The ping and reciprocal pong of a Xinjiang city’s internal diplomacy

In a Chinese regional capital, Uighurs and Hans live in fearful, policed peace


The wafer-thin white ball jumps back and forth over the sagging net. A child returns his father’s deliberately weak volleys in an act of familial ping-pong diplomacy.

The tables are just inside the park’s red-painted gateway and the city’s people take a stroll. They first had to file past the casual scrutiny of a security duo, place all bags on an X-ray conveyor belt and walk through a metal-detector doorframe. Now a woman twirls a parasol and three teenage girls hold hands in the urban greenery. Simple funfair attractions line the pond’s walkway. A hired hand repeatedly crosses the line of fire to replace burst balloons on a rifle range. The shots are harmless laser beams, acoustically enhanced as they hit her shoulder and arm.

Night falls slowly and late. There is an overstretched brightness to the post-meridian, the product of plus-two- hour Beijing time obeyed. The swinging hands of the distant capital’s clock cast a long geopolitical shadow on this Uighur and Han mixed city. State power is chronologically coded throughout northwest China’s Xinjiang region of 22 million: it is never as late as it seems.

Amphitheatres of shops Among the modern structures of Urumqi, two million people live. Towers loom either side of busy downtown dual carriageways. It takes ages to cross unless you use one of the many glass-mouthed underpasses. Down in those tunnels, small shops sell gimmickery, watches and underwear. Some burst out halfway across into sunken amphitheatres of more shops, maybe some cafes. Before you surface the far side, a red plastic tub serves well as a bin for your empty water bottle.

Not far from the street market where two cars laden with explosives killed 31 people and hurt many more in May there is a strip of bars. Some of them form the perimeter of the park. During the day, a tortoise formation of half a dozen young soldiers standing with rifles and shields ready is poised by the railings. Similar military protections are to be seen elsewhere around the city, often beside footpath-mounted white tanks. By the park, the soldiers break formation and change positions. As they take up a new permutation of standing back to back and facing north, south, east and west, one of the young men cracks a smile.

Fear had already returned to Urumqi with the May bomb attack. “But it’s not a problem,” says one female manager in a bar. “That horrible thing happened but it doesn’t stop the city from getting on with its life.” Last week’s assassination of the imam in Kashgar and subsequent lockdown of that city, along with two-day earlier unrest and killings in Yarkant, have further raised the anxiety of the regional capital. But the disturbances also feel functionally and thankfully distant.

Dark descends and brings strangely sci-fi security men standing outside entrances to bars. Like discarded marionettes from Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet, they wear black stab vests and cool black caps. They wield ebony- coloured sticks and come across as the image of a layer of security rather than its effective reality. You get the impression these S&M-styled bouncers are commercial pawns in a money-making racket. The next best thing to peace is paid- for peace of mind.

Double-sided propaganda The terrible 2009 street riots and violent attacks in Urumqi are shrouded in double-sided propaganda: to try to outline exactly what happened would betray either Uighur or Han bias. About 150 Urumqians were killed and

more than 1,000 were injured. The city was plunged into disorder that lasted days and left scars. Amid the traded blows and street clashes, Urumqi had urban fear beaten into it, a fear rekindled by last week’s incidents elsewhere in the region.

But an outdoor restaurant has a Han woman serving up noodles and a Uighur man cooking meat on skewers over a charcoal grill. The food ends up sharing the same plate. In glass cabinets on street medians, daily newspaper pages are displayed: their characters are Chinese; their characters are Uighur. The side entrances to raisin and nut markets have sleepy guys slouched in fold-up chairs, their red armbands with black Chinese lettering declaring their security role.

Raven-black sticks and skull- protector helmets sit before them, outward shows of the suggestion of constant preparedness. You can almost hear the vital ping and the reciprocal pong of a city’s internal diplomacy.

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