Riot city gets back to business but few are venturing out

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 July, 2009, 12:00am

A sense of tentative order returned to the streets of central Urumqi yesterday, following days of ethnic violence that had rocked the Xinjiang region .

Shops and banks near Renmin Square reopened in the morning, after having been mostly closed since Sunday's bloody riots, which left at least 156 dead from clashes between Han and Uygurs.

'I think the problems are over now,' said Wang Long , owner of a sports equipment shop. 'We were closed for the past two days, but it is safe now. The government has the situation under control.'

The clashes this week have been the country's worst ethnic violence in recent history.

But yesterday, shoppers began returning to the main shopping district.

Public transport was running again, but most buses and minibuses were fairly empty.

Staff in the Yanjing Optical Shop on Zhongshan Road said they had opened at 10am but had not had a customer in the first two hours.

'Of course it is quieter than usual, but I think things are gradually returning to normal now,' said one sales assistant, who declined to give her name.

Neighbourhood groups posted handwritten bills along main streets, calling for stability. The strips of brightly coloured paper carried slogans such as 'strengthen ethnic unity' and 'Xinjiang has been a part of the nation's territory since antiquity'.

'We have written more than 3,000 posters,' the leader of a group in Tianshan district, who identified himself only as 'Old Li', said. 'Neighbourhood groups like ours are the foundation stone of party structure, so it is important for us to make an effort to restore stability.

'I came to Urumqi from Hebei province in 1976, and I have never seen a situation like this.'

However, the tension had not completely dissipated. A Muslim of the Hui minority said violence would erupt again unless the government changed its approach to minorities.

'We have to be very careful what we say to foreign media,' he said after retreating to a narrow backstreet. 'If we're overheard not toeing the party line, we will be arrested. The problem is that there is so much pressure on Islam in this region. The government tries to control us, so of course, there is resistance to that.

'If people were not angry, why would you have tens of thousands taken to the streets?'

Security remained tight across Urumqi, albeit with a slightly lower profile than in previous days. Black-clad riot police surrounded Renmin Square, standing to attention along the pavement at 10-metre intervals. On Wednesday, platoons of troops marched through the streets and guarded intersections, but at lunchtime yesterday they appeared to have retreated to stand in readiness.

Military trucks lined Renmin Road and filled a small square where it joins with Jiefang Road a short distance from the provincial government headquarters. Soldiers were camped out in their hundreds along both streets, doing their best to stay cool. They crouched under trees and in the shade of commercial buildings trying to escape the searing midday sun, but the stifling heat was clearly taking its toll, particularly on those dressed in full body armour.

Access to information remained severely limited, with internet access blocked for the region and intermittent even in the official media centre. Text messaging was blocked and mobile phone coverage was unstable.

The newsagent at the Hoi Tak Hotel - the base of operations for the army of reporters who have descended on the city - had a two-day-old copy of the South China Morning Post on sale. Its four pages of reports on Sunday's riots and their aftermath - originally published on Tuesday - had been left uncensored.