Urumqi remains divided by fear and mistrust

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 December, 2009, 12:00am

Nearly half a year since deadly ethnic riots hit the Xinjiang regional capital, Urumqi , hatred and fear between Han Chinese and the Uygur minority keep the city deeply divided.

Telltale signs can be found in the city's property market. Prices in Han areas have soared while in predominantly Uygur areas they have collapsed, with many Han eager to move out for fear of further violence.

Desperate to avoid these areas becoming Uygur-only ghettos, the authorities have tried to intervene. Property transactions that could lead to 'social disharmony' would not get government approval, the city's property agents were told.

A Han woman named Jiang described how one of her friends was refused permission to sell his property in a predominately-Uygur district called Dai Wan, where prices have dropped from an average of 3,000 yuan (HK$3,400) per square metre to less than 2,000 yuan.

'The local government keeps urging the public to have confidence that it will stabilise property prices,' Jiang said. 'But ordinary people may have to suffer an even greater loss if they are denied the right to sell their own assets.'

In Changle Gardens, a complex in Dai Wan that is two-thirds Han, a homeowner surnamed Wang said she was desperate to move out.

She bought a home for 400,000 yuan four years ago, and spent 70,000 yuan decorating it. She wanted to rent it out rather than take a huge loss, and had found a place in an area with few Uygurs. However, she could not find a tenant. 'My four-year-old son heard the horrible screaming that day, and saw the supermarket outside our house being smashed and set on fire,' she said. 'This has left a scar at the bottom of my child's heart. Whenever he sees it from the kitchen window when I am cooking, he cries, 'Fire, fire'.'

Officials have promised that things will get back to normal soon, but few people believe it and distrust is everywhere.

The queues in front of Abdu Kadeer's bakeries used to stretch 100 deep, with Uygurs and Han waiting impatiently together for his famous nang bread. The flat, round bread is a staple food in Xinjiang, and Abdu's Abla Nang chain was widely considered the best in Urumqi. The 51-year-old owned nine bakeries, and was expanding into other Uygur cuisines.

The ethnic riots that flared on July 5 pitted his Uygur customers against Han. At least 197 were killed and thousands were injured, while tens of thousands of troops were brought in to keep a fragile peace. A string of syringe attacks in late August and early September sparked further trouble.

No one knows what exactly caused Urumqi to combust.

The government blamed 'separatist elements' led by the city's former business tycoon Rebiya Kadeer, who is living in exile in the US. Abdu is not related to Rebiya.

Some blamed fallout from a riot in a factory in Guangdong that killed two Uygur workers. Others said the Uygurs, a primarily Muslim ethnic group that constitutes 40 per cent of the city's population, simply snapped after years of economic discrimination and cultural repression.

Five months on, the city remains a tense and paranoid place. The scars - emotional, financial or physical - have not yet healed.

As one Han resident put it: 'We two peoples just don't believe in each other, even in basic daily life.'

Abdu's business has taken a turn for the worse since the riots, and he has closed four out of his nine bakeries. 'I used to get through two tonnes of flour a day. Now, we don't even need one tonne,' he said.

'In my restaurants, Han accounted for roughly 70 per cent of my customers. I liked them because they were willing to spend more on good food than Ugyurs. Sadly, most of them have gone.'

The majority of those killed in the riots were Han, and since then there has been an unofficial boycott of Uygur food and goods. 'Ugyur-style roast mutton used to be one of my favourite dishes, but I haven't had a single piece of meat since the conflict,' said a Han taxi driver who has lived in the city for 10 years.

'Like most Han, I simply won't use their shops or eat their food. It will teach them a lesson - they will suffer more than us from the clashes.'

At the Erdaoqiao International Bazaar, one of the largest markets in Urumqi, a camel and its master waited in the bitter wind for tourists. Inside, few customers were seen and more than a third of the stalls were shut. Urumqi has seen an exodus of traders since the riots.

Part of this is due to fear, but it is also for economic reasons: business is slow, while the blocking of the internet has made communication with suppliers and customers outside the region impossible.

'At least three or four out of every 10 traders in Urumqi have gone someplace else,' said Zhou Min, who has been selling shoes in the city for 10 years. Two months ago she also decided she had to relocate her business to Jiangsu province .

A businessman from Sichuan surnamed Tang, who has been in Urumqi for decades, told of a friend who returned to his native Zhejiang after the riots.

'He was terrified, so he sold his apartment in a Uygur populated community for 50,000 yuan and his car for 1,500 yuan,' Tang said. 'He spent 300,000 yuan on the flat and tens of thousands decorating it, just months before the throat-slitting and panic-selling.'

The syringe attacks almost two months after the riots were another dreadful setback for the city. With rumours spreading that hundreds of Han were being stabbed by Uygurs, once more people took to the streets.

On the morning of September 3, at the height of the crisis, Li Jun, a Sichuanese in his mid-thirties, was walking in the centre of the city. Someone shouted 'needle attack', and a swarm of Han people surrounded a Uygur woman and started beating her. 'The Uygur suspect was saved by two armed police officers and taken away in an ambulance,' Li said. 'But this made people even more angry. I saw thousands of people submerge the crossroads and stop the ambulance.'

Eventually, hundreds of armed police dispelled the crowd.

'In my mind, the needle attacks caused an even bigger divide between the two ethnic groups than the bloody fighting in July,' Li said.

'An elderly woman or a schoolgirl could be a potential attacker. You never knew who was going to be a threat to you. That is why there was so much ill-feeling, and the Han felt so frustrated.'

Many taxi drivers still refuse passengers from the other ethnic group, despite vows from authorities to punish drivers for doing this.

At bus stops, Han are in the habit of taking a few steps away when a Uygur stranger comes near.

For Abdu Kadeer, the bakery owner who has lived in Urumqi for 38 years, the tension is very upsetting.

'The Koran tells us that all people on the planet come from the same mother and father. We should neither be split nor separated from one another for any reason, including race,' he said.

'In my opinion, [the riots] were nothing to do with separatism. When one has good food and is full, who would go out and make trouble?'