Security presence adds to tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese
Muslim factions feel their culture is under attack as Beijing cracks the whip
Armed police patrol a market in Urumqi in northwest China’s Xinjiang region. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Security officers with body armour and baseball bats guard every pub entrance in Urumqi’s entertainment district, close to an open-air vegetable market where five Uighur suicide bombers carried out an explosive attack in May killing 31 people and injuring 94.
It was the second attack in the provincial capital of restive Xinjiang in just over three weeks, after a bomb went off at a train station in late April, killing a bystander and wounding 79.
Armoured cars are prominently placed at intersections, there are groups of soldiers spread throughout the city, their weapons at the ready, and the police presence too is extremely high. Every hotel now has a full body search and guests have to go through metal detectors.
The population in this city of six million remains on high alert, and the Uighur and Han Chinese communities go about their business in an uneasy coexistence.
Sense of fear
At least 180 people have been killed in attacks across China over the past year. One off-duty policeman said the city has been on high alert for weeks now.
“I am so tired of getting prepared all the time. I had six days straight without rest. This is my first day off. The Uighurs can be pretty brutal. I feel sorry for them. I know that the Han are the majority of China, but all the 56 ethnic minorities in China are one nation. They shouldn’t kill anybody,” he said.
Days start late in Urumqi, because the city is on Beijing time, even though it is 3,700km to the west. On North Gongyuan Street, it is still bright even though it is nearly 10pm and, unofficially, people in Urumqi observe Xinjiang time, which is two hours behind Beijing.
In 2009, there were deadly riots here, when local Uighurs turned on Han Chinese in an incident that led to deadly reprisals by Han on Uighurs a few days later.
The unrest killed nearly 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, and left more than 1,700 wounded, and the legacy was a heavy security presence in the region.
The Uighurs are angry, and distrustful, and they believe the central government is trying to colonise the province with ethnic Han Chinese and destroy their language and culture.
Uighurs account for 46 per cent of the population of Xinjiang, while Han Chinese now dominate the north of the region. Xinjiang accounts for 16 per cent of its land area, but only 2 per cent of the population.
In a bazaar downtown, soldiers with machine guns sit behind a large barrier, watching the crowds passing. Uighur shopkeepers shrug when asked if the crackdown has affected their business, saying “I don’t know” and appearing extremely nervous.
One young Uighur man said there are regular police checks, especially of young men. The police take mobile phones and scroll through their recent postings on the WeChat messaging service and text messages, looking for evidence that the men might be sympathisers.
There are 10 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia and, in recent years, relations between them and the Han Chinese migrants coming into the province have become increasingly difficult.
China has long claimed militants in the region are trying to introduce an extreme form of Islam, but human rights groups believe Beijing exaggerates the threat to justify harsh controls.
The Chinese government insists it is bringing progress to a backward region and boosting it economically. The city has certainly been transformed in the five years since the riots, and there is now a high-rise central business district where once there were just tall buildings.
A waitress in the She Bin Xiu Club said business had been hit by the attack.
“We don’t have as many people as before. Since the attack, the security machine has been placed in the bar and you have to go through the scanner every time. You get used to it, though, and you are not scared after a while.”
Another young woman, speaking in an Irish-style bar called Fubar, said much of the fear was generated by media hysteria.
“Xinjiang is cool. It is very safe. It is scared because of the reporting on the foreign media,” she said.
Beijing sees Xinjiang as an inalienable part of the territory of China, and has the garrisons in the province to underline that status.
It blames separatist Uighur Muslims from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, who it says trained in militant camps in Pakistan, for the simmering separatist campaign in the region that has occasionally boiled over into violence over the past 20 years.
In 1955, Beijing named Xinjiang as an autonomous region – back then 90 per cent of the population was non-Chinese.