Economy suffers as racial tensions simmer in troubled Xinjiang

Unrest and violence in Xinjiang casts a dark shadow over business growth as tensions worsen between Han and Uygur communities

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 9:49am

"Alas, I've had no work for five straight days," says Lao Guo, the owner of a gemstone processing workshop as he stands outside the well-known jade market which stands at the heart of the desert city of Hotan.

Lao says it is the worst situation he has ever known since he started his business on the banks of the Yurunkax River in the remote, troubled western province of Xinjiang .

For years, traders and travellers journeyed to Hotan to secure the precious jade the area had become known for, a particularly lucrative business as the price of jade shot up in the past decade, especially after 2008. But a recent outbreak of ethnic violence is keeping the visitors away from the city and its surrounding prefecture.

"The society is turning unstable now; full of confusion," says Lao Guo, a native of Henan province as he glares helplessly around the deserted market, now empty of almost all Han Chinese potential buyers after new violence erupted around the fourth anniversary of ethnic riots in the provincial capital Urumqi on July 5.

Instead it is Uygurs who tout raw precious stones to the few passers-by while Lao, an experienced stone carver in his late 40s, wonders what he will do next.

Nearby, another Han migrant, Ah Lin, says he is preparing to leave the jade market, the place where he built a business that made hundreds of thousands of yuan in annual profits over the past three years.

An influx of ethnic Han to the vast, impoverished land has generated resentment among the Muslim Uygurs who say the Beijing government's appointees in the west are restricting their culture and religion.

A few days before the anniversary of the 2009 riots, the deadliest ethnic conflict for decades, a series of deadly outbreaks of violence offered a reminder of the tensions that remain.

Early on June 26, a group of rioters attacked the police station, government office and armed police base in the township of Lukqun in Shanshan county of Turfan prefecture, killing at least 35 people, including 24 civilians and police officers and 11 assailants.

A couple of days later, two knife-wielding Uygurs reportedly sneaked into an armed police station in the community of Saimachang, or Racecourse, in Urumqi before one of them was fatally shot and the other suffered serious injuries.

Meanwhile, protests inside and outside Hotan that same week left an unknown number of casualties. Xinhua reported on June 28 that more than 100 "terrorists" assaulted people "after gathering at local religious venues" in Hotan prefecture. Some 97 per cent of the prefecture's population is Uygur.

Different sources in Hotan said that various riots broke out in the heart of the city shortly after 3.30pm on June 28, after Muslim Uygurs observed prayers.

"A few minutes after the first hackings erupted on the pedestrian shopping street at around 4pm that day, I received a call from the police urging me to waste no time in suspending my business and shutting my shop immediately," Ah recalls.

"Days before the anniversary of the July 5 incident, police officers told us that should any Uygur rioters barge into our shop, we could simply beat them to death with wooden clubs or iron bars."

Most of the nearly 200 killed four years ago were Han, which makes Xinjiang's Han alert to every little detail, particularly when they live in a heavily Uygur area like Hotan.

He said local police also told almost all Han shop owners to shut their businesses on July 5 and July 9, the anniversary of the 2009 riots and the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

While no details of casualty figures for the violent night last month have been released by official media, speculation is rife, especially given that the Internet service was cut off in Hotan, which was also put under a night-time curfew immediately after the outbreak of unrest.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) quoted local ethnic Uygur officials as saying that 15 Uygurs had been killed when the police opened fire on them at a market in Hotan.

Two separate sources in Hotan told the South China Morning Post that about 50 or 60 people, most of them Uygurs, were killed when armed police tried to bar them from attacking official construction sites and the people working there.

When asked about the death toll in Hotan, Luo Fuyong, the new spokesman for the Xinjiang regional government, said: "I've no idea in that regard for the time being." He added that the Internet service in Hotan had been working for the past few days.

Speculation among the Han community in Hotan suggests that bloodshed would have ensued on June 28 had armed police not stopped groups of Uygurs entering the city from its outskirts.

A source close to township government officials on the outskirts of Hotan recalled seeing surveillance camera footage of a masked Uygur wield his machete in a gesture of victory after he and an accomplice hacked two Uygur security guards to death at a middle school on June 24.

"One of the key differences between the recent attacks and those in 2009 is the rioters, this time, targeted largely the authorities or those, including Uygurs, who work for the government, especially those wearing uniforms, rather than ordinary or specifically Han people," the source said.

Likewise, a middle-aged Han man from Lukqun said a Han friend was waved away by a knife-wielding rioter who was in a group attacking a township police station on the morning of June 26. The source saw this as a sign that civilians, including Han, were not the rioters' target.

Although there is no way of independently verifying the reported fatalities, one thing that is certain is that security in Xinjiang's major cities has been tightened considerably since the violence.

Meng Jianzhu , the Communist Party's top law- enforcer, flew in on June 30 and demanded round-the-clock patrols in the centres of both Hotan and Urumqi.

Teams of armed police were deployed in both Hotan and Urumqi, especially in Uygur-populated areas, during the days before and after the anniversary.

Yu Zhengsheng , the mainland's top political adviser and the leading party official overseeing ethnic and religious issues, arrived in Urumqi the same day with a tough message.

He instructed regional officials to wage a "proactive battle" in combating all "violent and terrorist forces in the region" and warned that deep-seated problems which affected social stability remained.

Yu's strongly-worded rhetoric gave rise to speculation that the central government may have shifted to a tougher stance from the softer and conciliatory tone on ethnic issues struck by the media-savvy and open-minded Zhang Chunxian , who replaced the unpopular hard liner Wang Lequan as regional party chief in April 2010.

Ordinary people, both Han and Uygur, cast doubt over the political hard line, saying they believe the reasons behind the violence are not limited to religious extremism or separatist forces.

They understand the unhappiness of Uygurs, who are banned from wearing beards or, in the case of women, veils, headscarves or traditional hats if they want to work for the government. They also cite rampant corruption among lower-level government officials.

Some say the crackdown by the central government will inevitably thwart outside investment in the region and scare off tourists who want to explore the area's unique history and culture.

One Uygur from Hotan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, summed up the feelings of many when he said the central government in Beijing was excellent, but that policies invariably turn sour in the hands of grass-root governments full of corrupt and uncompromising officials.

"Neither we Uygurs, you Han nor any other minority will bother to make trouble as long as they get a place to settle, food to eat and money in their pocket," the 42-year-old says. "None of us doesn't want to lead a peaceful and safe life.

"We're all Chinese people, regardless of our different races. There won't be any problem so long as everybody is treated equally," he says.

"If you proclaim that you are not a Chinese, then the authorities are entitled to take you away for questioning. No problem with it at all. But there's no point in the authorities weighing in on minor issues like growing a beard, wearing scarves or veils and going to mosques. These kinds of bans have made many ethnic Uygurs immensely unhappy."

The Uygur recalls with sadness the days of old when he and his ethnic Han friends enjoyed harmonious relations. He believes changes in society which have made ordinary people more money-orientated have had a deep impact.

"This kind of relationship has faded out gradually since the commencement of the reform and opening-up policy more than three decades ago and it does not exist any longer.

"Mutual respect in terms of customs, culture and religion is the key point in fixing the so-called ethnic problem."