in business or secure state-sector jobs.

“I thought of this question: If you really treat these Uighur people as your friends, why can’t you speak their language?” he asked. “When I thought about this, as a writer, I felt ashamed.”

Wang now plans to write a novel called “Urumqi”, in which he aims to “seriously discuss the relations between different ethnic groups”.

“Also, through this book I hope to appeal to the public to stop giving this land so much pressure,” he said, referring to the agricultural, industrial and urban development of Xinjiang.

“I hope different groups will either laugh or cry,” Wang said of his novel.

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