ETHNIC UNREST

Uygurs see little to celebrate in Xinjiang's economic development

Intercity rail network that opens day after suicide attack intended as boost to economy, but many from ethnic minorities see little benefit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 5:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 8:56am

Xinjiang launched its new intercity rail line on Thursday, but there was no one to cheer off the first train. Instead, armed police ringed the station as cleaners mopped up blood from a knife and bomb attack the night before that left three people dead and 79 injured.

In the eyes of some, the railway dubbed "the star of northern Xinjiang" is proof of a stronger economy. It heralds a future where the region is at the heart of the flow of goods and people across energy-rich Central Asia.

For some among the region's Turkic-speaking Uygur minority, though, the new railway is simply a faster way to return home after failing to find work in Xinjiang's big cities.

Standing in front of a shopping mall in the capital, Urumqi , where the attack happened, a 28-year-old Uygur said that despite his engineering degree, he had been jobless for more than a year.

As he talked, a squad of armed police descended from an armoured vehicle nearby.

"We have grown used to having these gun-toting officers looking at us in our neighbourhood," he said. "But you don't see many of them in the Han people's part of town."

Companies run by Han Chinese will not hire him because of his ethnicity, he said.

"I plan to go back to my hometown of Kashgar next month to help herd my family's cattle, if I still can't find a job here."

At the Grand Bazaar, Urumqi's most famous landmark, a smiling Uygur offers to take photographs for passing tourists at 10 yuan (HK$13) apiece. "The Han people usually look scared of me and will grimace and leave," he says.

Beijing and the regional government have blamed violence in the region on Islamist militants and separatists. But exiled Uygurs, and many human rights groups, say the cause is Beijing's heavy-handed policies, including curbs on Islam and the culture and language of the Uygurs.

President Xi Jinping made his first visit to the region as the nation's leader last week. He stressed the importance of ethnic unity and the need for security. State television showed him smiling with Uygur students and visiting troops.

Beijing has invested heavily to develop Xinjiang's economy in a bid to integrate it more deeply with the rest of the country.

A train on Thursday carried more than 800 passengers northwest to the oil town of Karamay . Construction of a new line, which will link the area with Kazakhstan, began about two weeks ago.

It will be part of the national network connecting Xinjiang with neighbouring Gansu province and Inner Mongolia . It should provide an easier link to Central Asia and, ultimately, Europe.

Xinjiang has less than 5,000 kilometres of railway, but Xinhua has reported the region is expected to become a transport hub by the end of next year.

The region's Communist Party boss, Zhang Chunxian , has urged its tourism office to make every attempt to attract more visitors to "halt a decline at this difficult time".

The office said it would increase its advertising overseas and develop new attractions.

The Uygur photographer in Urumqi lamented the drop in tourism after after 2009, when deadly riots swept the city.

"It is a holiday today, but you see, so few people," he said, pointing at an almost empty arcade at midday.

Ning Yuhong, a Han Chinese from Gansu who sells dried fruit in the bazaar, said that before the riots people from across the mainland, Japan and Southeast Asia filled the bazaar. Her revenue has since dropped by half.

"I have been running this shop for 10 years. Every time there is an attack in Xinjiang, business suffers a little more."